For David Reese, Mr. Peanut is practically part of the family.
Reese worked for Planters Peanuts in Wilkes-Barre and its successors for decades. He and daughter Cheryl both collect Planters memorabilia, especially anything having to do with the famed peanut mascot with his signature top hat, monocle and cane.
So they were shocked and saddened last week to learn that Planters had decided to kill off the 104-year-old character who has been part of their lives for decades.
“I’m really disappointed with what happened to Mr. Peanut, given the fact that I worked for him for 30 years,” said Reese, who ended his career as a senior manager for facilities and administration.
“I couldn’t believe they did that, but hopefully it’s just an advertising gimmick,” Cheryl Reese added, noting that she has received messages of condolences from friends and family because of how avidly she has collected Mr. Peanut items over the years.
Planters has said a funeral for Mr. Peanut will be broadcast during the Super Bowl next Sunday, after the character crashed his NUTmobile off a cliff when he swerved to avoid an armadillo, a violent ending which the brand publicized in a video released last week.
David Reese is optimistic that this is not, in fact, the end.
“Of course, knowing marketing people the way I do, they come off with weird ideas,” the Nanticoke resident said.
“My take on it is this: When you drop a peanut off the second floor roof, it doesn’t break,” he said. It floats down, because the density is such that it’s not that heavy, and the outer shell protects it anyway.”
“I have a feeling that he’s going to be able to bounce back,” he added with a smile.
Either way, Mr. Peanut will live on through the Reese family.
Cheryl’s Planters collection fills an entire room — and then some — including everything and anything related to the mascot, from vintage packaging and advertisements to cups, salt and pepper shakers, matches, lapel pins, ties, posters, model railroad cars and more.
It also includes one of the distinctive Mr. Peanut costumes that once were a familiar sight here in Wilkes-Barre and outside Planters’ retail stores around the country.
For David Reese, Mr. Peanut’s “demise” also offered a chance to talk about his time with the company, and its presence here in the Wyoming Valley.
Reese, a Plymouth native, started working at Planters’ former South Main Street offices in Wilkes-Barre in 1959, when he was 24.
“I had come out of the Navy and had another job that didn’t pan out and I started working at Planters,” Reese said. “And I met a bunch of guys who were vets from World War II. I was a rookie kid. I didn’t say much at first but I listened.”
By listening he learned a lot about the company and its history.
Planters Nut and Chocolate Co. was founded in Wilkes-Barre in 1906 by an Italian immigrant named Amadeo Obici and his future brother-in-law, Mario Peruzzi.
There was some manufacturing in Wilkes-Barre in the early years, but Reese noted that the South Main Street site was not a manufacturing facility, as some previous media reports had stated. Planters had other sites in the city that had been used for that purpose, he said. The only thing Reese ever knew to be manufactured there was carmel-covered popcorn for the retail stores, which was made in a stainless-steel room in the basement.
While Obici soon opened a processing plant in Suffolk, Virginia in the early 1900s, the corporate headquarters remained here for decades.
Reese also saw big changes before too many years had passed in his career: The company was acquired by Standard Brands in the early 1960s.
“There were 160 people at the South Main Street address. There were marketing people there, advertising. The company sent them down to Madison Avenue in New York, along with data processing. The 160 people that I started with was now down to about 40 to 45 guys,” Reese said.
He wasn’t sure what would come next, but he held on.
“I had only been with the company for a couple years, and figured I would stick around and maybe get a couple weeks severance pay if it came to that,” Reese said.
As it turned out, Standard Brands would find reasons to re-invest in Wilkes-Barre.
A stabbing incident at one of the New York facilities, combined with increasing mechanization of data processing, caused the company to look at how many properties it needed and where they should be, he recalled.
Reese was involved in transitioning work done around the country to the South Main Street offices, where staff he supervised were turning out more work than any other office in the U.S., and typically for less.
“You could hire clerical people in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a heck a lot cheaper than you could in New York City,” Reese said.
He would come to wear many hats.
“I worked in virtually every department in the building except cost accounting and payroll. When I was in the Navy I was the paymaster on a destroyer. I knew payroll but they never put me there,” he joked.
“I ended up being the facilities manager, running the mailroom, running what we called grocery accounting — processing of orders — with an IBM computer that filled a room the size of this, but you have more power on your desktop than that whole computer did.”
So between 1964 and 1970, more jobs were created at the facility, and part of its warehouse was remodeled for office space, he added.
“We were growing so fast,” Reese said. “By 1980 we were bulging at the seems. We just didn’t have enough room there.”
His superiors — by then the company was part of Nabisco — tasked him with finding room to grow within the region.
“They pulled me off of all my jobs in 1984 and said, quietly, go find us a spot,” Reese recalled.
There was space in a former junkyard adjacent to the South Main property, but the soil was too contaminated, he said. And Scranton was lobbying hard, but a proposed site on the north side of the city was more than 25 miles away and would have required paying relocation expenses to employees.
The solution was much closer to home, in Hanover Township, where the new Nabisco building — now part of Mondelez International — was built.
“That was my project. We started putting footers in March 11, 1985 and had the dedication Dec. 11,” Reese said. “We didn’t miss a deadline and we moved all of these departments without losing a phone call or a data transmission or anything.
Operations at South Main Street were phased out around 1990, said Reese, adding that he is sad to see the state of the building today. The warehouse is gone, with only the two-story administrative building remaining, albeit in a forlorn state. Preservation groups have called for its restoration and re-use.
Change was coming for Reese, however.
“I went through a number of mergers from Planters to Standard Brands to Nabisco to KKR, which was Kohlberg Kravis Roberts,” he said.
The investment firm “didn’t want the high-priced managers and directors around,” as Reese recalled it. So in 1989 he retired.
“They offered me a retirement package at 53 that I couldn’t turn down, so I became a professional golf bum,” he said with a chuckle.
Nevertheless, he remembers his time with Planters very fondly.
“I loved every minute of the day when I was at work,” Reese said.
One of those fond memories has to do with Mr. Peanut himself. Among Reese’s many jobs was running the premium department, which was in charge of branded items.
“You sent in product labels — send two in and 50 cents and you get a Mr. Peanut cup or bank,” he said. “I started to buy them for my children and bring them home.”
The collections put together by himself and Cheryl go way beyond, however, including one of the famous iron statues once displayed on the South Main Street building.
David Reese sat around the table at his Nanticoke home displaying a Planters nut tin from the 1910s, from which small retailers would dole out peanuts with a little scoop, selling them in glassine bags for a nickel a piece.
Reese also pointed out that the popular Planter retail stores with which the costumed mascots were associated were separate from the manufacturing operations.
“There were two companies: The Planters Nut and Chocolate Co., and National Peanut Co. They were responsible for the running of the retail stores as far west as San Francisco,” Reese said. “When Standard Brands bought the company they did not want to be in the retail sales business. They sold them or auctioned them off.”
That initially worked well, because “most of the buyers were the managers and people who ran the stores in the first place,” Reese added. “The controller of the company bought six of them up in New England, and he became a multi-millionaire.”
The original store was on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, around the corner from what is now the F.M. Kirby Center, he added, while was another in the West Side Mall in Edwardsville.
It was outside those stores that many Americans saw Mr. Peanut for the first times, including here on Public Square.
Reese was quick to point out that the costumed Mr. Peanut characters did not walk the streets handing out peanuts, as a previous news story maintained.
“He had no pockets, a big mask, and a cane in one hand,” Reese said.
Mr. Peanut did, however, sometimes hand out small lapel pins, he added.