When you think of La Choy, the brand of canned American Chinese foods, does a fire-breathing dragon come to mind? If it doesn’t, you might have forgotten about Delbert the Dragon who served as the brief but memorable puppet mascot in the 1960s.
According to Diana Kuan, author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home, La Choy had spent decades making print ads and recipe books that encouraged homemakers to cook Chinese food using their products. The company hit a wall in 1965 and struggled to appeal to TV audiences. They found their answer in a young puppeteer named Jim Henson.
Henson, already a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show alongside his popular Muppet Rowlf the Dog, was hired by the Campbell-Mithun ad agency on behalf of the Beatrice Foods Company. His task was to create a dragon puppet that could breathe real fire for a new ad campaign. Henson was intrigued by the idea, but also understood he was working on a tight deadline since the campaign would begin airing in 1965.
Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company archives states that Henson made seven commercials using a hand puppet as the character. That hand puppet was Delbert the La Choy Dragon, who boasted that he knew what kept La Choy’s Chow Mein noodles so crisp and crunchy. La Choy’s Chow Mein was “quick cooked in dragon fire” which made it “as good as takeout.”
Henson recounts in the La Choy presentation that every commercial had “Muppet-like humor” thanks to the team of scriptwriters. Henson sketched Delbert personally, and later turned the illustration over to a team of puppet builders and costumers. A fire-breathing pyrotechnics mechanism was created by the special effects department and perfected to ensure that the puppet could blow real flames across neatly displayed cans of La Choy Chow Mein.
Filmed on set at Rodel Studios in Washington DC, Delbert’s first few commercial spots also starred a secondary character. His name was Mert and he was designed to be a timid spokespuppet to the loud Delbert. Delbert was not meant to be a mean dragon, but rather depicted as one who was a bit clumsy and loveable. Henson provided the voices for both Delbert and Mert.
Henson redesigned the Muppet in 1966 to show Delbert’s life-size form, the first time he had ever made a full-body puppet. Henson filmed four commercials for La Choy that year starring the new Delbert and continued to voice the mascot. However, Henson recruited puppeteer Frank Oz to wear the character’s costume. In the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street writer Michael Davis says Oz was able to crane the character’s neck, swagger, flail its arms, and breathe fire with the help of a blowtorch. As seen in the above commercial, Delbert could enter a grocery store and goofily scatter noodle cans everywhere with his tail with kids marveling at the “real” dragon before them.
Sales jumped for the La Choy brand, but Delbert wasn’t without his critics. One of the most interesting criticisms came from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, complaining that chow mein cooked in dragon fire could be seen as misleading to the consumer. (Because, y’know, how can anyone cook anything in dragon fire?)
While Delbert’s shelf life was ultimately short-lived, his creation paved the way for bigger things to come from Henson, Oz, and their team of puppeteers. The life-size Delbert was later the blueprint for one of the most famous Muppets ever made: Big Bird from Sesame Street.