Mrs. Burke I thought you were Dale

It became a catchphrase for a generation. We fade in on an underwater scene where a young man is chasing after a bathing beauty. When they surface, he’s shocked and embarrassed. “Mrs. Burke I thought you were Dale!

Caroline and Dale Burke were picked from 100 auditioning couples to talk about how Grape Nuts cereal keeps you looking so young, people will find it hard to tell mother and daughter apart.

“The day of our scheduled interview my daughter, Dale, and I dressed alike, clear down to our shoes, earrings, and wrist-watches,” Caroline Burke wrote in 2003. “By the time Mrs. Salter, the agency representative, left, we were pretty sure we had at least a chance to compete for this commercial. Lots of interviews and questionnaires and photo sessions later, we were told that we were among the top ten teams. They would call in two weeks. One day my son, Adam, who was six years old at the time, came dashing out into the backyard to where I was working in the garden. ‘Mom!!’ he shouted. ‘Phone! It’s New York!!’ It was three-fifteen in the afternoon. I don’t remember the date. ‘Caroline?’ a voice from New York asked. ‘Yes!’ I said. It was Paul McDonough, the Producer. ‘Congratulations!’ he said. ‘You won!'”

Dale Burke Pyeatt in 2018

“Making our commercial was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work,” Dale Burke Pyeatt remembered. “My poor mother had bruises from being hoisted out of the water so many times!! You cannot believe how many times she had to do a scene over again because the line ‘Oh, no…Mrs. Burke… I thought were Dale,’ didn’t come out right. Eventually the producer decided it would be best to do a voice-over after the scene was filmed. Everyone involved in making the commercial was wonderful to us.”

Adam Burke was a seven year old extra. “I was an impressionable kid, anyway, but the lights, the camera, and the on-set action for the filming were enchanting. Then, over the ensuing two years, the almost nightly family assemblies in front of the living room TV set, watching ourselves in the commercial, made the impression indelible. This was during a time when reports of landing on the moon and the action in Vietnam were standard TV fare. All of this really affected me, and echoes of this era continue to have an influence in my life.”

Dennis Sherwood played the befuddled young man who uttered the now-famous line. “I was rodeoing for ASU and working at a gas station at the time I landed the spot with the Burke girls… I got an agent and did a bit of other stuff before flying jets in the Marine Corps, but before that I had some pictures taken for a portfolio and my agent lined me up with a struggling young actor who was doing photography on the side. I spent several days with him, met his family and had a great time doing the shoot. His name….Nick Nolte.”

Caroline Burke with Copywriter Vida Pernick

“Mrs. Burke I Thought You Were Dale,” ran from July, 1968, through 1970. It became a phenomenon. Vida Pernick, now 85, wrote the copy. “We did a skiing mistaken-identity that was filmed in Lake Tahoe, and a horseback riding sequence filmed in the desert outside of Phoenix. All the participants were delightful to work with and were really such look-alikes, that it was hard to select the best of the lot. It was a most enjoyable time, filming the Burke family. A very attractive, personable and very-real mother/daughter subject.”

The notion of a mother and daughter pitching together on television wasn’t new in 1968. As early as 1963, Elma and Francene Hatch played accordions to demonstrate how soft Ivory Soap made their hands (Video).

On the flip side, is the famous Anacin “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!” commercial. (Video). Professional actresses played it straight, but the line couldn’t help becoming a comedic cliche. “Mother Please” spawned a novelty record of the same title by Joanne Campbell. It made it to #88 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. (Video)

From MAD Magazine – Dec. 1970

There were numerous take-offs on the Burke’s commercial. MAD Magazine referenced it in “A MAD Peek Behind the Scenes at an Ad Agency”. Two racy cartoons appeared in 1971 editions of Playboy Magazine. Kentucky Fried Movie’s famous “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” segment from 1977 features Actress Gwen Van Dam as “Mrs. Burke”. There were sketches on Saturday Night Live, Laugh-In, The Tonight Show and The Carol Burnett Show. As late as 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured a Mistaken Memories riff with the line, “Oh no, Mrs. Burke! I thought you… were a soap commercial! ” The confusion generated in MST3K chat rooms motivated the Burkes to come again above the radar to set the story straight.

The 1968 Grape Nuts commercial was the beginning and end of the Burke Family’s two years of fame. None entered show business. But such was the enduring appeal of the ad that Adam Burke created a website to aggregate the many references and allow both family members and fans to comment on how one commercial impacted many lives.

The brand’s next memorable campaign featured outdoors-man, Euell Gibbons, promoting Grape-Nuts as the “Back to Nature Cereal”. His line “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible” became fodder for a slew of stand up comics. But that one didn’t have the pop culture staying power of Caroline and Dale Burke’s slice of advertising artistry.

At some point, many of the moms who watched “Mrs. Burke I Thought You Were Dale,” may have shared humorist Erma Bombeck’s thoughts. “In my mind, I always dreamed of the day I would have teen-agers. Young boys would pinch me in the swimming pool and exclaim, ‘Gee ma’am, I’m sorry. I thought you were your sensuous daughter, Dale.’” From Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own! by Erma Bombeck and Bil Keane.

Today in History:

1783: The American Revolutionary War Ends
1887: Pearl Harbor obtained by US from Hawaii for use as a naval base
1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt sworn-in for an unprecedented (and never to be repeated) 4th term as US President.
1953: Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the 1st live US coast-to-coast inauguration address.
1964: Meet The Beatles album released in US
1965: American disc-jockey Alan Freed died from uraemia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism at the age of 42.
1971: Marvin Gaye releases ‘What’s Goin’ On’.
1981: Iran hostages are freed after 444 days
1982: Ozzy Osbourne bites the head off a bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa.
1988: The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney is absent, stating that continuing business differences with his former mates was the reason.
1994: British comedy ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ written by Richard Curtis, starring Hugh Grant premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.
1997: Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker dies of a stroke at 87.
2012: Singer Etta James dies at age 73.

Today’s Birthdays:

1888: Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. d.1949
1896: George Burns d.1996
1903; Leon Ames d.1993
1912: Detroit Tiger Owner Walter Briggs, Jr. d.1970
1920: Federico Fellini d.1993
1920: DeForest Kelly d.1999
1922: Band Leader Ray Anthony
1923: Slim Whitman d.2013
1926: Patricia Neal d.2010
1930: Astronaut Edwin E (Buzz) Aldrin Jr.
1933: Ron Townson of the 5th Dimension. d.2001
1942: The OJays William Powell. d.1977
1952: Paul Stanley (KISS)
1956: Bill Maher
1958: Lorenzo Lamas
1966: Rainn Wilson of the Office.
1969: Melissa Rivers

Here’s the original Grape Nuts commercial, as it was first aired in the summer of 1968. (Video)

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit