Skip to comments.An Icon Turns 20 (Cheeseheads!)
Posted on 12/07/2006 12:45:03 PM PST by Diana in Wisconsin
ST. FRANCIS, WI - No one predicted that a strange, wedge-shaped chunk of yellow foam would someday symbolize a state and its way of life.
That includes Ralph Bruno, the 45-year-old guy who invented the Cheesehead, which is in its 20th year of production. Bruno grew up near Milwaukee County's Mitchell Field, and that is where his small Foamation Inc. factory employs about a dozen people, plus temporary help as needed.
It is about one-half the peak workforce of the mid-1990s, when Green Bay Packer fans gave the hats indelible, nationwide exposure in back-to-back Super Bowl years. At that time, Madison retailer Jeffrey Price says at least five State Street stores were selling Cheesehead products "and we all were doing well."
Would Wisconsinites still be known as cheeseheads if the Cheesehead had never been invented? You betcha, says Joe Kapler, curator of a Wisconsin Icons exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in 2002. (The exhibit included the Cheesehead and remains online.)
The term predates the merchandise, notes Kapler, although the lack of Cheesehead hats, ties and earrings "probably would have made the term more of a regional thing," instead of being known coast to coast.
"It makes for good TV," he says.
Ruth Olson attributes the merchandise's staying power to esoteric/exoteric factors: Every group needs a way to establish its own identity and boundaries.
Boundaries "become most apparent when in contact with another group" that poses a threat or rivalry, says Olson, a folklorist at the UW's Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.
Case in point: cheeseheads vs. Flatlanders.
The term "cheesehead" may be an endearing reference today, but back in 1987, it was a snide chide from Flatlanders. Bruno, while upholstering his parents' couch, decided he had enough.
The apprentice pattern maker took a leftover piece of couch cushion foam, cut it into a triangle and began to burn cheese-like holes into it. "It stunk, and my mom told me to finish it outside," he recalls.
Then Bruno painted the wedge yellow, put it in a paper bag and headed to Milwaukee County Stadium for tailgating with a dozen friends. The Brewers were playing the Chicago White Sox that day.
"I put it on my head, and my buddies thought I was an idiot," he says. "But girls came up and asked 'Can I try that on?'"
That changed his friends' attitude.
The attention he and the hat got made Bruno think "maybe there's something to be done here."
As a pattern maker earning $13 an hour, he knew how to take a blueprint and convert it into wood, then a metal casting. Although his work was for heavy industrial equipment, Bruno realized he also could make a mold into which liquid polyurethane foam could be poured.
A Waukesha company worked with him to customize the foam's color and provide a crash course on how the raw materials are put together and used. Bruno modified the mold a half-dozen times before coming up with a shape and hole configuration that satisfied him.
"The path for this wasn't beaten down," he notes, comparing it to the invention of Nerf footballs, another novelty product that had no predecessor.
But before the 1987 baseball season was over, Bruno was taking garbage bags full of Cheeseheads to the stadium's official souvenir vendor. "We'd sell more and more," he says. "Then we started getting press."
Not all was good: Bud Selig, then team owner, spouted that Cheeseheads were unattractive and a nuisance, blocking fans' vision.
Bruno's response was to invent a Cheesehead baseball cap. Then he used up his $7,000 in savings and quit his job. Longtime friend Jeff Figueroa helped develop a product line that today includes a top hat, royal crown, earrings, neckties and cup holders.
"We keep it at around 20-24 items," Bruno says. A Cheesehead clutch purse soon will make it to market. A portable Cheesehead radio, like a Walkman, is one item that never took off.
Price, owner of the House of Wisconsin Cheese at 107 State St., made sure that a Cheesehead wedge hat got into the Madison Sesquicentennial Time Capsule.
"We're the Dairy State, and we'll stay that way," he says. "You can add all the culture that you want, but that fact won't change."
Price typically carries the entire Cheesehead line and likes the idea that Bruno is "taking a joke and turning it into an industry, just to make you laugh."
People think "Cheesehead" to pay off a bet, gloat over a win, remind another about Wisconsin roots. "Customers say it's for somebody else - I get that all the time," Price says.
Bob Teske, executive director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, says the merchandise demonstrates "the comfort level that people in Wisconsin have to poke fun at themselves - there's no pretense here."
He's not sure if there's a Cheesehead in the society's archives.
Folklorist Olson says "outsiders buy them as a symbol of what Wisconsin is" and speculates that non-residents of the state support sales the most.
Bruno won't go that far, but he acknowledges that "much of our stuff is not bought by the end user."
Yah, hey. He can produce pictures of Cheeseheads worn by scantily clad people in front of grass huts, at the North and South poles, in Uganda to educate people about dairy products.
Bruno still considers himself "a risk taker who doesn't want to do what everybody else is doing," but his actions are tempered because today he's the father of three children and a homeowner.
"It was blind faith," he says of himself, in the 1980s. "I see it in other people, in other businesses."
He considers himself proof that "there are many ways to be successful in life without attending college." His property holding company owns the building that Foamation shares with four other enterprises, cabinet making to welding.
Bruno thinks business incubation space is important and should be more commonplace.
"What's different about (Foamation) is that we're a retailer, a wholesaler and a manufacturer," he notes.
He recalls seeking a $5,000 loan, to buy equipment to make Cheesehead production more efficient. "It was hard to get taken seriously," so he used a credit card to make the purchase at 18 percent interest.
Although Cheesehead production has leveled, he says other work orders can step up the pace in a flash. Huskerheads, corn-shaped chapeaus for bowl-bound Nebraska fans, are the hot item this month.
Another job was flat, chip-shaped hats for the 2002 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix. Emerging in Buffalo is a hat that looks like a hot wing. "It works there," says Bruno. "The guy is developing his fan base."
Much depends upon the intended population's willingness to let loose. A prototype of a Texas Star hat, requested in Dallas, did not fare well. Why would it, Bruno asks, noting the furs and 10-gallon hats of the city's culture.
One of Foamation's most remarkable moments was when fan Frank Emmert of Superior had a close brush with death in 1995. Emmert, a pilot, insisted that a Cheesehead hat saved him from head injuries as his light plane crashed during his way home from a Packer game.
Jay Leno made Emmert a "Tonight Show" guest. NFL Films produced a 30-second story, broadcast nationally.
And the low point? Going through expensive trademark battles in the 1990s marked "the deflation of the dream," Bruno says. He shrugs.
"People think we're as big as GM sometimes," he says, incredulous.
"Cheeseheads & Friends" Ping!
A Cheesehead clutch purse--excellent! They'll have to make high heels to match. Lol.
Why wear one Cheesehead when you can wear four!
They wear them up at "Lambert" stadium, don't they?
I went to a Packers preseason game in August and they had a cheesehead bikini top. It was hilarious.
LOL! That man is SUCH a dork. He came waaaaaaaaay to close to being our President! *SHIVER*
Could you see his lush of a wife stumbling around the White House with a crystal glass in her hand, breaking all the artifacts? At least The Beast had the forethought to STEAL a good chunk of them when she left. *Rolleyes*
And I forgot to send a birthday card!