Where’s the beef? Sizzling story behind a pop culture moment

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This is one of those great American stories of humble beginnings, soaring stardom and a fall from grace. And fries, of course.

Diminutive Clara Peller was born in Russia in 1902. (Apparently. Age has always been a question.)

She settled in Chicago, where she married, divorced and grew old. When she was wrapping up her 35-year career working in beauty shops, no one would have guessed that she would become a pop-culture icon.

TV producer Joe Sedelmaier discovered Peller while filming a commercial in a barbershop. He needed a manicurist and sent to the nearest beauty shop for one. At his side appeared a crusty, 4-foot-10 gnome. “How ya doin’, honey?” she growled, according to a Los Angeles Times obit.

A star was born.

Sedelmaier cast Clara in a commercial for Wendy’s, which was just beginning to challenge McDonald’s and Burger King. He wanted to show that Wendy’s burgers were bigger. So in the ad, two elderly women are shown looking at oversized hamburger buns at the counter of some unnamed fast-food chain. They discuss how big and fluffy the buns are. Then in comes Peller, who was supposed to bellow, “Where is all the beef?!”

There was one problem. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Peller had emphysema, and she repeatedly ran out of breath before she could get the line out. So the catchphrase was shortened. Peller boomed “Where’s the beef?” before she ran out of air, and TV history was made.

It became a national catchphrase appearing on T-shirts, in jokes – even in the 1984 presidential campaign, when former Vice President Walter Mondale quoted it to mock rival Gary Hart’s lack of substance.

Clara capitalized on her fame by supposedly “finding the beef” in another commercial, for Prego Plus Spaghetti Sauce. And Wendy’s promptly gave her the boot. (You can’t really blame her. But who remembers that Prego commercial?)

She died in 1987.

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