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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?)

Meanwhile, at another site (www.zippygirl.org/adlibitum/adinfinitum/001377.html), a poster announced that she had called Dr Pepper's marketing department and been told that the extras in the ad were cast members from the musical Stomp.

Smith thinks the Stomptheory is the most likely. "It probably is people from Stomp," he says, "but that doesn't explain why they made him look so weird. I can't tell if it's a young guy who is supposed to look old. If so, did they mean for it to be such a bad makeup job? And if he's supposed to be realistically old, why couldn't they just get an old guy?"

Some Netizens of a musical bent have posited that the FOG's apparent lack of any semblance of rhythm is in fact a sophisticated display of jazzy, offbeat thigh-slapping. "But even if he's doing offbeat stuff, he's still doing it very spastically," says Smith. "It's creepy. It looks like he's having a seizure."

Armed with more questions than he thought a freaky old guy could generate, Racket did a little digging of his own. The ad and the video were filmed in Watertown, Tennessee, a rural hamlet one county east of Nashville. The jingle was penned by Nashville songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick, who also wrote the 1996 Eric Clapton mega-smash "Change the World." And it turns out the Stomp theory -- or a variation thereof -- is close to the truth, so all you Brent Spiner, Michael Jeter and Kevin Costner fans can now count yourselves officially discredited.

Maybe.

Racket tracked down Jon Small, the ad's director, at Picture Vision, the Nashville film company where he now plies his trade. Small confirmed that the Freaky Old Guy was in fact a young man made up to look old. With bated breath, on the brink of pulling off the villain's mask, Racket asked for the actor's name.

"I'm not willing to give the guy's name out," Small said, speaking fast and with a New York accent. "He's an actor, and you know, I'm not gonna give his name out."

Why not?

"I don't find it very proper," he replied. "I have no idea if the guy…I mean, we did the thing over a year ago…Uhhh, I just have no idea. I think it's pretty funny that he has a cult, though."

In desperation Racket asked if he would confirm or deny the Stomprumor. Small first said that he was not a member of the cast -- and then said maybe he was. "Actually it was Garth's band, and let's see, I don't know if any of the guys ever toured with Stomp, but they were some of the guys that had either auditioned and maybe did some of the tours, but they were all professional dancers. But it was so long ago to me, so it's hard for me to remember, but I know that one of the criterions that I was looking for was guys who had that kind of rhythm like the guys who were in Stomp, so either they toured with Stomp or they auditioned for Stomp or they were top dancers that had been in a zillion TV shows…"

Then came the classic interview-ender: "How'd you get this number anyway?"

Hmmm. Sounds like Small has something to hide. Maybe those Brent Spiner advocates have it right after all. Or maybe the Freaky Old Guy is Dick Cheney, and the undisclosed location we've been hearing so much about is actually Watertown, Tennessee. After all, the spot was filmed around 9/11…The truth is still out there somewhere.

Meanwhile, Dr Pepper has already unveiled the second phase of the "Be You" campaign. Starring LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C., this commercial, which would have been pretty hip in 1986, prominently salutes the late Jam Master Jay. Now that Dr Pepper is being hawked by a famous guy who looks very much alive but is really dead, instead of a resolutely anonymous guy who looks dead but is really alive (at least as far as we know), Racket is more confused than ever.

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