...I Heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh I heard it through the grapevine
Oh I'm just about to lose my mind
Honey, honey yeah

("I Heard It Through the Grapevine," words and music by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)
What visual image comes to mind when you read those lyrics? Are you picturing Marvin Gaye? Or perhaps Gladys Knight and the Pips? CCR? One of the contestants from American/Pop Idol?

Depending on your generation and your geography, you may be visualizing a line of animated clay figures in the shape of raisins.

 

From Lumps of Clay to American Icons

If you've got visions of dancing raisins in your head, you can blame Seth Werner and Dexter Fedor, copywriters at the San Francisco office of Foote, Cone and Belding, the noted advertising agency. In 1986, they were working at the behest of the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) to improve the raisin's image. As Fedor put it:
"This was an assignment to use sheer creativity in order to get people to look at a TV commercial and have a good feeling about shriveled fruit—raisins. We could have told people ways to eat raisins and incorporate them into recipes, but that was not very compelling or interesting." (Adams, 2000)
So, Fedor and Werner came up with the concept of pairing the raisins with the popular song "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"-- after all, who better to sing about life on the grapevine than raisins? (Well, obviously the table grapes. And the grapes of California's wine industry. But neither crop had an image problem).

The job of bringing the Raisins to life on screen was given to Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon, using their Claymation® technique. Each Raisin's armature was made of lead wire, brass tubing, steel, wood, and styrofoam, covered with polymer clay (aged Van Aken plasticine for the moveable areas, Sculpey (or wax) for non-moving parts (eyeballs, teeth, shoes)). The front of the Raisins were cast, and the backs were sculpted, allowing an armature to be inserted without worrying about air pockets. With the puppets between 6 and 8 inches tall, characters and reference objects (furniture, lunchboxes, etc) were built to make the Raisins appear the correct scale (approximately-- to my eye, the dancing raisins appear appear prune-sized).

The first television commercial of the campaign, "Lunchbox," appeared in 1987. It won Clio Awards (the advertising equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Commercial of the Year in three categories: Animation, Foods, and New Adaptations of Music. It also won two first place Andy Awards in the same category, and the Silver Lion at the Cannes Film Festival. The spot also appears in the Top Television Commercials of All Time in two separate lists, one from USA Today and one compiled by Entertainment Weekly.

The success of the campaign not only boosted raisin sales (by some accounts up to a 20% increase in domestic sales), but created an ancillary business of the animated raisins themselves. They were instantly recognizable. In a national contest, names were chosen for the raisins: Ben Indasun, Tiny Goodbite, and Justin X. Occasionally other names (other raisins?) such as Sugar E. Treat, Rye Stack, and Delicious appeared. But by the time the California Raisins were appearing in their own television shows, their official names were Stretch, Beebop, A.C. and Red.

The Raisins appeared in three prime time television specials: A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987), which won an Emmy, the award-winning Meet the Raisins (1989), and its sequel, Raisins - Sold Out! (1990). In 1989-1990, there was even a Saturday morning cartoon series (The California Raisins Show) featuring the raisins-- only this time animated with paint on cels, not clay.

They were singing raisins, and they managed time in their busy schedule to record and release two albums: 1987's California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs (Priority Records #9706), and 1988's Christmas with the California Raisins (Priority Records #7923)-- both of which feature the wrinkled fruit's Motown stylings, and both of which are still in print (available at Amazon).

The raisins were so popular that even Michael Jackson and Ray Charles agreed to lend their likenesses and voices to lookalike raisins that appeared in commercials. Then, of course, there was the marketing tie-in products: both included free with breakfast cereals (Post® Raisin Bran) and in toy stores and restaurants. Paraphenalia can still be found on eBay: stickers, keychains, t-shirts, lunchboxes, bendable action figures, a board game, plush toys, etc. (The State of California via CALRAB shared marketing rights for the characters with Will Vinton Studios, thus, the animated raisins began making cameo appearances in other Vinton produced commercials for pizza and fried chicken).

Capcom even had Radiance Software create a side-scroller video game for them, for Nintendo, entitled "California Raisins: the Grape Escape," in which you are a California Raisin travelling through four levels of a warehouse, throwing jelly and spear-wielding apples and grapes and collecting musical notes which will unlock the penthouse in which your friends have been locked. Can you rescue the Raisins so they can get to a concert on time? The game was never released.

The Real California Raisins: Raisins

The Spanish missionaries of the 18th century introduced the grape to California agriculture, but they were interested in making wine (necessary for Catholic mass), and by the early 19th century, French immigrants were planting French varieties of grapes, but again, for making wine. The raisin industry began, apocryphally, in 1873, when a heat wave dried the grapes on the vine, and farmers were stuck with wrinkled, dried fruit. Although the first raisins produced were from the Muscat grapes favored by the Spanish, it was William Thomson, a Scottish immigrant, who introduced a seedless variety of grape to California in 1872.

