Chips, cashed in.

I guess you can go elsewhere for your Robin Williams news this morning. When I heard the cause of death I was surprised, but not really. Comedians are infamous for their misery and anger, which they build under pressure into diamonds of humor (theoretically, anyway), and no one was ore infamously demon-plagued than Williams. He had his cocaine period, and his women period, and probably a few more that I don’t know about because he was never one of those entertainers who compelled my attention other than reading an occasional People magazine cover while at the dentist’s. Although I loved Dahlia Lithwick’s wonderful recollection of a day spent with him, and you will, too.

No, here’s where we’ll chat up Myrtle Young, who was made into an international sensation via her own strange hobby — collecting oddly shaped and colored potato chips from the line at Seyfert’s, where she worked — and by the prose stylings of my husband, who told her story in our paper and reported on her from coast to coast, first to Letterman (where she did not capture his acidic attention) and then to Carson, where she and the host meshed perfectly and produced a charming segment TV Guide later named the funniest single moment in television. (Yes, that sentence was way too long. Sorry.) Myrtle died over the weekend. She was 90.

That’s the first and last time Alan ever saw Los Angeles. We really need to get out more.

When I think about Myrtle, I consider a few things. First, that the Seyfert’s potato-chip factory where she worked first closed and was then torn down. Consolidation, I think, or some other economic force that cannot be denied. Potato chips used to be a local product, or at least a regional one, due to the realities of how fried potatoes travel, but I guess that’s not true anymore. There are still local brands, but they’re likely to be owned by Frito-Lay.

Then I wonder if Myrtle’s job would even exist anymore. She stood over the conveyer and pulled the chips off by hand. It might make a person crazy, but it certainly meshed with her personality; lost in hours of watching chips go by, she found herself seeing things in them that others wouldn’t have. Now that job is surely done by some sort of electric eye. She retired with her pension and lived out her old age, but there won’t be many more like her.

Which is sort of melancholy, I guess. But the world changes and changes again, every single day. A toast for the old lady. I thought Alan did a great job with his stories; I think she reminded him of the women in his family.

Bloggage today? No. You guys always find better stuff than I do. Here’s a Twitter follow I’ve come to love, the Worst Muse. Advice for writers.

And that’s how the week lurches into second gear.

Posted at 12:30 am in Current events |

43 responses to “Chips, cashed in.”

  1. Basset said on August 12, 2014 at 12:41 am

    Mrs. B had the same job at Be-Mo in Kalamazoo, summers during high school or college or something, standing over a conveyor culling chips as they went by. She says they’re really good when they’re still hot.

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  2. Basset said on August 12, 2014 at 12:45 am

    No blog gage from me, just some linkage.

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  3. Dexter said on August 12, 2014 at 2:16 am

    When I was a young man I lived a few miles south of Seyfert’s potato chip factory and driving past that place was an olfactory treat for sure. Those chips cooking perfumed the air divinely. Now I live near Spangler’s candy factory and the great smell of DumDums cooking is so sweet it masks the occasional bad odor of the mega-farm which raises chickens.
    I had forgotten about Myrtle but her passing has stirred up faint memories of her TV appearances.
    Countless meals, spaced over a few decades of Eckrich hot dogs and Seyfert’s potato chips, Wayne Bun candy bars, washed down with Fort Wayne-bottled 7-Up soda.
    Over on Main, a giant sign depicting a giant loaf of bread being sliced advertised locally baked bread for the masses. It was very near the News-Sentinel & Journal-Gazette building.
    I think the other hot-dog maker was Parrot meats…we hated those hot-dogs and bologna.
    So “we” had Myrtle as a national TV sensation, but who else?
    A few sports stars made the pros in baseball and football, a few starred in colleges, but Fort Wayne never produced a Harvey Pekar, for example. Dave Letterman was from Indianapolis, of course, but I guess Myrtle was the Fort Wayne top-dog in the curiously odd and interesting categories.

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  4. Dexter said on August 12, 2014 at 2:34 am

    The Carson moment

    Of all Robin Williams’ work, my favorite movie role was his in “Jakob the Liar”. He was so great in this inspiring dramatic role set in 1944.
    Back about ten years ago when Lance Armstrong was the toast of the cycling world, he hung out with Robin, and Robin would go to France to soak up Le Tour de France and ride his bicycle around during the day and then socialize and eat with Armstrong and the entourage at night. He was always smiling and having quite a time.
    His stature as a comedian has left him on top. As comedian Rob Bartlett posted on Facebook, he’s up there with Jonathan Winters, Pryor, and Carlin. Right on top, yes sir.

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  5. Deborah said on August 12, 2014 at 4:41 am

    People who can do improv comedy well have my utmost respect. It takes a true genius to pull it off successfully.

