40 Years Later We Are Still Asking, “Where’s The Beef?”
Where else but in America could an unknown octogenarian become an advertising icon for an international burger chain?
Yet such was the fate of Clara Swerdlove Peller. Born in Russia, Clara followed her parents to the United States at age 5. She spent the majority of her adult life in Chicago. By the time she was 28 she was a divorced mother of two, who supported herself for decades as a manicurist and beautician. Living in the Belmont Hotel on Chicago’s North Side, fate tapped her shoulder in the form of Joe Sedelmaier, who happened to be producing a TV commercial at a nearby barbershop. Somehow no one had thought to hire a manicurist for the shot, and an assistant was dispatched to find one.
Enter Clara, who instantly charmed Sedelmaier with “that great smile, that look in her eye, and that unbelievable voice saying, ‘How ya doin’, honey?’”
“I used her whenever I could after that,” he noted later. But it was his and writer Cliff Freeman’s 1984 spot for Wendy’s — featuring the diminutive (4’10”) Clara and two gal pals dubiously eyeing a very large, “fluffy” hamburger bun adorned with a very small meat patty — that cemented her place in advertising history.
“Where’s the beef?” Clara barked to a seemingly nonexistent restaurant staff. A catchphrase — and a star — was born.
While most viewers never knew that Clara’s soon-to-be-iconic demand had been shortened due to her emphysema, or that her hearing loss required a technician to tug her skirt at the appropriate moment, that hardly mattered when “Where’s the beef?” was being echoed (and merchandised) all around the country, perhaps most notably by Walter Mondale in his 1984 presidential campaign. Clara even repeated it on a 45 record of the same name, composed and performed by popular Nashville radio DJ Coyote McCloud.
But when she proudly proclaimed that she’d at last found what she was looking for, in a commercial for Prego Plus spaghetti sauce, her other employer was understandably not amused, declaring that “Clara can find the beef only in one place, and that is Wendy’s.”
The loss of her gig didn’t mean the end of her fame, however. Clara went on to make several TV and other media appearances before her death from congestive heart failure in 1987, and in 2010, her daughter, Marlene Necheles, published Clara Peller: An American Icon.