Monmouth’s 1958 post-Thanksgiving retail promotion was a real turkey
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Marking its 40th anniversary in 2018, one of the most memorable Thanksgiving-themed television sitcom episodes closely parallels a historical event in Monmouth which occurred 60 years ago this week.
Mention “WKRP in Cincinnati” and its fans immediately recall the 1978 episode, “Turkeys Away,” in which 20 live turkeys were dropped from a helicopter over a shopping mall. Because turkeys can’t fly, the fictional radio promotion was a fiasco, and the same could be said for the Monmouth incident.
In 1958, downtown Monmouth was thriving with more than 40 active retailers. Although the Black Friday phenomenon was still a few years away, the day after Thanksgiving was no less of a major shopping day, tailor-made for promotion.
Enter 30-year-old Steve Bellinger, the inventive general manager of WRAM radio. A boy radio enthusiast, he had begun his broadcasting career at age 13 in his native Indianapolis. While a student at Purdue, he had written a national award-winning radio series on aviation — also a lifelong passion.
What could be better, Bellinger thought, than a Thanksgiving retail promotion that made use of both radio and aviation? Actually, why not add a third hook — ultraviolet light! Thus was born the WRAMlite promotion.
Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, an airplane would drop 6,000 certificates containing “magic numbers” over downtown Monmouth. These certificates would be redeemable for more than $2,000 in prizes from 41 downtown merchants. To drive shoppers into the stores, Bellinger invented the WRAMlite, a wooden box containing an ultraviolet light that would reveal a number written in “invisible” ink, indicating whether or not it was a prize winner.
Among the premiums were a $14 smoking stand, a $15 bedspread or steam iron, a $30 ladies’ corset or clock radio, and the grand prize — a $100 diamond ring!
Bellinger began running teaser ads in the Review Atlas and on the radio a week before the drop. While it created an instant buzz among the townsfolk, it immediately drew the ire of police chief Vincent Romano, who ordered Bellinger to cancel the flight, citing Section 3.5 of the municipal code, which prohibited “the throwing, scattering or casting of handbills, circulars or advertising” in the city.
Despite the official warning, a private plane appeared over downtown Monmouth at 10 and 11 a.m. Friday, dropping certificates. Following the 11 a.m. drop, Bellinger was arrested for violating the city ordinance. Four other drops, scheduled for afternoon, were cancelled, so station employees and Boy Scouts instead handed out certificates to shoppers on the street.
Chief Romano charged that that stunt had “endangered the lives” of many children who ran onto icy streets to recover them. Mayor Donovan Vance said that after the second drop police had to stop traffic to prevent children from getting hurt.
Prior to the arrest, deputy sheriff Roy Hartley gathered three certificates to be used as evidence and viewed them being dropped through binoculars, although he didn’t get the plane’s number. Patrolman Lloyd Hillman did manage to get the number, but it turned out not to be a plane owned by Bellinger.
A hearing was scheduled before justice of the peace David Hallam the following Friday, causing Bellinger to declare, “We will challenge them to cite one instance of (public endangerment) happening.” Bellinger was released on his own recognizance.
On Saturday morning, WRAM aired an editorial, asking “Is it possible that some city officials are using the thin shield of an almost never used city ordinance to further a personal grudge?” There had allegedly been an ongoing feud between the city administration and the radio station.
The following Friday morning, as the justice of the peace court went into session, a plane began dropping certificates over Roseville, Oquawka and Stronghurst. Permission to drop had been granted by those towns, Bellinger assured the public. The fact that Bellinger was in court and not personally dropping the certificates may also have worked in his favor.
Meanwhile, it took several hours before a jury could be assembled, but after lunch a panel of five men and one woman was approved by Bellinger’s attorney, Art Padella, and city attorney Fred Lauder.
The first witness was Chief Romano, who testified that Bellinger had told him over the phone that he had too much invested in the campaign to drop it and asked Romano what the fine would be. Romano told him it would be between $5 and $200.
Mayor Vance testified that he had witnessed the dropping and had picked up two certificates, marked them and turned them over to the police. The certificates were admitted as evidence. Padella asked Vance to provide evidence that Bellinger was connected with the stunt, but all he could offer was that Romano told him about the phone conversation. Under questioning by Lauder, the mayor asserted that children had run into the street as a result of the drop.
David Moffet of the Review Atlas presented testimony that linked Bellinger to the promotion, stating that his printing company had been asked to create the WRAMlite logo and had run Bellinger’s ads in the paper.
The jury adjourned and returned 10 minutes later with its verdict — not guilty.
Bellinger would spend much of his career in Decatur, Ill., as a station manager and owner, as well as an innovator. At Decatur’s WDZ radio in 1977, he scrapped the station’s traditional news format and hired six reporters with pocket telephones, who could call their stories into a tape recorder, and newscasts would only be presented “when the events merit.”
In the mid-1980s. Bellinger developed what he termed a “portable radio station.” Called Systemation, it was sold to more than 300 radio stations around the world, from New Zealand to the Dominican Republic. The system, which sold for $30,000-$70,000, allowed one person with a microphone to talk, play music and play commercials from virtually anywhere. It was controlled by a keyboard and joystick.
Today, at 90, Bellinger is retired and lives in Florida.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.