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George Molchan, 82; Toured the Nation as 'Little Oscar'

Obituaries

May 02, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

The little man stood only 10 hot dogs high. But he towered in the annals of mid-20th century advertising and in the hearts of those he encountered.

For 20 years, he crisscrossed the nation in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, handing out hot-dog-shaped Magic Wiener Whistles that could play the "Secret Little Oscar Song."

And for 16 years after that, still dressed in white from his shoes to his chef's toque, he greeted patrons at the company's restaurant at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

George Molchan, the hot dog company's longest-reigning "Little Oscar," died April 12 in his native Hobart, Ind., of Alzheimer's disease. He was 82.

A member of Little People of America, Molchan took hormone injections as a child in an attempt to grow taller. By young adulthood, however, he was worrying that any belated growth spurt could ruin his career.

What changed was a chance meeting in 1936 with Meinhardt Raabe, who later achieved fame as the Munchkin coroner pronouncing the death of the Wicked Witch of the East in "The Wizard of Oz."

Carl Mayer, nephew of meat company founder Oscar Mayer, dreamed up the idea of the promotional Wienermobile -- a 22-foot-long, 10-foot-high hot dog on wheels -- in 1936. Because of the limited space for its passenger, any designated Little Oscar had to be small, and Raabe got the job.

When Raabe visited Molchan's hometown of Gary, Ind., a theater manager asked the celebrity to talk to the teenage Molchan, then struggling with his failure to grow to the height of his peers.

Inspired to learn that a small person could become successful, Molchan went on to earn an accounting certificate at his local junior college and complete a degree in communications at Chicago's Columbia College. He became a bookkeeper for Pepsi-Cola Co.

But in 1951, Raabe contacted him, urging him to become a Little Oscar as the company expanded its line of promotional vehicles. Molchan was hired and began a 36-year career he loved, portraying Little Oscar longer than the nine other men who wore the little chef's hat.

Molchan so epitomized the character Raabe originated that when Molchan retired in 1987, the company retired Little Oscar as well.

The Wienermobiles enjoyed their heyday from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, when four were constantly on the road -- Molchan's, based in Chicago, and others based in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Madison, Wis.

During the week, the Little Oscars and their Wienermobiles visited small stores, schools, orphanages and children's hospitals. On weekends they went to major grocery chains and were in parades and festivals.

"What I remember most," Molchan told the Chicago Tribune in 1985, "were visits to children's hospitals, especially places like the Shriners' hospitals where there'd be children who had been without legs. Their eyes would just light up when I'd come to see them. Not so much because it was Little Oscar, but because it was something different, something exciting."

Molchan had plenty of road stories about the Wienermobile. Such as the time college students in Madison slathered it in gallons of mustard. Or the bleak night in Cleveland when somebody stole the vehicle (it was recovered). Or the time in Pennsylvania that a state trooper pulled them over -- only because he wanted to take a photograph. And the visits to the mechanics who inevitably quipped, "You got an engine in there? We thought you guys ran on bologna."

After retiring from Oscar Mayer, Molchan worked in shopping malls, trade shows and parades as a leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day and one of Santa's elves at Christmas.

But he was forever recognized as Little Oscar and was often stopped by fans asking, "Aren't you ... ?" Some still carried the Magic Wiener Whistles he had once given them.

Molchan moved back to Hobart a few years ago to be near his five surviving siblings.

Like the Little Oscar character, the Wienermobiles were gradually phased out, often winding up in auto museums, as advertising evolved from personal appearances to mass-media marketing. The whistles that Molchan once handed out by the thousands were also withdrawn because children might choke on them. Occasionally rolled out for special occasions, one Wienermobile was parked in tribute near Molchan's grave when he was buried April 16 in a Merrillville, Ind., cemetery.

Mourners sang the familiar tune "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener," and tooted a heartfelt salute on Magic Wiener Whistles.

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