Sunday, July 13, 1997
Corny signs tell us
where we've been

The Cincinnati Enquirer

So they're planning to bring back the Burma-Shave signs for us Baby Boomers, are they?

Within this vale

Of toil

And sin

Your head grows bald

But not your chin

Of course, there will be a few modern improvements.

Instead of red-and-white wooden signs, maintained along back roads by farmers for $5 a year and a free box of shaving cream, 30-second television commercials were produced by media experts with ohmigod fees.

Instead of Grace Odell hopping up in the middle of the night with a flashlight and a pencil and paper to record her husband's latest rhyming brainstorm, there is a senior vice president for consumer and personal products at American Safety Razor, which bought the brand from Philip Morris, which bought it from the Odells.

A brand identity consultant. Focus groups. Account supervisors. Many, many billable hours. A $1.5 million campaign.

The TV spots show a man in his mid-50s driving a 1958 Corvette. Next to him is his decade-younger trophy wife. Passing a set of Burma-Shave signs, they are apparently overcome with lust. Next, the viewer sees a parked car, doors open, the couple presumably off-camera ripping off their clothes and using the shaving cream for heaven only knows what.

We know you

Really love

That gal

But use both hands

For driving, pal

Allan Odell wrote most of the rhymes, according to James Delaney, who produced a video account of the Odell family and their funny little idea.

"This was a successful company that only produced two things - shaving cream and signs," he says. Burma-Vita employed 35 people. Eight trucks in the company "fleet" ferried signs to 45 of the 48 states between 1926 and 1963, when Philip Morris yanked them. The Signs & Rhymes of Burma-Shave, released in 1991 by Sentimental Productions, has sold more than 20,000 copies nationwide. Jim Delaney (I'm going to call him Jim because I've known him for about 20 years and we have seen each other in bathing suits) found the original owners in their original town of Minneapolis.

Prodigious sleuthing?

"They were in the phone book."

Mr. Odell, who died in 1990 was a "wonderfully whimsical man."

The bearded lady

Tried a jar

Now she's a

Famous movie star

"He had the idea advertising should be something you could laugh at," Grace Odell says in Jim's video interview. So the Odells laughed themselves right into second-place sales, after Barbasol.

When the stork

Delivers a boy

The whole

Darn company

Jumps for joy.

And as if to prove that if you could sell shaving cream, you could sell anything, the company peddled war bonds.

Maybe you can't

Shoulder a gun

But you can shoulder

The cost of one

The signs have disappeared from their natural habitat - deserted two-lane country roads - but are preserved in fancier places, including the Smithsonian Institution. The growth in the 1960s of interstate highways was their downfall. Six signs, placed 100 feet apart, were made to be read at speeds of 35 miles an hour. By people who would take the time to look. And who could smile and drive at the same time.

Here's a modest suggestion. Dump the TV campaign with the couple panting in the bushes. Bring back the red and white signs with Allan Odell's wry couplets. Put them on every tenth orange barrel.

These little signs

Have come of age

They'll be the

Cure for our

Road rage

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.