Oscar Mayer Wiener Banjo-Ukulele | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Oscar Mayer Wiener Banjo-Ukulele

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Oscar Mayer Wiener Banjo-Ukulele | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBanjo-ukulele used by Richard Trentlage

Banjo-ukulele used by Richard Trentlage in recording the Oscar Mayer "Wiener Song", 1962

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2009.59.1

EnlargeRichard Trentlage at his desk

Richard Trentlage at his desk

Richard Trentlage at his desk at Adver/Sonic Productions, Chicago, c. 1962. Source: Image courtesy of Richard Trentlage

EnlargeThe Weiner Song

"The Weiner Song" by Oscar Mayer

Sheet music for the Oscar Mayer Wiener Song, one of the longest-running advertising jingles of all time. Source: “What’s the Big Idea?,” Trentlage

EnlargeThe Trentlage family band

The Trentlage family band, 1963

The Trentlage family band, 1963: Vivian, bass viol; Tom, banjo-ukulele;Linda, electric guitar; Becky, vibraphone; David, trombone. Source: Image courtesy of Richard Trentlage

Banjo-ukulele used by jingle composer Richard Trentlage in the first recording of the Oscar Mayer "Wiener Song", 1962.
(Museum object #2009.59.1)

Were it not for the words written on its surface, this banjo-ukulele, an easy-to-play, handy instrument, probably wouldn't arouse much curiosity. Take a close look, though, and surely you can sing along to the tune that has helped sell millions of hot dogs, and in the process has become one of the best-known advertising jingles of all time – the Oscar Mayer "Wiener Song".

Banjo-ukuleles are hybrid instruments combining a banjo-like body with a ukulele neck. Invented in the early twentieth century, they became popular in the 1920s and 1930s when a Hawaiian music fad swept the United States. This model was manufactured by Werco of Chicago and belonged to ad man Richard Trentlage.

A native of Chicago, Trentlage discovered his passion for music early on. He started taking guitar lessons at age twelve, and his instructor taught him how to write music. He was also good with words. After high school, he made a career of his talents. He worked for big national advertising agencies such as McCann-Erickson and D'Arcy. By the early 1960s, his focus on writing jingles for radio and television had led him to found his own ad jingle company, Adver/Sonic Productions, Inc. He wrote memorable melodies for big companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

One afternoon in 1962, Trentlage got a call from one of his partners at Adver/Sonic. He told Trentlage that J. Walter Thompson, the country's largest advertising company, was running a contest for a jingle for Oscar Mayer wieners and the deadline had been set for the next morning. Trentlage sat down at his desk and poured out all the ideas that he could. The tune had to be simple, and it had to appeal to mothers and children alike. He recalled that his children, ten-year-old David and nine-year-old Linda, referred to the cool kids they knew as "hot dogs." "He's a skateboard hot-dog and a mini-bike hot-dog, too," he had heard them say, full of admiration. Apparently, being a hot dog was cool; kids wanted to be hot dogs.

And there they were, the lines that helped sell millions of wieners and that many Americans can still sing along with today:

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
That is what I'd truly like to be-ee-ee.
'Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener,
Everyone would be in love with me.

At home, Trentlage recorded the tune on tape. David and Linda sang the lyrics while he strummed his banjo-uke and his wife Vivian played the stand-up bass. He dropped the tape off at J. Walter Thompson the next day and continued with his other projects. Over the next months, he forgot about the jingle. It was more than a year later that he learned that his jingle had won the contest. Reportedly, Oscar G. Mayer himself had approved it and asked for the same children to sing it on the professional recording.

The Oscar Mayer "Wiener Song" turned out to be a huge success. People who had heard the jingle on the radio called their station to hear it again. Nightclub entertainers included it in their repertoire. High school band leaders wrote to the company for the musical score. Overwhelmed by the popularity of its advertisement, Oscar Mayer produced a television commercial in which a group of kids marched to the sound of the jingle. The commercial was aired in children's programs such as "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Jetsons" and reached an estimated 49 million families. In its long career, "The Wiener Song" has been aired in nineteen countries and is still played today. It has become ubiquitous in American popular culture. It's been featured on a Hallmark card, and the "Simpsons" sang it in a mid-1990s episode.

How could a simple tune linger for such a long time? Oscar Mayer's general advertising manager explained in 1966, "The commercial was carefully written to…develop and capitalize on the association of the wiener with fun occasions, to remind people of the great popularity of wieners with children, and to take people for a moment back into the wonderful, uninhibited, imaginary world of kids where anything can happen – where the desire to be loved and the means to that end are unlimited."

Having created what may now be called a classic popular music hit, Trentlage has made a decent living off the royalties for the "Wiener Song", but he is still a man of short, to-the-point statements. He explains his success like this: "It's pure whimsy, pure fun."

[Sources: Trentlage, Richard D. "What's the Big Idea?," 2006; Moe, Doug. "Hot Dog! Oscar Ode Still Lives," "The Capital Times", Madison, WI, January 14, 2005; "A Jingle All The Way," "The Link", January 1966; "Oscar Mayer Annual Reports, 1964-1969"; Telephone interview with Richard Trentlage by WHS curator Joe Kapler, August 2009.]


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Posted on August 12, 2009