The Little Old Lady from Pasadena
Has a pretty little flower bed of white gardenias
She began with a tired medical student cruising at midnight, became a surf music novelty hit, and ended by presaging twenty-first century marketing. The Little Old Lady's origins run deeper, of course. The media had, at mid-century, developed a meme, though, of course, nobody called it a "meme" back then. California had a lot of old widows. Little Old Ladies back then were imagined as gentle, loving, and grandmotherly. Shifty used car salesmen would patter, supposedly, that a particular car had belonged to a little old lady, probably a widow who'd inherited the vehicle from a departed husband. She rarely drove it, perhaps just to church on Sundays, before returning home to await visiting children and grandchildren. She'd have fresh-baked cookies on plates and hard candy in glass jars. She was conservative and old-fashioned and wore a shawl and a cameo brooch. She walked whenever she could, because she didn't really understand the automobile. Quite a few women never even learned to drive, back in her day. The car necessarily would be in pristine condition. Anyway, the Little Old Lady from towns like Pasadena, California became a character in comedians' patter and, since L.A. was a center of media production, its jokes became the nation's and, to a lesser extent, the world's.
But parked in a rickety old garage
Is a brand new shiny red super stock Dodge1
Of course, old people aren't really like that. Anyone who'd achieved geriatric status at mid-century had probably survived things that would kill many of us. Quite a few Little Old Ladies from Pasadena were relics of the Old West.
And everybody's saying that there's nobody meaner
Than the Little Old Lady from Pasadena
In 1964, Don Altfield saw, or thought he saw, an elderly woman driving down Colorado Boulevard in that most iconic of dragsters, the 1932 Deuce Coupe. The medical student contacted his friend Jan Barry, Jan and Dean's producer, and another songwriting friend, Roger Christian. They all dug the idea of a hard-racing granny, and turned out the song over the next few days. They changed the make of the car, but the basic premise held. Jan and Dean recorded it at the first opportunity, and the single cruised onto the airwaves in May. The song sped up to #3, where it remained throughout the summer. It proved popular with the kids who liked cars and rock 'n' roll, and with a broader audience who just thought the idea was funny. It would be covered, over the years, by other acts, first and most predictably by the Beach Boys, but most people recall the original, one of Jan and Dean's biggest hits.
She drives real fast and she drives real hard;
She's the terror of Colorado Boulevard
Around the time the song was in process, someone at Dodge hit upon the idea for a commercial.
Nowadays, this wouldn't be a coincidence. It would be the result of complex, interrelated marketing for an era which leaves little to chance in the field of pop culture. Coincidence it appears to have been then, however. Dodge decided to shoot a commercial with a hip, funny Little Old Lady handling her vehicle like a Le Mans pro and proclaiming, "Put a Dodge in your garage, honey!" Before anyone outside of Jan and Dean's immediate circle had heard a note of the future hit, an advertising agency had cast one Kathryn Minner (born 1892) as their stick-shifting granny. Born in New Jersey, Minner and her husband moved out to L.A. in the 1950s to be closer to their son, Raymond. She made her first appearance as an actor in a 1957 Dragnet episode, and went on to play a string of Little Old Ladies. By 1964 she was a bit-part veteran, and she showed up to her audition for Dodge in a red shawl, a Sunday hat, and Keds sneakers. Audiences loved the commercial. For the remainder of the decade, she would appear regularly on the small screen, one of those cheesy advertising icons we welcome into our living room.
The guys come to race her from miles around
But she'll give'em a length then she'll shut'em down
It was a perfect match. For the release of their next album, back in the day when a pop album consisted of whatever the performer had available, Jan and Dean hired Mrs. Minner to appear with them on the cover, their Little Old Lady made flesh.
Go, Granny! Go, Granny! Go, Granny, Go!
Minner appeared in many of the 1960s' most popular shows, including Batman, Get Smart, and Gunsmoke, and in a handful of successful films. She rode with The Love Bug and acted alongside the Angel in my Pocket. Her celebrity guest-appearance on The Dating Game garnered the show its highest ratings. She died in 1969 at the age of 77-- but her image did not. In 1978, Rose Bowl Parade used the Little Old Lady as a theme. Altfeld continued to market the character, casting new Little Old Ladies in ventures of varying success. A pair of Minner's Keds have been installed in the New York City Hard Rock Cafe; another have been sealed in a Pasadena time capsule, destined to be opened in 2084. Whether those opening that capsule will need to have the shoes' presence explained remains unknown but for now, the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, veteran of well over one hundred compilation albums and uncountable downloads, still cruises the strip of our culture's imagination.
Lyrics copyright Screen Gems/EMI Music Inc.
1. Transitional Man says The super stock dodge in question was probably a 413, or 426 B engine wedge, available from Dodge with a lightweight body, shorter wheelbase and one of three prep levels, up two hot cams, compression ration of up to 12-1, and 2 4bbl carbs with tunnel ram manifolds. Mega horsepower for drag racing.
"The Little Old Lady from Pasadena." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Old_Lady_from_Pasadena
"Kathryn Minner." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathryn_Minner
Mark Anderson Moore. The Official Home of the Little Old Lady from Pasadena. http://www.gogrannygo.com/.