Minnesota Now and Then: How the Green Giant became 'Jolly'

Jolly Green Giant
In this photo, Tim Koehler paints the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minn. The statue, which stands at over 50 feet, cost around $20,000 to refurbish and was a joint effort between Blue Earth and the Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
John Cross | The Free Press via AP 2015

What is 55 feet tall, wears size 78 shoes, weighs 8,000 pounds, is green head-to-toe and lives in Blue Earth? Did you guess the Jolly Green Giant statue? The colossus has made a home in Southern Minnesota since 1978. But how did he get there? And who came up with the idea for the Jolly Green Giant?

MPR News contributors Robbie Mitchem and Jamal Allen and producer Britt Aamodt tracked down his backstory for this installment of our history series, Minnesota Now and Then.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER 1: OK, pop quiz time. Are you ready? What is 55 tall, wears a size 78 shoe, weighs 8,000 pounds, is green from head to toe, and lives in Blue Earth, Minnesota? Did you guess the Jolly Green Giant statue?

The colossus has made a home in southern Minnesota since 1978. But how, how did the Jolly Green Giant get there? And who came up with the idea for the Jolly Green Giant? MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt went in search of his story for this installment of our history series, Minnesota Now and Then.

INTERVIEWER 2: The Jolly Green Giant began with a pea. It was the '20s. And a company man from Minnesota Valley Canning Company, home of canned corn and canned peas, was over in England. The old country offered so many enticements for the traveling American-- Stonehenge, Big Ben, fish and chips.

But our man had an eye for peas, those lovely trailing vines with the fragrant blossoms and tasty seeds. There was one pea in particular that caught his attention, the Prince of Wales. It was honestly, as far as peas go, wrinkly, oblong, but sweet and really, really big.

His canning company decided to replace the old peas they've been using with this newer, bigger variety. But a name like Prince of Wales didn't fit the cannery's river town location in Le Sueur south of the Twin Cities. So they came up with something that played off the pea's jumbo size, Green Giant. With a name like Green Giant, it indeed needed a mascot. And it got one in 1928, a caveman in a bearskin and a bad haircut lugging a pea pod big enough to feed an army. The caveman didn't last.

In 1935, another ad man, Leo Burnett, was asked to reimagine the mascot. His giant was not stooped over, but straight back, green as a ripe pea. Instead of bearskin, he wore leaves. And he smiled. That's when he became the Jolly Green Giant, the friendly colossal who welcomed you to the valley for a meal of fresh corn off the cob and great big, tender sweet peas.

The image caught on with the public, and soon the Minnesota Valley Canning Company was calling itself the Green Giant Company. In 1959, Len Dresslar, a crooner known for his bass voice, walked into a Chicago recording studio for an audition. They didn't give him a script. They just told him to stand in front of the microphone and in a low voice sing--

(SINGING) Oh, ho, ho.

He did. And that's how the Jolly Green Giant got the booming laugh which became his signature tagline in the new media of TV commercials.

(SINGING) Ho, ho, ho. Green Giant.

In the '60s, he got a jingle.

(SINGING) In the valley of the jolly, ho, ho, ho.

And a chart-topping single, "Jolly Green Giant" by The Kingsmen. But all was not well in this valley. In the song, the giant courts an Amazon who wants nothing to do with the big green kook and slaps him silly. If that weren't enough, the songwriters were accused of plagiarizing The Olympics' 1960s hit "Big Boy Pete."

Well, anyway, in 1978 Interstate 90, a transcontinental highway stretching from Seattle to Boston, was about to complete the Midwest portion in Blue Earth, Minnesota. The highway would bring more motorists through town. So why not give them a reason to stop and look around?

That's when a local radio station owner rang up his neighbor in Le Sueur. Would the Green Giant Company give Blue Earth permission to create and erect a statue of their famous mascot? Indeed, they did. So the governor, Miss America, Miss Minnesota, and a host of other bigwigs attended the highway's ribbon-cutting ceremony that September. But they all were overshadowed by the Jolly Green Giant, a 55-foot-tall fiberglass statue making his public debut.

[GASPING]

Now, it arrived ahead of his pedestal. So he spent the day suspended from a crane. Months later, he and his pedestal were reunited and given their permanent home along Blue Earth's other highway, 169. Unfortunately in 1995, Green Giant's Le Sueur canning plant closed. The company, which changed ownership, no longer resides in Minnesota, but the Jolly Green Giant remains as a billboard in Le Sueur, a statue in Blue Earth, and as a legend of a sunny valley somewhere in Minnesota presided over by a giant.

INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, I loved this so much. By the way, Paul Hedberg-- I used to know Paul. He had KBEW AM and FM in Blue Earth. And he used to have a show called Welcome Travelers. He would interview folks as they passed through town. So this is why the Jolly Green Giant statue was so important to Paul Hedberg. He was a heck of a guy.

MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt did a heck of a job on that. They put together that segment on the Jolly Green Giant. And that story was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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