Currently 95% of California raisin production comes from Thomson variety grapes, a green variety which naturally darkens when it dries (and sold as "natural seedless"). About 5% of the Thomson harvest are mechanically dried and treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve a golden color-- these are sold as golden raisins (Other varieties of grapes grown in California for other types raisins include Muscat, Sultana, Flame seedless, and Black Corinth-- the latter's raisins known as Zante Currants). Most raisins are grown on family farms on small acreage (50 acres or so)-- raisins are currently harvested by hand, using lots of temporary labor. Growers sell their raisins to packers and handlers-- either privately-owned agricultural businesses, or cooperatives (the largest cooperative is Sun-Maid).

Currently, the United States is the world's largest producer of raisins, and 99% of U.S. raisins are grown in California's San Joaquin Valley: it's got a long, hot growing season, an (artificially) abundant water supply, and a tradition of viticulture extending back to the Armenian immigrants of the 19th century. So if you're eating a raisin in the United States, it is likely a California raisin.

Although the raisin market in California is regulated under a 1949 marketing order (designed to help stabilize market conditions), California currently faces a glut of raisins. (In 2000-2001, for example, the United States ended the year with enough unsold raisins to supply world and domestic demand twice over.) Not only are there no longer cheery commercials to encourage the nation to consume more of this tasty (and musical) fruit, increased demand for premium California wines means grape growers who previously sent their crops of Thomson seedless to wineries (to make cheap wine) now are unloading their supply into the raisin market. Surplus raisins can be diverted to distilleries, farm animal feed producers, and the Federal government's school lunch or international food aid programs, but the price of raisins remains below the cost of production for some farmers. The Raisin Administrative Committee, which implements the raisin marketing order, has been trying to trim production.

"In Fresno they dwell, bound in timeless sleep..."

In 1999, the Raisin Marketing Board launched a new print campaign, replacing Stretch, Beebop, A.C. and Red with a non-dancing, non-singing raising character, named on the California Raisins web site (<www.calraisins.org>) only as "The California Raisin Guy." Although the state of California still owns the rights to the original California Raisins characters, marketing dollars for raisins now goes overseas. California raisins (the fruit, not the band-- although, you never know) hope to make their way to China, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, but in this they are competing against other raisin producers, notably Turkey.

Sources:
C.B. Adams. "The Wonderful World of Dexter." Washington University in St. Louis Magazine. Fall 2000. <http://magazine.wustl.edu/Fall00/dexter.html> (19 May 2004)
Vince Backeberg. "Claymation® Years Part I: The Raisin Age." Vince Backeberg's 3D Site. <http://home.comcast.net/~v3d/vraisin.htm> (26 May 2004)
--. "Vince Backeberg's Frequently Asked Questions on Clay Animation/Claymation®." Vince Backeberg's 3D Site. <http://home.comcast.net/~v3d/vfaqclay.htm> (26 May 2004) Kristina Brennemana. "California raisins have a new, non-Vinton symbol." The Business Journal (Portland). 20 December 1999. <http://portland.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/1999/12/20/story5.html> (26 May 2004)
Kate Campbell. "Raisin Growers Grapple with Oversupply." California Farm Bureau Federation. 13 November 2002. <http://www.cfbf.com/agalert/2002/11_13_02_c_aa.html> (19 May 2004)
Mark Dress and Webster Colcord. "California Raisin Raisin Puppets." The Clay Animation and Stop Motion How to Pages. <http://www.animateclay.com/raisinparts2.htm> (26 May 2004)
Nick M. "California Raisins -- Capcom." The Warp Zone. 2003. <http://www.planetnintendo.com/thewarpzone/raisins_rev.html> (19 May 2004)
"California Raisins." TV Acres. <http://www.tvacres.com/admascots_california.htm> (19 May 2004)
"Raisins are a Part of History." Raisin Administrative Committee. <http://www.raisins.org/history.html> (19 May 2004)
Clio Archives. <http://www.clioawards.com.> (19 May 2004)
USDA Economic Research Service. "California’s Central Valley: Center of U.S. Raisin Industry." Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook/FTS-303/Mar. 25, 2003 US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service. "Raisin Situation and Outlook in Selected Countries." FAS Online. 29 January 2004. <http://www.fas.usda.gov/htp/horticulture/dried fruits/1-29-04 Raisin Situation Report(redo).pdf> (19 May 2004)

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