Wild Rainiers are mostly extinct, but you can still catch a few on YouTube.
In the ’70s and ’80s, giant beer bottles with humanoid legs ran in herds across TV screens in Spokane and around the region.
The era brought other offbeat ads for the former Seattle-based Rainier Brewery. Tapping Pacific Northwest flair, some starred Mickey Rooney as a Canadian Mountie, an Old West mountain man, and in others, hunter of “mountain fresh” Wild Rainiers.
Another TV ad simply showed a motorcycle rider on a rural highway heading toward Mount Rainier, with bike sounds revving “Raiiiiii-nieeeeeer-beeeeeer.”
“People like to talk about how crazy and goofy the ads for Rainier were,” said Jack Learn, 74, a Rathdrum retiree and former Rainier employee.
He did behind-the-scenes work supporting some of the television spots and posters of the time.
“The commercials were a lot of fun. They worked. People bought our product for a long time, and Rainier Brewing was the biggest seller in the whole state of Washington.”
Today, Rainier is owned by Pabst Brewing Co., which closed the Seattle brewery in 1999. The beer mainly is brewed under contract in California, although in 2016, the company began brewing its Pale Mountain Ale in Woodinville at the Redhook Brewery.
During the 1970s, Learn worked for Rainier Brewing in Seattle with the company’s internal advertising department and doing promotions with distributors.
“I worked about half-time in advertising,” Learn said. “I was also calling on distributors. I had the territory of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and the state on Montana for doing all the promotional stuff from the brewery.”
Rainier was a sponsor for the hydroplane races on Lake Coeur d’Alene, Learn said, so he helped with promotions for that as well as for regional motorcycle races and rodeos. Learn said he often worked with longtime Spokane beer distributor Joey August and his son Nick August.
“That was part of our base, and that’s why we sold so much beer,” Learn said. “We had local connections.”
“We were a pretty popular beer in the Northwest and around the Seattle market. We were in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Hawaii.
“In California, we had a brand that we called Rainier Ale. It was in a green can and we sold a significant amount of that in California.”
For many longtime Spokane residents, like Zipline Interactive’s Shawn Davis, the Rainier commercials from 30 to 40 years ago have stuck in memory banks. He’s co-owner and creative director at the Spokane graphic design firm that does web development.
“I remember the one of a motorcycle going down a Washington highway, and kind of the sound of the motor bike making out Rainier Beer,” Davis said.
“And I remember the campaigns where they had the Rainier bottles that were like a herd of deer. People are in the bottles and running around. Those type of ads really cut through the clutter and made you stop and look. What the heck was that, a herd of bottles? ”
Unusual for that era’s TV ads, the campy segments grabbed people’s attention mostly for entertainment value, Davis added, even among children growing up during the 1970s and early 1980s. He recognizes it now as a style geared more to brand advertising and product recognition.
“Those are the things that create special attention for advertising, where it’s not an intrusion, but something that you stop and watch almost as a 30-second piece of entertainment,” he said.
“It wasn’t a pitchman doing this; it was a funny herd of bottles running around, so it did stand out. I obviously wasn’t of the age to buy the product, but I sure was entertained by it. I was probably 10 to 15. It almost became part of the entertainment to say, ‘Did you see the new one?’”
When distributors or event organizers requested appearances by the large Wild Rainier bottles, Learn recalls that occasionally people were recruited to parade in the beer costumes.
“If we did the Ellensburg rodeo, we’d probably go to the university to find students who wanted to make a few bucks and drink some beer,” he said.
“We’d put the outfits on them and let them run around a bit. That would usually be a cooperation with the distributor. They’d run around in a parade, or in the evening if there was a big local bar, we’d show up.”
Rainier used the Seattle design agency Heckler Associates, largely credited with conceiving the company’s memorable TV ads of the ’70s and ’80s.
