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The Bootleg Files: The Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Commercials

BOOTLEG FILES 760: “The Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Commercials” (series of 1970s television advertisements).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value for a DVD full of old breakfast cereal commercials.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

If you were watching American television in the early 1970s, you probably remember Euell Gibbons and the series of commercials he did for the Grape Nuts breakfast cereal brand. If so, you might recall the bizarre line that turned Gibbons into one of the most unlikely figures of pop culture in the decade that good taste forgot.

The line in question was asked by Gibbons to the viewer in the first of the commercials: “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Now, why in the world would anyone want to eat a pine tree? Well, it seemed that Gibbons achieved a degree of minor celebrity during the 1960s by advocating for wild foods through books including “Stalking the Wild Aspargus” and “Stalking the Healthful Herbs.” Gibbons’ interest in the subject derived from a challenging childhood in Texas when he foraged for local plants and berries to supplement his impoverished family’s diet. Gibbons’ books came out at a time when frozen dinners, fast-food eateries and processed foods were wreaking havoc with the American diet, and his focus on a back to nature approach to eating resonated with many people.

As the 1970s rolled round, Gibbons was tapped to become the spokesperson for the Grape Nuts brand of breakfast cereal. Unlike other cereals that used cartoon characters to pitch the sugar-heavy foods, Grape Nuts wanted to present its product as being a healthier alternative to the competition. Gibbons was also a natural on camera: with a thick stock of wavy silver hair, a robust physique and a raconteur’s charm, he personified healthy outdoors living. Thus, Gibbons would go on television hawking the “back to nature cereal.”

Which brings us back to that wacky line: “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Gibbons presented that challenge to the viewer in a sincere and encouraging manner. Most people forgot that he followed up that line with an explanation of the edible nature of the pine nuts that grow on the tree – Gibbons wasn’t talking about taking a bite out of the tree itself. In retrospect, however, the reference to the pine nuts was out of place because Grape Nuts, despite its name, is not made from nuts. Nor did any grapes die in its creation. Instead, it is made from wheat and barley that are baked into nut-sized nuggets.

Nonetheless, the American television audience was caught off-guard by the charming but seeming eccentric character who appeared to be championing the inclusion of lumber in one’s diet. Rather than backtrack on this faux pas, Grape Nuts went full speed ahead and had Gibbons talking about unlikely edibles in commercials. In one spot, he cuts a cattail from the edge of a marsh and alerts the viewer that it is edible. In another ad, he yanks a stalk of goldenrod out of a field, holds it up to a teapot and informs the viewer that the plant makes an excellent tea. In another spot, he turns up on a Zuni Indian reservation in New Mexico where a pair of women are hand-rolling grains into a cereal – the impoverished Indian women are so absorbed in their manual labor that they never notice the strange white man towering over them.

After a while, Gibbons became a celebrity in his own commercials – he was hailed as a visiting hero by small armies of extras in ads featuring a New England town during a winter festival and the dedication of a volunteer fire company headquarters. Wherever he went, he brought dozens of boxes of Grape Nuts for communal breakfasts.

Gibbons was such a happy ham in these wonderfully weird commercials that it was impossible not to have fun with his image. During the early 1970s, jokes about Gibbons were commonplace on television and imitations of Gibbons as a genial omnivore eating everything in sight were included on comedy variety shows. Gibbons himself had fun with his unlikely image – when presented with a plaque during a guest appearance on Sonny and Cher’s program, he happily took a bite out of object. Gibbons also appeared on a Dean Martin roast where he explained how he came to become an expert on surviving in the wilderness: “One day, I went out to pick up a pizza and I got lost!” Gibbons also understood the value of publicity, happily taking guest gigs from Johnny Carson to the smallest of local TV shows. (A clip of him on a North Dakota television station’s version of “Dialing for Dollars” can be seen online.)

Gibbons was the rare person who always made you smile whenever he turned up on the small screen, and it was headline news when he passed away on December 29, 1975, aged 64, from a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a complication from the Marfan syndrome that he quietly endured during his life.

Some of Gibbons’ Grape Nuts commercials can be found on YouTube – I am sure there are plenty more that have yet to be uploaded. As there is little chance of a DVD anthology collection of the full span of the Gibbons commercials, anyone with a yen for 70s kitsch should just type “Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts” into the YouTube search engine and enjoy a fun trip back to a happy, harmless time.

And, no I never ate a pine tree.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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