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How did Rainier beer become legendary? Three Tacoma filmmakers tell the tale

caption: "Rainier: A Beer Odyssey" makers (left to right) Justin Peterson, Rob Peterson and director Isaac Olsen pose with the iconic Beer with legs props from vintage Rainier ads. The trio of Tacomans digitized hundreds of reels of Rainier Beer advertising and behind the scenes footage in collaboration with the Washington State Historical Society.
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"Rainier: A Beer Odyssey" makers (left to right) Justin Peterson, Rob Peterson and director Isaac Olsen pose with the iconic Beer with legs props from vintage Rainier ads. The trio of Tacomans digitized hundreds of reels of Rainier Beer advertising and behind the scenes footage in collaboration with the Washington State Historical Society.
Doug Mackey

Rob and Justin Peterson had a problem.

The brothers run three bars in Tacoma, including one named 1111. It's billed as "your favorite local dive bar." In a city where space is money, one part of the bar wasn't being used.

"It's kind of by the kitchen, where the servers pass by. And nobody in the bar wanted to sit back there," Rob said.

Justin had an idea. The brothers had a collection of beer memorabilia, specifically Rainier Beer. So they built a cabinet and filled it with Rainier swag.

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One day a customer brought in an old DVD of Rainier commercials from the '70s and '80s. The brothers put a TV in the center of the cabinet and played the ads on a loop.

"Now it’s like the most popular place to sit in the bar," Rob said.

caption: A still from a Rainier Beer television advertisement.
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A still from a Rainier Beer television advertisement.
Gary Payne, cinematographer

That’s the draw of Rainier beer in the Pacific Northwest — not just the drink, the brand. It's iconic. A lot of that has to do with those advertisements.

The ads are the subject of a documentary premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival May 13: "Rainier: A Beer Odyssey."

The Peterson brothers co-produced the film. It's directed by Tacoma-based filmmaker Isaac Olsen, a friend of theirs.

The documentary tells the story of Rainier's iconic advertising campaign and the way the brand was shaped by Seattle of the '70s, and shaped the city in return.

Re-discovering history

The documentary started as a simple task: Copying that DVD of advertisements. The Petersons had no idea where it came from or where to get another one, so they asked Olsen to make them a back-up disc.

"I sat down and watched all 120 of them, and they look horrible," Olsen said. "But the spirit of them shines through, and you say, 'These things are incredible.'"

He got to thinking: Maybe there’s better quality versions of these ads out there. Maybe he could do better than just copy a DVD.

"People are so into these ads and still love them so much, and yet, there's so little for them to love," Olsen said. "Someone who's a fan of something always deserves more."

Olsen and the brothers contacted the current owners of Rainier Beer (Pabst, also the makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon) but no dice. They had no idea where all that footage ended up.

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"Which is not surprising," Olsen said. "Commercials are among the most endangered species of the film content."

Commercials are among the most endangered species of the film content Isaac Olsen
Nathan Blanchard

Olsen put the search on the back burner and focused on other projects. Then, he says, the Movie Gods intervened.

Unrelated to his search for the Rainier ads, Olsen started volunteering with the Washington State Historical Society. The organization runs the state History Museum in Tacoma and also has a research center in the city that's home to countless artifacts, documents, and other pieces of local history.

Olsen was working with Ed Nolan, an archivist in the research center's Special Collections department. One day the two were chatting and Nolan asked him: "What's next?"

Isaac told him about the Rainier Beer ads and his quest to find the originals. It turns out Nolan was exactly the man he needed to know.

Saving Washington history

In 1999, when Rainier was sold to Pabst, the company decided to consolidate its brewing and closed the Rainier brewery in Seattle. It had been in operation for 121 years and much of its holdings needed to be sold or trashed as it was closing.

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A Rainier employee called up the Washington State Historical Society and asked them to look at the materials in the brewery before it was all tossed.

Nolan and other archivists found boxes of documents, old posters, one giant painting of the mountain, and lots of beer steins. They started setting things aside to save in their archive.

"I was given free rein to go everywhere in all the warehouses and store rooms," Nolan told Olsen and the Peterson brothers in an interview in 2021.

He went into one of the brewery's outbuildings, "and there were pallets and pallets and pallets of film and tape."

caption: 648 reels of film and video tape were saved by the Washington State Historical Society after the Rainier brewery was closed in 1999.
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648 reels of film and video tape were saved by the Washington State Historical Society after the Rainier brewery was closed in 1999.
Nathan Blanchard

Nolan counted between eight and 10 pallets, similar to ones you'd see in a warehouse. They were stacked five feet high with boxes of footage. Most of the film wasn’t labeled clearly, but Nolan grew up in the Northwest and he knew the Rainier ads. He had a good hunch this footage was worth saving.

The historical society couldn't take everything in that outbuilding. In all, Nolan managed to add 648 reels of film and tape to its collection. He’s not sure what happened to the rest. It was likely tossed out.

The Historical Society didn’t have the technology or resources to scan the analog footage into a computer, or even to catalog it. That's not an unusual situation for a large archive.

