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Phantom of the Opry

Trying to get to the bottom of the Dr Pepper "Freaky Old Guy" mystery

If you have more than a passing fancy for college football, it's likely you are all too familiar with that wretched two-year-old Garth Brooks Dr Pepper commercial. It's not the one where the "retired" Garth sweetly serenades his daughters to sleep to Nickel Creek's backing; it's the one where His Garthness is jamming on the front steps of a dry goods store in some cornpone town with a ridiculously multiethnic assortment of ecstatic musicians and dancers basking in his reflected glory.

At first, you focus on the maniacally smiling Garth, whose thousand-watt grin is as overstated as it is unconvincing. Next, the slightly demented-looking African-American harmonica "player" in the Huggy Bear cap and powder-blue leisure suit catches your attention. But this football season, Racket noticed something alarming, something dreadful, something horrifying in the lower right corner of the band shots: the "old" guy in the orange-red escaped mental patient jumpsuit.

He has a ghostly pallor, and long gray hair around the fringes of his mostly bald dome. He wears Michael-Douglas-in-Falling Down glasses. All told, he looks a little like Albert Einstein would if you dug him up and ran an electric current through him Frankenstein-style.

As if his getup weren't weird enough, he is apparently playing some kind of percussive instrument -- spoons, likely -- in a flailing and thrashing manner that looks to have no relation whatsoever to the extremely irritating "Be You, Be What You Do" ditty. This man is clearly dancing to the rhythm of the long dark night of the soul, not the jingle, and looks like the kind of guy you'd expect to say, "I could have got away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids."

Once you see this ogre, your mind strays far from Garth, far from Dr Pepper, far from anything except a sort of chuckling fear. Racket thought he was alone in his appreciation of this dreaded Dr Pepper demon of the beat, but this was not the case.

"Why don't you Google him?" Mrs. Racket asked during the Texas Longhorns' Cotton Bowl thrashing of LSU. Racket duly entered the search terms "Garth," "Dr Pepper" and "old guy." The first hit was redneckhigh.com/FreakyOldGuy.html.

Jackpot.

Racket was not alone. There are thousands of people out there just like him. The "Freaky Old Guy" even has his own Web page at this Austin-based blog/humor site where you can download the spot for your own perpetual amusement. But best of all, there's a message board wherein other FOG devotees share not just their feelings about the guy but also their theories about who he reallyis.

Some say it's veteran character actor Michael Jeter. Others stump for Brent Spiner, "Data" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kevin Costner has a contingent, and still others claim it is Garth himself having another Chris Gaines moment. There's a lot of disagreement about whether the guy is really as old as he is made to look or is wearing makeup for some unaccountable reason -- perhaps so the ad could be even more über-inclusive than it already is.

All agree, however, that he is one scary dude and a detriment to DP's pitch.

"So you stumbled on the old guy, huh?" chuckles redneckhigh.com Webmaster Steve Smith. He says there was absolutely nothing unusual about the way Racket found his site. "People will get curious and they'll do a Google search," he says. "If you put a bunch of strange words in, like 'freaky old Dr Pepper guy,' I'm about the only thing that pops up. I think people are surprised when they find the site, because everybody thinks they're the only one who notices him."

Smith was amazed to see the ad make it out of mothballs for its second football season in 2002-03. "Last year, they would play it every college football game that was on, and I thought, 'Surely they realize that was just a bad commercial,' " he says. "If you're trying for some kind of product placement -- forget about it, because once you notice the old guy, that's all you can think about."

Smith and a friend were so fascinated they built the FOG Web page. He's also done a little digging in an effort to find out what DP was thinking. Smith managed to learn that the spot was directed by Jon Small, who has since left the company (Paradise Music and Entertainment) that made the ad. He also learned that the ad uses the same actors and setting as the video for "Wrapped Up in You," the first single from Garth's 2001 album, Scarecrow.

But after those discoveries, Smith called off the dogs. "I really haven't wanted to find out any more about the whole thing because I enjoy the theories that come up on there so much," he laughs. Other non-FOG-related conspiracy theories the spot has spawned are also aired on the message board: One definitely false rumor is that the crazed-looking harmonica player is actually Keb' Mo'. Another possibly true story is that the "Be You" jingle is a play on "BU", the acronym of Dr Pepper CEO Jim Turner's alma mater, Baylor University. (Given the ad's close ties to NCAA football, does Turner really want us to be like perennial Big 12 doormat Baylor and lose all the time?)

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