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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following appeared in #234 (5/9/01) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V


Dateline: Defiance, Ohio

Hiding behind the cantaloupes and casabas (to stay out of TV-camera range) at the Chief Supermarket, I'm reminded that television often has a hard time translating literary quality into images - perhaps because it's so imagey to begin with.

Here, for example, comes my partner Terry Ryan racing down the produce aisle with a rusty shopping cart from the 1970s that's been bulked up from the bottom with six-packs of paper towels.

The raised surface on the floor of the cart demonstrates to contemporary viewers how shallow the space for groceries was in the '50s and '60s, especially compared to the super-wheelies of today.

Followed by the laughing, stumbling and good-hearted "CBS Sunday Morning" co-anchor, Martha Teichner, Terry is in the midst of re-enacting a small part of the 10-minute Supermarket Spree her mother won several decades ago.

"Whoa, smoked Virginia hams!" says "Tuff" (her childhood nickname), abruptly braking the cart as Martha nearly slams into her from behind. "My mother would have loved these!" High on adrenalin, she plucks the biggest rump ($35) out of the bin like a basketball and dumps it into the cart with efficient flourish.

"Different sizes! All are legal!" she tells Martha, moving systematically down the aisle with increasing frenzy. "Hot wings! Prawns-in-sauce! Imported mussels!" Wham! Bam! Whomp! Into the cart they go.

Like her mother more than 40 years ago, Terry has mapped out the Chief Supermarket for quick access to the most exotic and expensive items in the store.

As Evelyn Ryan told her family of 10 children, recounted in Chapter 3 of Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less": "If I'm going to get a cartload of free food, I'm not going to waste cart space or time going after on-sale chicken parts and fish sticks." The family ate fish sticks every Friday night, Terry informs us. (You can read the full chapter at www.theprizewinner.com/read.html).

"I want you kids to taste chateaubriand, New York steak, lobster, and anything else you've never tried before," Evelyn adds. "Heck, I want to try them too."

So Tuff is everywhere at once - in Aisle 3 for the Beluga caviar, Aisle 2 for the imported olives, Aisle 5 for the European can--

"Why is that customer lingering so long in the Toblerones?" whispers CBS producer Mary Lou Teel. From our hiding place behind the butterball turkeys, we take a look. Sure enough, word has gotten out at the Chief that a TV camera is in the store, and the inevitable Ubiquitous Customer has found reason to turn up here, there and everywhere.

"Let's move on," says Mary Lou. "I don't want to bother customers." It's one of those great signs of respect that says so much about a TV crew like this. Every single amoeba in the store is aware that CBS is taping something fun and dazzling and national; yet the TV people don't want to interrupt business and try to be - impossible, as the growing crowd reveals - unobtrusive.

"Let's shoot the conversation about the size of the cart," says Mary Lou.

This is the chapter's turning point, where Evelyn, planning her strategy in the store a few days before the Spree, confides in the butcher, Bob Wallen, that the cart will be too shallow for her to fit all the best goods she's mapped out in the store.

"Bob's blue eyes lit up," Terry writes. "He came out from around the counter and measured the sides of the cart with his knife-scarred hands. 'Hey, we can fix that,' he said. 'I can cut some flat slabs of beef and extra-long sides of bacon. See, you can stand them on end all around the inside edge and make the sides taller.'

"Now Mom's eyes lit up. 'That would double the cart's capacity,' she said. 'Bob, you're going straight to heaven.' "

Bob, now in his late 80s, was personally invited by Terry to attend the Chief's benefit autographing only a few weeks ago. CBS Sunday Morning was there, too, interviewing Bob and others at the Chief who had watched Evelyn go through the store like a buzz saw during the real Supermarket Spree.

For a small town like Defiance, both the original Spree and the autographing made the front page of the local newspaper, the Defiance Crescent-News. And now, even with Ubiquitous Customers multiplying like rabbits throughout the store, everybody is cheering for Terry Ryan to make the Supermarket Spree work its magic once again.

What is needed is for Tuff to break into a run, even faster this time, and by now pushing a cart weighing nearly a 100 lbs., from the Belgian artichokes on one end of the store to the bottled tahini (for Northern Ohio, an exotic product) on the other end.

Ideally for such a shot, the camera would be affixed to a dolly that runs on a track alongside the runner's route. But this will take too much time (and another crew) to construct. So the inventive camera operator, Arny Cantu, and sound technician, Steve Azzato, come up with a different solution.

They extract one of the Chief's presently capacious supercarts from the lineup outside the store, and, with Arny climbing inside and sitting cross-legged inside it, the heavy mini-camera balanced on his shoulder, Steve gets set to push it from from behind, his fur-covered microphone dangling from an impossibly lengthy boom.

The two teams line up side by side like Olympic sprinters. "Go!" shouts Mary Lou, much like the Chief's manager yelled "Go!" and clicked on his stopwatch a half century ago.

And they're off, the camera rolling as Terry takes the "corner shoot" a mile a minute and Martha, rounding the bend behind her, spots a delicacy she has personally been searching for for years. "Oh look, Milani Dill Sauce! I haven't seen that for-- "

"We can't stop for that, Martha!" Terry cries, laughing. "The tahini is in Aisle -- "

"Well, Tuff, if you've ever had a Bloody Mary, you'd LOVE this sauce," gasps Martha, rushing after Terry. "You mix up all your ingredients, first, then take just a dash of Milan- "

"Two minutes!" yells Terry's sister Betsy, who at age 4 was hoisted on her brother Bub's shoulders to call out the time for Evelyn and now for authenticity's sake shouts the time within Steve's microphone range.

The shot is taken again and again, sometimes with Martha doing her best to interview Terry on the run (she buys 3 bottles of Milani Dill Sauce in the meantime), sometimes with Arny holding the camera an inch from the floor to get the essential wheels-and-feet sequence.

And as Terry and Martha screech past the Bread & Rolls section, who should look up from the split-top loaves with a brilliant smile directed right at the camera but the Ubiquitous Customer from the Toblerone aisle, having made her own mad dash across the store as well.

It's spirited and fun and sometimes hilarious, but throughout I've worried that all of this is too gimmicky.

Granted, in most things, television, compared to books, seems to capitalize and exploit rather than deepen and investigate. A moving and original story, in this case about a contest-winning mom who saved her family from eviction and starvation, becomes - well, not a parody of itself but an imitated thing, a commented-on thing, a caricature of the original.

At the Chief, however, Mary Lou feels the segment does prove something when she puts all the goods from Terry's sagging cart through the cash register scanner to see how the daughter's haul measures up to the mother's.

"Well, this is quite telling," Martha says, holding the register slip up for the camera to record. "Nearly half a century ago, Evelyn Ryan's Supermarket Spree totaled $411.44, the equivalent of about $3,000 in today's money."

She turns to Terry. "Now today, you and I have spent about three hours going through this supermarket, re-enacting parts of your mother's Spree, so you had a lot more time and a bigger selection to choose from." Terry nods. "And what is your total?"

"It's $675.45," says Tuff, shaking her head. "Not only did I barely top Mom's Spree back then, I didn't come anywhere near the equivalent value of $3,000 today."

"Any idea why?"

"Well, My mother had a gift for winning in a big way," Terry laughs. "But no, I don't really know."

So: Is this as far as television can probe in terms of investigative reporting? See the next installment, "Dr. Evelyn Ryan Speaks," when Terry's Great Adventure resumes.