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  6. Kathy T said on August 12, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Hope that Conn’s potato chips (Zanesville OH) will survive the homogenization and pasteurization of the universe. You just never know when you open a bag of Conn’s barbeque chips how thick or thin the dusting of bbq powder will be. And salt and vinegar? Takes the roof right off your palate! And mmmmmmm. Trans fat (so it’s rumored).

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  7. alex said on August 12, 2014 at 7:41 am

    In the last thread toward the end, Mild-mannered Jeff linked to Nance’s 2005 post about the potato chip lady which was also a weigh-in on the pros and cons of invisible electric shock fences for dogs. The feedback was mostly negative. I hadn’t gotten my fence yet so didn’t get to throw in my negative two cents’ worth.

    The invisible cost me $1,400 in 2005. As I was signing the contract with the salesman outside on my patio picnic table, my dobie pranced up with a dead baby ‘possum dangling from her jaws. The salesman was astounded that the mother ‘possum hadn’t gouged one of her eyes out when she plucked it from the nest. I told him this is why I needed the fence — it wouldn’t prevent her from killing wildlife on my property but it might save others’ domesticated animals on their property.

    The dog never got used to the fence. It terrified her so badly that she wouldn’t even venture outdoors anymore. And watching her getting shocked by it was more than I could bear, so I removed her shock collar and wrote it off as an expensive lesson.

    It ended up being a lot more expensive than the $1,400. The salesman had offered that the fence could be extended out into the lake if I wanted my dog to be able to go swimming. I’d never known her to be a swimmer, but I said what the heck, let’s do it. One day when lightning struck the water, it traveled up the underground wire all the way to the house, where it blew the transformer out of the wall outlet and charred the immediate surroundings. I discovered this only after I came home to find my computer dead and all of the dimmer switches in the house totally fried. It could have been a lot worse, so as expensive lessons go, I got off cheap.

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  8. Jolene said on August 12, 2014 at 7:43 am

    How cool that it was Alan who brought the potato chip lady to fame!

    I have, I think, a connection to Seyfert’s too. My father raised millions of tons of potatoes, almost all of which were sold to make potato chips. I’m pretty sure that some of them went to Seyfert’s. I know, for sure, that they shipped to Chesty’s, another Indiana brand, and Jay’s, a Chicago-area brand, and many others including, eventually, Frito-Lay. One of his early customers was a firm called Lazy Sue that manufactured chips in the Twin Cities under that brand and some others. We visited their plant when I was a kid, where I learned that still-warm chips are, indeed, delicious.

    Potatoes are a challenging crop. They have to have just the right sugar and moisture content to yield the pale, perfect chips that consumers have been trained to prefer, which, in turn, requires not only the right growing conditions, but also climate control during storage and shipping. I remember hearing Dad complain that potatoes that had passed inspection when they were shipped out would suddenly develop problems when they were delivered to the plant, a tactic that, he claimed, the processors used to cover for their failure to predict demand correctly. He saw Frito as the chief offender on this score.

    Frito, has, of course, now taught us to want corn chips rather than potato chips, reducing their exposure to the uncertain quality and availability of fresh potatoes in favor of corn flour, which can be ground to whatever standard they like and stored almost indefinitely.

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  9. Dorothy said on August 12, 2014 at 8:40 am

    On our drive back home after a weekend in Pittsburgh we stopped at the Sheetz in Cambridge and indulged in some Conn’s potato chips. And I found black cherry pop! I had a bag of green onion chips and Mike had the barbecue. They were sublime! I also got a bag of plain ones and they’re packed in my lunch bag today. I will savor every chip.

    Robin Williams had a part in one episode of Homicide: Life on the Street in the 90’s that was really excellent. I tried to find a clip last night but all I found was one trumpeting the fact that young Jake Gyllenhaal played his son in that episode. I linked to it anyway on Facebook. Robin was a comic genius but his talents as a dramatic actor were also impressive. I feel very sad that he is gone. Mostly sad that he could not find relief for the smothering depression he must have been suffering. All the resources he had available to him as a wealthy person and yet he still could not recover. That’s the saddest part of all.

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    • nancy said on August 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

      Here’s a piece of that episode, Dorothy. “Bop Gun,” it was called, and won a bunch of awards:

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  10. brian stouder said on August 12, 2014 at 8:56 am

    If you get a chance, click Nancy’s link to the News-Sentinel’s potato chip lady article.

    It is very good stuff, indeed

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  11. Dorothy said on August 12, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Excellent – thanks Nancy.

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  12. Dave said on August 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Ah, Conn’s Chips, my Arizona aunt, who grew up in Dresden, not far from Zanesville, loves some Conn’s chips and always stocks up when she comes. My parents would always take her plenty when they would go out.

