Many people know the late Meinhardt Raabe for his one time role as the coroner in “The Wizard of Oz,” but Thursday afternoon he was honored for his life time role as “Little Oscar, The World’s Smallest Chef.”
The Wisconsin Livestock and Meat Council inducted Raabe into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame during a special ceremony at the Sheraton in Madison. Raabe’s sister, Marion Ziegelmann, of Water-town, and several of her relatives attended the event to accept the award.
Raabe was born in 1915 on a farm outside of Johnson Creek. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1937 and started his career with Oscar Mayer in the accounting department with the company in Madison. It was the idea of Carl Mayer, who attended college with Raabe, to create the Wienermobile and a small chef to reach out to children and showcase the company’s product in a new marketing effort.
“Imagine Carl walking into his Uncle Oscar’s office explaining his idea of a giant hot dog on wheels and the world’s smallest chef,” Ed Roland, Oscar Mayer’s mobile marketing manager, said during the ceremony.
Raabe became the first Little Oscar to tour with the Wienermobile promoting Wisconsin processed meat products in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. His small stature set him apart in size but did not encumber his enthusiasm for interacting with people and representing Oscar Mayer and Co. in promoting their product, especially to children.
The first Wienermobile was 13 feet long and metal. Today, the company has six Wienermobiles that travel various regions of the country. They are now 27 feet long and instead of Little Oscars driving the iconic vehicle, the company now calls their marketing employees, “Hotdoggers.”
Those marketing specialists following in Raabe’s footsteps are generally recent college grads with degrees in a communication field. They typically work for one year in the position and are often females. Although, many aspects of the job have changed over the past 75 years, the main effort of educating people about the company’s products has remained the main goal that began with Raabe.
“I’m happy to be here today,” Ziegelmann said in accepting the award for her brother. “The movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ brought my brother much fame and enjoyment, but working for Oscar Mayer was his lifetime job. Growing up with Meinhardt was a little different. When he was 8 years old and I was 4 years old we were twins. I always had an older brother but I never had a bigger brother.”
Raabe traveled all over the country to showcase the Oscar Mayer products, but he always kept in touch with his sister back in Watertown.
“When he started traveling as Little Oscar, I remember his first letter back to me. He said he called on several meat markets that day and they all had headcheese in their store windows and no wieners,” Ziegelmann said. “It was his job to introduce wieners to the eastern states.”
In total, Raabe worked 29 years with Oscar Mayer in various roles including accounting, sales representative and primarily as Little Oscar. He died on April 9, 2010, at the age of 94 years old.
“Meinhardt’s contribution to the film industry is well documented by the Munchkin Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and in his autobiography, ‘Memories of a Munchkin.’ But his contributions to the meat industry and especially to the meat industry of Wisconsin are of equal and lasting value,” Larry Borchardt, of the Wisconsin Livestock and Meat Council, said.
Little Oscar and the Wienermobile is a piece of Americana and a great tradition. We couldn’t be more proud to have Meinhardt represent Oscar Mayer in the Hall of Fame,” Roland said. In memory of Raabe’s role as Little Oscar, Roland passed out wienermobile whistles to those in attendance, a tradition that began with Raabe and continues to be part of the marketing effort today.
A plaque with Raabe’s photograph will be displayed in the UW-Madison Meat Laboratory and on the college’s animal science department website. Ziegelmann received a plaque of her brother and a commemorative book. The Hall of Fame began in 1993 and today there are nearly 70 individuals that have been inducted.
Raabe was one of five people inducted on Thursday afternoon. Other inductees included the late Glorious Malone, the founder of Malone’s Fine Sausage, Inc., in Milwaukee; Gary L. Underwood, the chief technology officer and co-owner of Red Arrow Products Company in Manitowoc; and Roger and Pat Van Hemelryk, founders and co-owners of Maplewood Meats in Green Bay.