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Hey Vern! Ernest P. Worrell Goes to Braum's PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Wednesday, 25 March 2009 16:30


 The old Braum's on Broadway in Edmond, circa 1980s.


Come on now, admit it. If you were a kid in Oklahoma in the early 1980s, you too were going around mimicking Ernest P. Worrell and saying "hey Vern, known wut I mean?"

It was 1983 and I was a high school junior stocking the freezer, grilling burgers and scoping ice cream at the Braum's at Hefner and May in northwest Oklahoma City. It was the height of the Ernest and Vern craze. And yes, we had customers actually coming in doing their best impersonation. We thought Ernest belonged only to Braum's already an Oklahoma City institution. Little did we know that Jim Varney's take on a lovable redneck was being used to advertise everything from amusement parks to dairies to car dealers across the country.

According to a story in Entertainment Weekly, the unlikely film star was launched in 1980, when John Cherry, executive vice president of Nashville's Carden & Cherry Advertising Agency, was representing an amusement park that was so run-down it couldn't be shown in TV ads. So the agency decided to use a satisfied park visitor who could talk it up, and found actor and stand-up comedian Jim Varney to fit the bill.

But the company wasn't yet convinced. ''To show you how smart we were, we put (the ads with Ernest) on the shelf,'' Cherry told Entertainment Weekly. They tried him out on some other regional accounts they handled, although Varney remembers that in early client meetings Cherry ''was going, 'Well, are you sure you don't want to try the pretty girl holding the box?''' After Ernest finally appeared in a few spots, viewer response was more decisive. ''Oh, when we first started, they hated him, just hated him!'' Cherry roared.

But in almost every market, the silly character concept caught on after a couple of weeks, no matter what product the grinning Ernest was hawking.Three early clients who became enamored of the goofy guy next door were Nashville's Purity Dairies (which used him for eight years), Braum's ice cream and dairy stores in Texas and Oklahoma, and Tysons Toyota in Tysons Corner, Va., which stayed with Ernest until 1986.

In a 2000 interview with The Oklahoman, Braum's marketing director Terry Holden said the company got some negative reaction at first when it switched to the Ernest campaign. "That quickly turned to where he was literally the topic of conversations," Holden said.

Varney did about 30 commercials for Braum's. In them, he got his fingers slammed in a house window, fell off a ladder and got shocked fooling with a broken TV set. In addition to dairy products, he plugged a variety of items including car dealerships, pizza and broadcast stations. Holden said a Tulsa station received so many calls from people wanting to know when the Braum's commercials with Ernest would air that the station ran a message on the screen each morning at 7:30 a.m. to let viewers know the time table.

"Jim Varney in person was hilarious," Holden said. He described Varney as like a kid who always needed attention. All he had to do to get it was give his big grin and everybody would recognize him. Holden said the company would bring him in for tours twice a year, hitting four stores in each of its largest markets in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

In the initial months after the ad campaign started, Braum's distributed 15,000 pictures of Ernest, 75,000 Ernest bumper stickers and 100,000 smaller Ernest stickers. I kept an Ernest face mask well into college. I regret having discarded it as recent college grad pretending to be a serious journalist.

Ernest fever was still going strong in 1985. Yet compared to Varney's work with other advertisers, his tenure with Braum's was a relatively brief two years.

"That's a strange deal with Braum's," Varney said in a 1988 interview with The Oklahoman as he prepared to launch a film career. "We upped their business 65 percent the first week it (the Ernest/Vern commercial) ran. I still don't know why they stopped using us."

Holden said the parting was amicable . . . no corporate hard feelings or axes falling along with the ratings. "I fact," Holden explained, "we had Ernest for two years and the life of similar promotions in a market usually runs about a year . . . So he actually did unusually well for us."

Worrell didn't immediately disappear from Oklahoma City. He briefly did commercials for KTVY. But those disappeared as the station changed its call letters to KFOR and switched to a different image - KFOR "Strong." And of course Ernest didn't exactly convey the image of being "strong."

Worrell's movie career in the 1990s was widely panned by critics. But he was adorned by families and kids loved him. You could buy an Ernest doll or watch his Saturday morning cartoons. On the big screen his fans watched Ernest go to camp, go to prison, go to school, well, you get the picture. Varney also voiced Slinky the Dog in the movie classic "Toy Story."

Only when Varney died in 2000 did he truly get respect for his career. He made people laugh and for a while, he inspired a lot of people to rush out to Braum's in hopes of joining the lovable oddball as he wolfed down two burgers and hit on the counter girl behind the ice cream case.


- "Attention-Getter Touts Braum's Products Now," By Linda Miller, The Oklahoman, March 6, 1983

- "Store becomes filming site for commercials Vern!?! Choctaw loves that Braum's waltz," by Cynthia Foley, The Oklahoman May 10, 1983

- "Jim Varney's Loud Mouth Turns Him Into Celebrity," By Linda Miller, The Oklahoman, Feb. 26, 1984

- "Ernest snared by Channel 4," By Glen Phillips, The Oklahoman, April 28, 1985

- "The Importance of Being Ernest," by Chuck Davis, The Oklahoman, Nov. 11, 1988 

- "Hey, Vern, I'm a Star!!" by Kathy Kalafut, Entertainment Weekly, April 13, 1990


- "Varney Was Talk of the Town," by Linda Franklin, The Journal Record, Feb. 14, 2000


Last Updated on Friday, 26 February 2010 04:24