    I was always fond of Ballreich’s, chips I never had until I lived in Northern Ohio (Bellevue, Dex), still made in Tiffin. It’s just as well that I’ve never seen them in a store in Fort Wayne.

    Last night, my son’s mother-in-law posted a picture of herself and her two children on Facebook, my then 17 year old DIL and her brother, with Robin Williams, taken in Sausalito, CA, in 2000. We didn’t know they’d ever met him, said he was very generous to have a picture with them.

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  13. LAMary said on August 12, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Basset, I’ll see your flounder gigging and raise you a striped bass.

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  14. Bitter Scribe said on August 12, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Oh, the potato-chip industry is still very much regionalized, despite Frito-Lay. The reason Frito-Lay dominates the national market is that they’re the only player with a national infrastructure of factories, trucks and warehouses to make sure they get on the shelves in time. That’s enormously expensive, and no one else is likely to approach it. Almost all of the other players are regional.

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  15. Bob (not Greene) said on August 12, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Wow, Nancy I just saw the flooding news. Hope you guys aren’t under water.

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    • nancy said on August 12, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks for the concern, but we came through this one. Many others, not so lucky. The east side was merely quite waterlogged this morning, not under water.

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  16. Dexter said on August 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    The Fisher King and also Popeye are streaming on Netflix, fyi.

    Deborah, Robin Williams was a great stand-up and an actor loved the world over, but you nailed it…he was the best, the very best improv comedian in the history of the world. No one even close. No one.

    Glad you did OK with the rain, nance. When were both major freeways last closed both ways due to rain? In Greenville, SC. two women were swept up and died in surging flood waters roaring down the city streets…cars lifted and smashed; this kind of thing in almost commonplace these days. Holy fuck.

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  17. Jolene said on August 12, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    I loved Williams as an improv comic too, and there’s lots of that work on YouTube. Many great performances on the Letterman show and on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show. Probably on Leno too, but, since I never watched Leno, I haven’t explored those.

    I’ve never seen his HBO specials, so am planning to check those out.

    Meanwhile, enough with my favorite performers dying. Before Williams, there was Philip Seymour Hoffman, and, before him, James Gandolfini. No more.

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  18. coozledad said on August 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    From “Baumgardner’s Handbook of Indian Lore and Cooking” Regnery, 2014.

    Another thing you may not know about your Indian is he was right partial to the settler’s discarded box springs and mattresses for cookin’ dogs. It won’t uncommon for them to drill for oil with pointy stones or logs to get at the natural lighter fluid buried in Jesus’ earth. They didn’t call it that though, they called it Yep-ham-wah or “droopy fake cowboy pornstache of fire”.

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  19. Bitter Scribe said on August 12, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    This may be trivial, but I always admired Williams for making pretty good movies, especially when you consider the track record in the department of the average comedian.

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  20. brian stouder said on August 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Robin Williams invented the noun “Mr Happy”, which I immediately adopted, and still utilize from time to time (so to speak)

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  21. Jolene said on August 12, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    As you have probably read, Williams did a stint at Hazelden, the famous rehab center in Minnesota, just a few weeks ago. While he was there, he visited a local Dairy Queen and had his picture taken with a teenage girl who was working there. In the photo, he looks like a broken man–older than he was, thin, and lifeless. Depression is a bitch.

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  22. Dorothy said on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    And did he also invent the “Purple-helmeted love warrior” Brian? Or did he borrow that from someone else? Not many people have mentioned his movie “Awakenings” but that’s my favorite one. One of the dozen or so websites I’ve looked at this morning said it was his own favorite movie of all the ones he made, because of how he felt it connected him to Oliver Sacks.

    Jolene I’m with you. I feel like too many excellent people have gone from our lives this year, and you mentioned the biggest names. It fills me with dread to think of who could be next.

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  23. brian stouder said on August 12, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Afore mentioned photo –

    I wonder if he noticed his sharp edge wasn’t as sharp as before

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  24. Alan Stamm said on August 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks so much for linking to Dahlia. What a distinctive treat by a consistently fine writer.

    “. . . a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime talent who could not even for a moment settle down enough to breathe himself in.”

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  25. brian stouder said on August 12, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I used to think Jonathon Winters was the funniest guy there was – and I seem to recall he was ready to jump off a bridge at one time, many years ago

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  26. Sue said on August 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Brian, the first thing I thought of when I heard that Williams’ death was a suicide after battling ‘severe depression’ was ‘When did Jonathan Winters die? Did that start something?”. It was an immediate and kind of embarrassing thought (intrusive and full of assumptions), but I also understand that the fragility of depression means that sometimes there’s no rolling with the punches, and that could have been a punch with no recovery.
    So of course I looked it up. Winters died a year ago last spring.

