Michelob Hour of Excellence TV Spot
In a c. 1965 black-and-white TV spot, preserved on YouTube, actor, director, and writer Hal Holbrook promoted the “Michelob Hour of Excellence”. Its distinctive hourglass-shape bottle appears on his chair-side desk.
Holbrook, who passed away only recently, is remembered especially for his stage reenactment of Mark Twain.
The upload caption attributes the year as 1958 but it had to be later, as Michelob was first bottled in 1961. Prior to that it was draft-only. As well, in 1965 the North Countryman, a newspaper in Rousses Point, New York, described the Michelob Hour of Excellence as “new”.
Using trans-Atlantic tones, Holbrook explained how a great American beer would sponsor a series highlighting American excellence in successive one-hour programs. Excellence in theatre, sports, music and more would be featured. The flying Wright Brothers were scheduled for one show.
The North Countryman advertised this weighty program:
The tone of Holbrook’s introduction, and evidently The Hollow Crown production, were thoroughly highbrow or upmarket in tone – Michelob territory as I have discussed. Contemporary, televised Budweiser pitches by Ed McMahon, long-time sidekick on the famed Johnny Carson Show, were more everyman, in contrast
This reflected the relative market positioning of the two beers, anchors at the time of brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch (now Anheuser-Busch InBev).
Witherill Hotel Bar, 1961
The Witherill Hotel in Plattsburgh, New York was built in 1868 and lasted a full 100 years, closing in 1968. Plattsburgh is the “North Country” of New York, not far from the Canadian border.
The hotel was owned for most of its existence by the Howell family. In 2015 Susan Howell Hamlin, a descendant of the owners, was interviewed in the local Press-Republican for a retrospective on the hotel.
Hamlin, who wrote a book about growing up in the hotel, discussed its arc including the bar-restaurant Fife & Drum, opened by the hotel on July 4, 1940.
The evocative photos accompanying the story show a dignified, 19th century pile. It was altered over the years but never lost its Victorian mien. Today such a building would likely be preserved but in 1970 it was torn down to make room for a branch of the State Bank of Albany.
An eBay listing shows the Fife & Drum in striking, 1940s glory.
Emblems of mid-century design such as red leather banquettes, black Formica tables, and tile flooring mingle with Revolutionary War themes. All-American it is, without question.
For most of its career the Witherill enjoyed a carriage and business, as well as high-end tourist, trade. This emerges from numerous accounts including Kelly Julian’s (2012) book Plattsburgh, a history of the city. See the discussion and photos at pp. 37-38.
In June 1961 the Fife & Drum advertised in the Press-Republican, with prominent mention of Michelob and Lowenbrau:
These beers were consistent with the high standards that characterized the Witherill. The bar did not bill itself as a beer destination, as we saw earlier for Brothers Hofbrau in Phoenix in the same period. It did not vaunt expertise in beer and beer history, as Hank’s Tavern did elsewhere in the Empire State in the 1930s.
The Howells simply made sure to offer top quality in this amenity, as the hotel did in general. The Witherill therefore, in our estimation, exemplified the status image encoded in the name Michelob.
In those pre-Ultra days, that meant rich European quality, of a piece, say, with Munich Lowenbrau, hence the pairing in the above ad.
At that time, for countless high-end restaurants and hotels, for the country club and club house, nothing more need be said.
Last Parts in Series
Through the 1960s and ’70s, assisted by its new bottle and perhaps the new rice adjunct recipe, Michelob sales grew considerably, as shown earlier.
The marketing now broadened to include magazine spreads including in African-American-read Ebony magazine, and TV commercials focused on lifestyle.
I’ll consider these in the next Part. In the final part (so two more coming), I will review opinions of Michelob by beer and wine writers ca. 1980. These are particularly interesting in light both of early Michelob history, when it was all-malt and touted a Saaz hop bouquet, and the craft revolution since ensued, which revived interest in that level of quality.
After 1980, sales of regular Michelob steadily declined as craft and imported beer became increasing draws. Michelob, and the line extensions that proliferated, accordingly present less interest to us than earlier, and we will stop there.
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