The Early Days of Ernest

An American Advertising Phenomenon, knowhutimean?
January 23, 2008
Before Ernest went to camp, saved Christmas, and got scared stupid, he was neighbor to Vern on Anystreet, USA (although his characteristic southern accent did not leave much question to his origin). Dealing out magnitudes of unwanted advice to annoyed, unseen Vern on soft drinks ("Make the Mello Yello Move, knowhutimean?") to car dealerships ("You're
gonna save $53,000 dollars on a $9,000 car!...I don't know how them boys stay in business.") to radio stations ("Take Atlanta's 94Q for instance!"), Ernest P. Worrell became a regional advertising icon throughout the 1980s.

Carden & Cherry Advertising, headquartered in Nashville, TN, was in dire straits in the late 1970s. Jim Varney, a classically trained actor in his early 30s, had just moved to Nashville during the New York actors' strike in 1979 in hopes of finding work. A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Varney had been performing Shakespeare professionally since age 16. He had
managed to land stints on "Johnny Cash and Friends", "Operation Petticoat", "Fernwood 2 Night", and the forgettable "Pink Lady and Jeff" over the course of the 1970s, but Varney was having trouble breaking through. His meeting with the ad agency's co-founder John Cherry would take his career in a completely different direction.

Varney and Cherry initially developed a character prior to Ernest P. Worrell called Sergeant Glory, a stern, tough-talking drill sergeant for the agency. Sergeant Glory appeared in commercials for Pruitt's Food Town (a regional grocery chain), the Southern Dairy Commission,
and Purity Dairies. Purity would later become one of Carden & Cherry's biggest customers, utilizing the Ernest character in virtually all of their commercials in the 1980s.

The first commercial featuring Ernest aired in 1980, advertising an appearance by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders at Beech Bend Amusement Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The park, which closed three months after the airing, was in such disrepair Cherry later admitted that "we couldn't show it on television." However, Carden & Cherry began receiving phone calls from such regional big-names as Purity, Braum's (a dairy bar chain based in Oklahoma), WDBJ-7 (CBS-affiliate newschannel in Roanoake, Virginia), and Lewis Drug Stores (based in South Dakota). The Ernest phenomenon hit the nation, regardless of early concerns that the character's appeal would be limited to the southern U.S. As "Ernest" advertised mainly for regional products and entities (with the exception of such national giants as Tab, Sprite, and Milky Way candy bars, as well as non-profits United Way and Boy Scouts of America), many people throughout the nation believed "Ernest" to be a local.
Most of the commercials were filmed on a handheld home video camera at John Cherry's personal residence near Nashville. A number of later commercials were filmed at Varney's own home in nearby White House--explaining the massive change in Vern's kitchen.

Varney would often film twenty or more commercials in a single workday, each following the exact script as the last, differing only in the product name. If Ernest told Vern he was "looking for news on all the wrong stations"
and advised him to tune into Channel 61 in Columbus, Ohio, Roanoake residents would find that Vern should have turned it on Channel 7. There were a number of these script "templates", but all basically followed a strict schema: Ernest interrupts Vern in some manner or violates his privacy, offers his unsolicited advice, professes his loyalty and love for the product, commits a "memorably stupid" act, and finds some way to exit the scene---all filmed from Vern's point of view, in one continuous take.

In 1985, while making an appearance at the Indianapolis 500, where thousands of spectators rose to greet the ad icon with a resounding "Hey Vern!", Disney executives approached Varney and Cherry to explore the idea of a possible movie.
Four movies produced in collaboration with Disney (under Touchstone Pictures) followed, and the ninth Ernest feature film ("Ernest the Pirate") was in production at the time of Jim Varney's untimely death from lung cancer in 2000.[/align]

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