Of Kentucky and the Colonel

col-sanders

Today is the birthday of Colonel Harland David Sanders (1890-1980). I was going to put “Colonel” in quotes, but, no, though the title is honorary it is also actual and legitimate. Like many (hundreds? thousands? of) others, he was given this title by the State of Kentucky. (There are so many Kentucky Colonels out there, that I actually know two of them).

I LOVE the spirit of American entrepreneurship. I usually restrict my gushing here to theatrical and cinematic entrepreneurs – -showmen and producers (see my “impresarios” blog category) but I am often tempted to stray outside that fiefdom to discuss people with other sorts of dreams…who realize them through the usual combination of vision, stubbornness and willingness to work. One personal hitch for me though is scale. I love the small businessman — the guy who is still growing. Huge corporations, not so much. So there’s an element of ick here. Upon reflection, I’m hesitant to even hit “send” on this blogpost, because…well, on some level it’s a KFC commercial? But we’ll try to keep that as part of the subtext. This post is more about the guy. Because he’s not just a picture on a bucket of chicken.

As crazy as it seems, Colonel Sanders was a REAL GUY. He was alive and frequently on television until I was 15 years old. Furthermore (and this is really crazy) he didn’t get into the restaurant business until he was 40 years old, and he didn’t start his franchise until he was 62! This is an inspirational story. Prior to that, there’s no other way to put it, he bummed around. He worked on a farm, he painted horse carriages, he was a blacksmith’s helper, he served briefly in the army, he went to college part time, he worked on a railroad, was a lawyer for a short while, was an insurance salesman, operated a ferry boat, sold automobile tires, and finally operated a service station which had a diner attached to it, and that’s where he first got into the food business. Born in Indiana, his rambling life took him from there, to Alabama, to Cuba, to North Carolina, to Kentucky and eventually the world. He seems to have been a cantankerous guy — he lost a lot of his situations due to fist fights. But all along the way, he kept developing this fried chicken recipe – – which the public loved so much he became a millionaire.

Sanders and MacDonald-as-Sanders
Sanders and MacDonald-as-Sanders

In recent months, there has been a new spate of commercials starring none other than Darrell Hammond and Norm MacDonald as the good Colonel. The campaign has caused some outcry on the basis that it is “disrespectful” to the Colonel. And, well, that’s pretty silly. But it makes for a really interesting discussion in theatre, costume, semiotics, branding, the whole megillah. After all: who IS Colonel Sanders, who WAS Colonel Sanders, who was “Colonel Sanders”, WHAT is “Colonel Sanders”, etc etc etc? (I went to NYU). This is a weird situation where the founder of a company is his own mascot. It’s like being Ray Kroc and Ronald McDonald at the same time. He came up with that look when he was first “ordained” a Kentucky Colonel, and eventually it became some of the best advertising ever devised. Ultimately that too is an expression of his business acumen. But is it “him”? It’s almost like a thought projection, a homunculus being broadcast from his brain into the world to carry out his bidding. Ultimately, do Hammond and MacDonald, dressed in a Colonel Sanders costume, help sell lots and lots of chicken dinners? Yes? Then I think the late Colonel Harland David Sanders would be more than comfortable with that.

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3 comments

  1. The real Colonel Sanders was appealing because he truly was for real. I remember seeing him interviewed on a talk show (Dick Cavett, I think) where it emerged that the old boy was religious and genuinely believed he would end up in hell if he didn’t behave himself. I also remember a funny incident that occurred when a New York Times reporter persuaded him to come try the food at a certain KFC outlet in the city. The headline on the resulting story was “The Colonel Says It’s Finger-licken’ Awful.”

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