Parodies brought Lawrence Welk-a-like, leading “The Wunnerful Rainier Waltz,” or the Running of the Rainiers, a Seattle-set version of Spain’s Running of the Bulls. There were frogs that croaked “Rainier” with some insect backup for “beer,” far ahead of Budweiser’s amphibian commercials.
Riverfront Park even served as one of many outdoorsy landscapes in various commercials showing herds of roaming beer bottles.
At Rainier, Learn said he worked with an internal team of five under Jim Foster, Rainier’s former marketing director and advertising manager. The group met usually once a week to discuss ad ideas, radio spots, and art for posters in taverns and bars.
One time, Learn said he got to pick up Mickey Rooney from the airport.
“I don’t know how we got him,” Learn said. “We got him for 10 days at $1,000 a day, which was dirt cheap.”
He recalled being at a filming session of Rooney in Mountie costume with a woman portraying the female opera singer, a parody of duets by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in 1930s films.
Rooney’s face twists in comedic expression as a soprano voice sings in long syllables, “Mountain Fresh Rainier,” followed by the Mountie’s, “That’s my favorite beeeeeer.” Eventually, he pours some brew, for two versions of the commercial.
“We dubbed Mickey’s (singing) voice,” Learn said. “We did two of those commercials. There’s one where she’s just holding the glass for him to pour, and one where he pours the beer down her cleavage. That wasn’t intentional.”
“We were using a pilsner glass, which is a narrow glass that comes down to a stem, and they’re really hard to get a perfect head on top of the beer, so we had to reshoot. After about 20 takes, Mickey says, ‘We’re taking a break.’”
Rooney took the woman aside for a private conversation, according to Learn.
“Meantime, he had talked to her and said, ‘You lean forward, and I’m going to pour it down your front. We’ll see what happens.’”
Other Rainier ads paired Rooney and Boone Kirkman, a former boxer popular in the Seattle area.
“We had a canoe with Mickey Rooney and Boone Kirkman, and they were chasing the Wild Rainiers down the river and trying to net them with a big huge net,” Learn said. “We were on the Cedar River (near Renton). There was an area that we could use on the river.”
“We also did commercials downtown with the Wild Rainier. I wasn’t always involved in all the commercials, but some of it.”
Learn also has fond memories of the motorcycle commercial and claims to have pitched the idea.
“My brother used to race motocross bikes,” he said. “There was one guy he was racing who knew I worked for Rainier Brewery.
“He had one of those high-pitched motorcycles so he came over to me and was revving it up. As he revved it up, he did three different levels of noise that sounded like Raiiiiii-nieeeeeer-beeeeeer.”
More than 30 years ago, mid-sized regional breweries like Rainier could shine. It was an era predating the popularity of microbreweries, and before the industry shrunk to a few companies producing nationally known brands, Learn said.
Advertising also has changed, he thinks, far from today’s more national market. The vintage Rainier spots were geared specifically to a Northwest market, with some community pride in Rainier’s regional heritage back to 1878.
Learn grew up in the same Seattle-area neighborhood as the family of Alan Ferguson, former president and chairman of Rainier Co., the parent of Rainier Brewing when it was one of the largest breweries in the Pacific Northwest.
“I went to work there when I was 19 years old, washing trucks,” Learn said. “That’s how I started part-time, eventually worked my way up as part of the advertising team.”
After his years working at Rainier, Learn bought a beer distributorship in Olympia with Miller, Coors and other beer brands. He retired at age 62 but stayed in Olympia, until he and his wife moved to Rathdrum just over a year ago.
He now enjoys hobbies that include a classic Corvette, car shows and craft beer-making.
His stint with Rainier shaped much of his career linked to the beer business.
“It was a lot of fun; it was a job I think everyone would wish they had,” he said.
Davis also believes Rainier’s ad magic benefited from a little Northwest pride. Many of those vintage commercials, especially the Wild Rainiers, had tongue-in-cheek outdoorsy appeal.
“There is some sense of ownership and Northwest pride,” Davis said. “That campaign really was focused on the outdoors, and that’s what we’re all about here.”