Auctioning Oscar Mayer history

More than 300 items of memorabilia from prolific local collector are up for auction through Dec. 20
Oscar Mayer auction
Photos (center is Jerry Maren's Little Oscar uniform) courtesy of All American Sales and Auctions.

Jerry Maren enjoyed his time touring the country in the 1950s in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, except when it broke down.

How do you tell a kid that the mighty Wienermobile is kaput?

Facing that situation once in San Diego, Maren told the boy, “I put too much mustard on it, and it wouldn’t start.”

Maren, who died in 2018, age 98, relates that story in his 2006 memoir, “Short and Sweet.”

Maren was popular as the Little Oscar character — a goodwill ambassador for the Madison-based meat production and packing giant — but his real fame dated to 1939, when he played a Munchkin in the classic film “The Wizard of Oz.”

And not just any Munchkin. Maren’s character handed Dorothy — played by Judy Garland — a lollipop in appreciation of her tornado-tossed house having squashed the Wicked Witch of the East.

Mementos of Maren’s work in Hollywood and for Oscar Mayer are among the highlights of a wide-ranging auction of Oscar Mayer memorabilia currently being conducted online.

The uniform worn by Maren as Little Oscar — along with his letter of authentication — is up for bid, as is a still photograph from the film, signed by Maren, of him handing Garland the lollipop.

The auction items, totaling more than 300, are part of a vast assortment of Oscar Mayer collectibles belonging to Matt Treadaway of Madison, whose father, Gayle Treadaway, worked at the Oscar Mayer Madison plant for nearly three decades (the plant closed in 2017).

The items include an Oscar Mayer trade card from 1883, the year the company was founded; company founder Oscar F. Mayer’s beer stein from a restaurant in Chicago called Eitel’s Old Heidelberg; sausage knives; Zippo lighters; miniature Wienermobiles; a tin that held Oscar Mayer peanut butter (who knew?); and two photos of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy visiting the Madison plant.

“It’s very hard to part with,” Treadaway told me last week. He said health issues, along with knowing the pieces will go to people who appreciate them, prompted the sale, which goes until Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

The sale is being conducted by Mark Bingham of Jefferson-based All American Sales & Auctions. The company is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month.

“I thank my lucky stars,” Bingham said, in reference to the pandemic, “that we started doing online auctions a couple of years ago.”

The company has done more than 500 auctions in the past decade, and last year shipped items to all 50 states and 37 countries.

I wrote about one of the auctions in 2014: the extraordinary taxidermy collection that Sam Sanfillippo housed in the basement of his University Avenue funeral home.

The collection — nearly 500 items — included elk, deer, a red eyed albino squirrel riding a police motorcycle, and a muskie caught by Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles, Sanfillippo’s fishing buddy.

Sanifillippo once said he started his collection to give unsettled funeral attendees something to do.

Matt Treadaway started his Oscar Mayer collection because he grew up less than a mile from the plant; his dad worked there; and the company and Mayer family loomed large in Madison lore.

“It always intrigued me,” he said.

Treadaway found items at neighborhood garage sales — “people don’t always realize what they have” — and online. His collection grew substantially after the 2018 death of Dave Arndt of DeForest, a former Oscar Mayer employee and fellow collector. Treadaway arranged to purchase the collection from Arndt’s family.

Perusing the online auction got me thinking of my own brush with Oscar Mayer history.

It was nearly 20 years ago when I read an article — I think it was in the Boston Globe — that said original commercial jingles were just about dead. Companies were using well-known rock music songs — think Bob Seger singing “Like a Rock” for Chevy — to sell their products.

The one exception was the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle.

The story prompted me to track down the man responsible for writing the jingle, and Richard Trentlage, who was in this 70s and living outside Chicago, was delighted to talk about his famous composition.

“I put my kids through college on the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle,” he said.

He said the song’s first lyric, “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener,” came fairly quickly.

But, what next? Trentlage said he thought, “Why? Why do I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener?”

Multiple generations know the answer he summoned: Because “everyone would be in love with me.”

Richard and I stayed in touch — he was a warm and humorous man — and I remember him calling on the 50th anniversary of writing the jingle in 1962 and when the Wisconsin Historical Society accepted his gift of the banjo-ukulele he used for the song’s initial recording. Richard died in 2016 and received a lengthy news obituary in The New York Times.

There don’t appear to be any jingle-related items in the current auction, but that’s OK.

Thanks to Matt Treadaway, there is just about everything else.

“I’ve never seen an Oscar Mayer item I wouldn’t want,” he said.