Since the subject of Henry Brick came up in the “Bring back the bricks!” post, I thought I’d offer some background by way of a retrospective article I wrote 15 years ago for the Budgeteer News.
The man who saved downtown
By Paul Lundgren
June 1, 1997
The bricking of Downtown Duluth’s First Street in 1984 created traffic problems, parking hassles and unpleasant noise and dust. Retail shoppers took their money elsewhere. Superior Street was next on the bricking list in the summer of ’85, and business owners feared the affect on business would be similarly disastrous.
Then came Mr. Henry R. Brick, clad in overalls, flannel shirt, black bowtie, hard hat and horn-rimmed glasses. He starred in 38 television commercials that summer, encouraging shoppers to “come on down and jaywalk” through torn up Superior Street. They did.
Henry Brick quickly became one of the most highly recognized people in Duluth. When the construction was finally completed and the future of downtown secure, he disappeared — like any superhero would.
How it all came about
Steve Rich, then KBJR-TV’s director of programming and promotion, decided to put together a series of commercials that would curb the negativism which flourished among downtown shoppers during the street construction. He got together with local advertising professionals Ina Myles and Steve Isola and the three began to brainstorm.
Together they produced a rough idea for a downtown spokesperson, Henry Brick of H & R Brick, who would inform the public about the progress of the bricking project in a humorous way and encourage people to handle the inconvenience cheerfully.
They did a couple of mock commercials and weren’t sure they had much of an idea. But when actor Tom Price tried on the hard hat, a star was born.
Price, originally from Indiana, had come to Duluth a few years earlier to enjoy the fishing and hunting opportunities. He was performing as a singing waiter at the Normandy Hotel when a Duluth Playhouse board member saw him and suggested he take his talents to the stage. During the next three years Price played 17 roles with various theater groups in Duluth. Then came the role that made him famous.
Myles remembers the process of producing a Henry Brick commercial:
“Typically we would meet from 8 to 9 a.m. to brainstorm ideas and settle on one. From 9 to 10 we’d find whatever props we needed and then we went out and shot the commercial that afternoon. By 6 p.m. it would be edited and on the air.”
“Tom improvised so much that we gave up writing scripts early on,” Isola recalls. “We just gave him an idea and set him loose.”
In one commercial, Brick gets some tips from golfer and downtown clothing-store owner Leo Spooner. The two stand in a construction-made sand trap on Superior Street. Brick takes a powerful swing with his club and drives the ball into the side of the KDLH-TV building. Brick promptly hands the club to Spooner and exits.
In another, Brick repeatedly and rhythmically points to the camera, parodying the old S & J Goldfine commercials.
Shoppers returned to the downtown area, many of them trying to catch Henry.
“Word got out that we were taping in the afternoons and people would crowd around to see Henry,” said Myles. “We had no idea these commercials would be so popular.”
During the promotion, people were encouraged to register for a $100 shopping spree in a chauffeured limousine. Winners were drawn nightly on the 10 p.m. newscast. Over 140,000 registrations were turned in during the promotion.
Henry Brick autographed thousands of bricks (the December 1985 issue of Corporate Report Minnesota credits him with signing 1,600 at a single event), did a few commercials for specific downtown merchants and told bedtime stories at the Duluth Public Library. When the promotion ended and Halloween rolled around, one of the most common costumes in town was Henry Brick.
Where are they now?
Ina Myles and Steve Isola have remained in Duluth. Myles is a fulltime volunteer, raising funds for the Boys & Girls Club. Isola recently joined AdMax Displays, Inc., a regional advertising company, as creative director.
Steve Rich is a senior staff member of Allen & Associates, a corporate outplacement firm in Minneapolis that works with downsized executives, finding them similar positions with different companies.
Tom Price also resides in Minneapolis. Married with “a little Henry Brickette,” he continues to be a fulltime actor. He is the spokesman for a furniture chain in southern Wisconsin and the national spokesman for Nitro golf balls. Nitro recently designed a club after Price’s character Wacka-Wacka.
Price said he’ll be passing through Duluth June 6 on his way up the North Shore. It is doubtful we’ll see Henry Brick juggling fruit or playing with Tonka trucks in the sand like he did in 1985, but don’t be surprised to see the mild-mannered actor sneaking a jaywalk on Superior Street.
I don’t know the modern-day whereabouts of the folks mentioned above, except that Steve Isola is still working with Ad Max in Duluth. And I know Steve has the power to find those old video archives and bring Henry Brick to the Internet. But maybe those old commercials should be saved until the re-bricking.