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  27. Dorothy said on August 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    A former colleague of mine at Kenyon (and a former colleague of Nancy’s from the Dispatch) got the last interview with Mr. Winters before he died. Here’s the article. I remember it breaking my heart when I read some examples about how his parents treated him. Is it any wonder he was depressed as well? (I don’t think his name is here but it was written by Mark Ellis)

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  28. MichaelG said on August 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I remember Jay’s potato chips from when I was a kid in Chicago. They came in a great big can.

    As usual, Dahlia hits it out of the park.

    Robin Williams was famous for dropping in at comedy shows and delivering an impromptu set. I benefited from this once. This was years ago. I had taken the woman whom I was dating in those days (the lovely Anne) to a small comedy club on Clement St. in SF. I have no idea who the advertised performer was but all of a sudden Robin Williams showed up and proceeded to give us an hour of the most incredible performance of any kind that I have ever seen. He was screamingly hilarious. I mean funny in a way I have never experienced before or since. By the time he finished, the whole audience (50 people?) was totally wrung out. Somehow he pulled everyone in to his hyper energetic, hyper funny and unbelievably creative alternate universe and held us there for the whole time. And the entire thing came right off the top of his head. The laughter never stopped. I mean that in the most literal sense. If I hadn’t seen this performance I would never have believed it possible. I know it’s a cliché but Robin Williams was, indeed, unique. Truly one of a kind.

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  29. Danny said on August 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I am pretty sure that Robin Williams considered Jonathan Winters a mentor and friend. Here are some clips of them together:

    One from “60 Minutes:”

    One from Carson:

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  30. Sue said on August 12, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I think Robin Williams thought of Jonathan Winters the way the rest of the world thinks of Robin Williams.

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  31. Deborah said on August 12, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    Michael G, great story. You are so lucky to have that experience first hand.

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  32. Jolene said on August 12, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    The Lithwick piece is, indeed, very touching. If you skipped the “everything he did” link halfway through, you should go back and give it a click. The link goes to a good and fairly recent interview by an Australian entertainment reporter while Williams was on his “Weapons of Self Destruction” tour.

    Another good link:

    This one goes to a piece by Bill Scheft, a former stand-up comic now a novelist and writer for David Letterman, who knew Williams for many years. Among other things, he writes about the experience of hugging Williams, a person who perspired prodigiously, after the sort of performance that MichaelG described.

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  33. Deborah said on August 12, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    You can see the presperation in a lot of the clips being shown.

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  34. Sherri said on August 12, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Ann Killion, a sports columnist at the SF Chronicle, tells of getting ice cream from a shop in Mill Valley when she was a kid and Robin Williams was working there while he was attending the College of Marin (before he headed off to Juilliard) – he would narrate his scooping.

    As my husband said, he could come up with jokes faster than we could hear them.

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  35. Jolene said on August 12, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    The NYT obituary has links in the right margin to several good pieces: one by Alessandra Stanley, a TV critic; one by A.O. Scott, a movie critic; an ArtsBeat piece that contains an overview of his career with several good video links and links to reviews, and a piece by Williams about Jonathan Winters when Winters died. All worth checking out.

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  36. Dexter said on August 12, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Jolene, Dorothy, that damn Grim Reaper has struck once again: Lauren Bacall, another fantastic actor who has been with all of us our whole lives. 89, stroke. Bogie’s wife.

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  37. basset said on August 12, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Granted, I never saw “Mork and Mindy” or any of Williams’ movies that I can remember, but from what I’ve accidentally stumbled across in the past I never thought he was all that funny – seemed to me he was always trying too hard.

    That said, this was interesting:

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  38. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 12, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    Bacall and Bogie married just an hour north of me, at Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm outside of Mansfield, Ohio.

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  39. Deborah said on August 12, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    I saw Bacall on Broadway about ten years ago, she was gorgeous. What a pro.

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  40. MarkH said on August 12, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    basset – I agree on Williams. I did enjoy Mork & Mindy and his work in several of his films. But the stand-up work, while funny, did not have me ROTFLMAO as others have done.

    Regarding Winters, the mother of one of my high school best friends went to high school in Springfield, OH with him. In fact, her father worked at the same bank as Jonathan’s dad. She had fond memories of him doing his routines for them at the local pool in the summertime and having them all in stitches. Here are Winters an Williams together on Letterman in ’86, in two parts. Priceless.

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  41. AC said on August 13, 2014 at 1:48 am

    You’re a pro with a finely tuned pretentious meter. Didn’t the line about the encounter with robin Williams at the hole in the wall camp make the whole article seem fake? Iwanted to believe the brilliance of that day of poetry, but the following just make it all seem bs. “For days after I met him I was exhausted; totally depleted.” Really? For days? Just from watching him?

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