"Essentially then, it's been in my storage area for 22 years, waiting for somebody to discover it," Nolan said. "I just knew it was too good, too important, to all go to the dump. At least we saved some remnants of it."

caption: Director Isaac Olsen views archived 35mm film using a light box.
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Director Isaac Olsen views archived 35mm film using a light box.
Nathan Blanchard

Reviving the originals

Enter Isaac Olsen and the Peterson brothers. They visited the Historical Society and saw the footage in person, stacks and stacks of metal film cans.

Some were labeled "frogs commercial" or "motorcycle commercial." Many had the name "Mickey Rooney" on the side — the prolific actor was also a Rainier spokesperson during a slow period of his career.

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"I thought best possible case, maybe we'd find a decent master reel of every ad. I thought that's the most we could ever expect. But this, this was everything. This was raw outtakes, workprints, negatives, sound reels — the building blocks of every ad, in no particular order," Olsen said.

The three filmmakers worked out a contract with the Historical Society —they would pay to digitize the film, and in return they could use it in a documentary. The three friends raised $87,000 through a crowd-funding campaign to digitize the footage. The museum would then get all the digital files and make them available to anyone.

caption: Behind the scenes on a Rainier Beer advertisement shoot.
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Behind the scenes on a Rainier Beer advertisement shoot.
Frank Denman

At first, Olsen thought they could make a short art film. He imagined something in the style of a nature documentary, but with Rainier beer bottles instead of gazelle and lions.

Then he started watching the film with a special projector. It revealed the Rainier bottles with legs —not just running through the forest, but lifting the costumes off to reveal college kids paid a few bucks for a day’s work.

There were the iconic frogs, and the local sound engineers that orchestrated the chorus. Again and again, the film showed the faces of the people that made these iconic advertisements.

The man behind the curtain

As the film crew started digging into the advertisements' history, they soon heard the name Heckler Bowker. It was a small advertising agency founded in Seattle in the early 1970s.

Its co-founders were Terry Heckler and Gordon Bowker. Terry was focused on his advertising and branding work, but Bowker had a few projects going on. One of them was a little startup coffee company. Terry designed the logo: A mermaid with long waves of hair.

Heckler Bowker started making Rainier advertisements in 1974 and quickly became a local legend. Kathy Cain joined the company as a writer four years later.

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"Instead of trying to tell you that Rainier beer was any different from any other popular inexpensive beer, they just decided to make you like it and feel good about the brand," Caine said. "Instead of talking about hops and beers and all that nonsense, they were entertaining people."

caption: A storyboard for the first Rainier beer TV advertisement produced by Heckler Bowker in 1974.
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A storyboard for the first Rainier beer TV advertisement produced by Heckler Bowker in 1974.
Terry Hecklery, courtesy of Isaac Owens

Olsen and the Petersen brothers started putting names to faces they saw in the archived film. They interviewed many of the writers, producers, sound engineers, and directors who worked on the Rainier ads, including Heckler, who isn't fond of the spotlight.

What they found was a window into a Seattle of a different time.

"I think it was kind of a little bit of a mini-recession. People in my business were kind of worried about finding work," Caine said.

This was just a few years after the Boeing bust. The planemaker laid off 60,000 between 1970 and 1971. Unemployment in Seattle hit 12%.

But at the same time, Seattle’s art scene was taking off.

"There was a very thriving artistic community in and around Pioneer Square. It was just a wonderfully oddball quiet little secret of a town," Caine said.

caption: This behind-the-scenes photo from a Rainier advertising shoot captures prolific actor Mickey Rooney during his time as a spokesperson for the beer.
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This behind-the-scenes photo from a Rainier advertising shoot captures prolific actor Mickey Rooney during his time as a spokesperson for the beer.
Frank Denman

That quiet artistic community is where many of the people behind the Rainier ads got their start. Bowker left the firm to focus on Starbucks, and it became Heckler Associates: A tight-knit group of creatives who worked on brands from Jansport to Cinnabon.

But the group's most enduring work is undoubtedly the Rainier ads. The firm made hundreds in the '70s and '80s, parodying popular films, Saturday Nigh Live sketches, and more.

Rainier's enduring legacy

It all came to a sudden end in 1987. Rainier was bought out by Australian businessman Alan Bond. (SIFF's write up of the documentary calls him "the Rupert Murdoch of brewing.")

Bond ended the company's work with Heckler Associates, and Seattle moved into the 1990s, a decade of change. Grunge put the city in the center of music and youth culture. Microsoft made a name for itself in Redmond. Starbucks became a giant.

Rainier faded into the background, but it never disappeared.

"I continue to be astonished that the images in the iconography and the beer, the whole phenomenon, is still extremely popular, and young people attach themselves to it and think it's cool," Caine said.

"Rainier: A Beer Odyssey" closes with footage of a celebration in 2012.

It was the day the giant, light-up Rainer "R" — removed in 1999 — was returned to the top of the historic brewery.

Seattleites show off their Rainier tattoos — R’s circling belly buttons, bottles running up people’s arms and legs.

You could see it as a celebration of what Seattle has lost. But in many ways, it’s also a celebration of what the city has held on to.

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