Finding Grandpa's Commercial
Finding Grandpa's Commercial

I couldn't tell you exactly when I first heard about Grandpa Great's White Castle commercial. It's been probably two decades since it was first brought to my attention that such a thing existed and that it had been recorded on a VHS tape located somewhere in my grandparent's split-level home in northeastern Ohio. For years, I searched for it to no avail. Throughout the house and other buildings on the property, I rooted through boxes and baskets in search of a blank tape that may or may not be labeled with the footage I was looking for. Finally after years of hunting, I found it and so much more.

My great-grandfather Henry F. Davidson was around 90 years old in 1994, the year he passed away. I was only a year and a half old at the time, but grew up enjoying the poetry and nickname he left behind for me, "Smiling Jacob." I know that Grandpa Great enjoyed writing letters and sealing them with the stickers he saved from banana peels. I know that he was a farmer and a school teacher. He had a fondness for covered bridges. He was an extraordinarily active man well into his later years, a trait he has passed along to my grandmother Ruth.

The tape I sought was found inside of a cabinet on which a vintage tube-TV sat. This wood-paneled beauty is where I played an NES Mario title for the first time. Among a mess mix of '80s aerobic tapes and children's movies were probably a dozen blanks of various makes and ages. Many of these did not have labels indicating what, if anything, was on them. One of the few that did listed in pen two 1986 features recorded from HBO, Haunted Honeymoon directed by and staring Gene Wilder and The Karate Kid Part II. Scrawled faintly in pencil just above these titles, however, were the words "grandpa's commercial." Eureka! [1]

Back at home, I have a Toshiba SD-V295 Tunerless DVD/VCR Combo Player hooked up to my iMac with a cheap video capture card I picked up on Amazon.[2] Using QuickTime, I've been digitizing home movies from my childhood, which I then put on my Plex media server. This allows members of my family to stream them on demand from wherever they are. I've made this preservation task a priority over recent months as VHS tapes degrade over time. Some of the ones I've attended to have sadly already begun losing their color.

Luckily, the tape with grandpa's commercial was kept in a cool dark area, which helped preserve its quality over the intervening 30+ years. After popping it in, I found a number of fun commercials that ran in the Columbus market during a showing of Starman. Included are ads from Oreo[3], Long John Silver's (featuring the late Fred Willard), Heart of the City with an early-career Christina Applegate, Spenser: For Hire, Dial One, Spirit of Ohio! (WTVN-TV 6), The Terrace Hilton, 610 WTVN Radio and, of course, two captures of the White Castle ad I was looking for. I've uploaded both commercial blocks in full here.

I don't know what I was expecting from the commercial. I suppose after building up in my head all my life, I expected he would have had a line. Still, this was the only moving photography I had found of him. That was until I spoke to my grandmother more about how his part in the advertisement came about.[4]

Headquartered in Columbus, OH, White Castle recruited Henry and others of his age bracket via an acting company he belonged to called Grandparents Living Theatre, organized in 1984 by Dr. Joy H. Reilly, a professor at the Ohio State University. The group was encouraged to write and share stories about their lives, which were adapted into staged readings and performances.

After scanning what little footage of the group has been archived on YouTube by SRO Theatre Company, I found a short segment of Henry reading a passage during one of the company's performances. Based on our genetically shared cadence for rhyme, I believe this is one he wrote himself. After sharing this with his daughter, she remembered that there were also performances about either sugar or molasses cookies and the loneliness he experienced coming home to an empty house after his wife Catherine S. (Myers) Davidson passed away in 1977.

It means so much that this footage exists. Sharing this with Henry's two remaining children, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren has made me a bit emotional today. My earliest memory is of this man kindly looking back at me as I peered through the seats on a plane ride to California. He gave me some of his pretzels. I spent years of my life trying emulate a man I didn't properly know through his writing and relayed kindness. I'm very grateful to see him move and speak again.

I've reached out to SRO in the hopes of tracking down any more information the company might have on Henry. I'll be sending along the commercial for their archives as well. If you're reading this and have any video of Grandparents Living Theatre on tape that you would like to see digitized, get in touch. I'd be more than happy to help in any way I can.

  1. I'm sure I'd looked at the labels on this same tape in the past, but simply missed the pencil markings. ↩︎

  2. You don't need anything fancy for this. You'll get 576p at best from VHS tapes. ↩︎

  3. You know the jingle. ↩︎

  4. Fun production fact: He was given a new burger every time they reshot the take. That presumably means there were a few unused bite shots. Grandma says he only got a single bite of each, but these are sliders so that's a good chunk of each sandwich. ↩︎