Wineka column: Retired Catawba art professor enjoyed time in Wienermobile in ’60s
Back in the early 1960s, when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter Hood earned spending money by driving around a Munchkin in a hot dog.
Hood was a “hotdogger,” one of those guys who steered the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
His passenger on several occasions was Meinhardt Raabe, a Munchkin from the “Wizard of Oz.”
Raabe played the role of a “Little Oscar” and accompanied Hood on promotional trips in the Philadelphia area.
Imagine passing a 10-foot high, bubble-nosed wienie on wheels with a Munchkin inside, and you get an idea of the attention drawn by their moving billboard.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Hood, now 81 and a retired Catawba College art professor.
Once, when Hood and his Wienermobile were caught in slow moving traffic in the outskirts of Philadelphia, a frustrated motorist expressed his road rage.
“Get your meat out of the street,” he yelled.
Hood still laughs when he tells the story, and he considers his couple of years driving the Wienermobile as “a pleasant job.”
Raabe and Hood became friends. Hood remembers Raabe dressing up as a little chef and their attending Oscar Mayer-sponsored wiener roasts, including a cast party for actors in a musical at Valley Forge.
Their Wienermobile didn’t cope well in the rain. Hood still recalls its engine stalling out in north Philadelphia after he churned through a sheet of water.
He also speaks of Raabe not taking kindly to the taunts one day of a brat (not a braut). Let’s just say Raabe taught the kid a lesson.
How Hood got the Oscar Mayer job proved easy enough. With literally a nickel in his pocket, he went to the university employment office one day, and someone directed him to the Oscar Mayer plant across the Schuylkill River.
He applied, passed some tests and had the job as a fill-in Wienermobile driver at first. It also grew into summer employment.
Fast forward to today’s hotdoggers, who include David Denny of Annapolis, Md., and Laura Moller of Cincinnati.
Denny and Moller drive a 2004 model Wienermobile, which is 27 feet long and 11 feet high. The orange and yellow Fiberglas-molded body ó a giant hot dog and bun ó rests on top of a converted Chevrolet truck, complete with a 300 horsepower, V8 engine.
Not great gas mileage, but Moller says the contraption achieves “good gas smileage.”
The competition for Wienermobile drivers is a bit more intense these days. There are six Wienermobiles on the road with two drivers, each covering different regions of the country.
So out of about 1,500 applicants this year for the job, 12 were chosen. All just finished college. Denny graduated this spring from Penn State; Moller, Ohio State. So it’s a prickly situation during the current football season.
The Wienermobile drivers sign on for a year (June to May). Denny and Moller went through two weeks of training at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisc., the Oscar Mayer headquarters, and they write a regular blog, giving highlights from the road.
The Wienermobiles make various promotional appearances at retail stores, grand openings, parades, auto shows and professional and college stadiums.
The hotdoggers find themselves conducting a lot of media interviews and even making speeches.
They have huge plastic bags full of Wienerwhistles, which surprisingly date back to 1958. Most people stopping by to see the Wienermobile leave with a plastic whistle replica.
Denny and Moller man the Southeast route, and they’ve based their Wienermobile in Salisbury through Monday. Part of their itinerary included a Food Lion company picnic.
The hotdoggers get two days off per week. When they have free time and search out places to eat, exercise or go to a movie, they have to travel there in the Wienermobile.
But they are used to all the honks, waves and remarks.
One day this week, while the Wienermobile was parked at the Holiday Inn, Hood and his wife, Liz, stopped by to exchange stories with the modern-day hotdoggers.
Hood said today’s Wienermobile seems a lot “plumper” than his model was. He thought his Oscar Mayer body was fabricated out of metal, not Fiberglas, and today’s interior ó sort of a ketchup-mustard theme ó is much more nicely appointed, Hood said.
Denny and Moller showed off the four bucket seats, the GPS, air-conditioning, public address system, bun (sun) roof and bun (glove) box.
A CD in the Wienermobile plays 20 different versions of the Oscar Mayer jingle.
Hood and his new hotdogger friends lamented the lack of a rear window on Wienermobiles and the need to rely on side mirrors.
And to show how something as unusual as a Wienermobile can connect people, Denny and Moller told Hood that they had recently met his old buddy, Meinhardt Raabe, during one of their stops near Jacksonville, Fla.
Raabe is 94 now and proof for at least three hotdoggers that it really is a small world.