Mr. Peanut was born in 1916, when Virginia schoolboy Antonio Gentile won $5 for his winning sketch of a peanut with a face, arms, and legs in a nationwide contest sponsored by the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company.
Despite its assumed association with Southern farmers, Planters had been founded a decade earlier by an Italian immigrant, Amedeo Obici, who had once peddled roasted nuts from his uncle’s fruit stand in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and later at his own stand on the streets of nearby Wilkes-Barre.
Mr. Peanut first appeared in Atlantic City in the 1930s, in a shop notable for its peanut decor, though it eventually had to close after rats infested the place. The dapper gentleman in white gloves, spats, top hat, and monocle soon reappeared on the Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, today the site of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel. “They moved it to Steel Pier to take advantage of the crowds,” says city historian Allen “Boo” Pergament. “You put something on the Boardwalk, you could be sure it would be seen by millions of people. All kinds of companies had stores on the Boardwalk. There was General Electric, Lucky Strike, Underwood Typewriter. H. J. Heinz had an entire pier.”
A retired South Jersey Gas Company executive, Pergament was in elementary school the first time he saw Mr. Peanut. “Mr. Peanut was like the diving horse. He was something you had to see in Atlantic City,” Pergament says. “If you were lucky, you’d get your picture taken with him. You’d want him to talk, but he wouldn’t say a thing. And then you’d smell those roasting nuts coming out of the store, and you just had to have a bag.”
Planters once operated nearly 200 retail shops, but the company started closing them in the 1960s. Even after the Virginia Avenue store closed in 1978, Mr. Peanut could still be seen out on the Boardwalk posing for photos. “There were still some Mr. Peanut costumes floating around,” says Robert Ruffolo, chairman of the Atlantic City Historical Museum. Ruffolo owns one such costume, and another is on display at the museum, on Garden Pier, a few blocks north of where Mr. Peanut once greeted passersby.
The museum is a destination for members of the Associated Collectors of Planters Peanut and Mr. Peanut Memorabilia, a.k.a. the Peanut Pals, who, since 1978, have kept track of the mugs, drinking glasses, jars, cans, advertisements, costumes, and other Mr. Peanut paraphernalia still in existence. In recognition of Planters’ 100th anniversary, this year’s Atlantique City antique show, held at the convention center in March, was dedicated to Mr. Peanut memorabilia. Among the attendees was current Peanut Pals president Anthony Scola, a Philadelphia radiologist who owns a beach home in Margate and who, with his wife, Lenore, put together the collections on display.
On July 13, Planters representatives will dedicate a Mr. Peanut statue at Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk. He’ll be seated on a bench, where people will be able to sit beside him and pose for pictures.Click here to leave a comment