“Don’t be scared,” the commercial began.
The voice was slightly eerie, yet still familiar despite coming from a big cardboard box in a grocery store cereal aisle. After which, a buck-toothed cartoon vampire rose from the box and declared, “I’m the super-sweet monster with the super-sweet new cereal, Count Chocula!”
Then another voice rang out, also familiar, emanating from a bizarre pink creature who claimed that his cereal, Franken Berry, was in fact the best. From there, the two monsters argued until a harmless small child approached, scaring them both out of their wits.
In 1971, this commercial was America’s introduction to General Mills’ two new breakfast cereals: Count Chocula and Franken Berry. Count Chocula was an oat-based, chocolate-flavored cereal with marshmallows, while Franken Berry was the same, except strawberry-flavored. Following the Universal Monsters craze of the 1960s, the Monster Cereals were a way for young children to finally get in on the monster action, and the cereals proved to be a wild success.
A third cereal, Boo Berry, arrived in 1972, then two more after that (though they later disappeared). For the next five decades, these three cereals would become breakfast staples, and their mascots would join the ranks of other legends like Cap’n Crunch and the Trix Rabbit. Even when the cereals went seasonal in 2010, the desire for them only seemed to grow.
Now, General Mills is commemorating the Monster Cereals’ 50th anniversary with a new breakfast entry, Monster Mash, which more or less features all five spooky cereals in one. They’ve also created a version of “Monster Mash,” sung by the mascots; there’s even a behind-the-music mockumentary with the monsters.
But what about the unofficial behind-the-scenes story? The one that includes pink poop, forgotten werewolves and a level of sweetness among the copywriters and art directors that rivals the sugar content of the cereals themselves. For that story, I reached out to the super fans who grew up obsessing over the Monster Cereals as well as many of the creatives who worked on them — or at least the ones who have yet to join Boo Berry in the afterlife.
Making the Monsters
Laura Levine, author and creator of Count Chocula and Franken Berry: In 1969, I was 26 years old and working at an ad agency at 347 Madison Avenue called Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. I don’t remember how I got the job — I may have responded to an ad in the paper or gotten a referral from an agency I worked at in San Francisco — but I remember when I was hired that I was told I would be making $20,000 a year. At the time, I thought that nobody in the world was making as much money as me — it seemed like so much money!
My boss, Tony Jaffe, was wonderful. He was hip and funny, and our senses of humor were very sympatico, which I’m sure is part of the reason why we clicked when it came to the Monster Cereals. They didn’t start out as monsters though. I remember when Tony gave me that assignment, General Mills had explained that they had two new cereals they were introducing — one was going to be chocolate and one was going to be strawberry — and they asked us to come up with characters around those flavors.
At the time, Tony and I loved Cap’n Crunch, so Tony said to think of characters in pairs that might be in the style of Cap’n Crunch. I didn’t have an office yet, so I sat down at a secretary’s desk and created a page full of names that were playing on already established duos, like Dracula and Frankenstein. I don’t remember what the other choices were, but on that list I wrote down “Count Chocula and Franken Berry” and Tony chose those two.
Tim Hollis, pop culture historian and author of Part of a Complete Breakfast: Cereal Characters of the Baby Boom Era: Prior to the release of the Monster Cereals — from about 1960 to 1964 — the Universal Monsters pictures from the 1930s were huge once again because they had released their package of horror films to local TV stations across the country. During that time, you had all kinds of merchandise of the monsters like jigsaw puzzles, board games and model kits. Soon after, that morphed into a TV craze with shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family.
Both of those shows were canceled in 1966 when the monster craze faded, so when the Monster Cereals debuted in 1971, they came a few years after it.
Levine: Monsters may have been in the zeitgeist of the time, but they weren’t in my zeitgeist. I knew about Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi as Dracula, but I’d never watched The Munsters. I was just playing off two established movie characters that I knew about.
In advertising today, teams work together for both art and copy, but back then at Dancer, copy ruled. Copywriters were above art directors. We came up with the concept and then you handed it off to an art director. So while I can take credit for coming up with their names and for writing those first commercials, I take no credit for what the characters looked like.
Devin Dion, Monster Cereals fan and co-founder of “Channeling Spirits” on YouTube: The Monster Cereals mascots were designed by the late George Karn — who famously designed the Trix Rabbit — and Bill Tollis, who was a frequent collaborator with animator Bill Melendez.
Patti Tollis, daughter of Bill Tollis, art director and animator at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample: My dad was an artist and animator at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and he loved the Monster Cereals characters. Those were his characters, and he drew them all the time, even years and years after he retired. I was 13 or 14 when he began working on them, and I remember how excited he was. My father was very goofy, like me, and he used to tell jokes all the time. He was a very upbeat person.
Levine: My initial idea was that they were scaredy-cat monsters. In one of those first commercials, they’re arguing over their cereals, and then a little cat walks by and scares them. They were a twist on the classic Universal Monsters and Count Chocula was obviously a play on Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.
Larry Kenney, voice actor of Count Chocula since 1978: I auditioned for the role of Count Chocula around 1978. When I auditioned, they didn’t want a new voice for Count Chocula, they wanted to get as close to the voice that Jim Dukas was doing for the first eight years. Jim was a great guy, but he was retiring, and that’s why they got a new voice. They told me that they wanted to maintain the same sound that Jim had, but his Lugosi impression was a little more growly than mine ended up being. In an early spot, they even asked me to pull back on the Lugosi I was doing. They wanted Count Chocula to be a little more friendly.
Hollis: Franken Berry was modeled after Boris Karloff, but his monster looked almost nothing like the monster from the film. His voice was also modeled on the actor, not the monster itself, who mostly just groaned. It’s interesting that people would think the monster should sound like Boris Karloff the actor, but obviously, it worked.
Robb Pruitt, voice actor of Franken Berry since 2009: I’m proud to be the voice of Franken Berry. It’s an honor. I got the part in 2009 from two guys named Pat Giles and Manny Galán at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising [which acquired Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in the 1980s]. I’d done a lot of work with them as Chip the Cookie Crisp Wolf, and during a recording session one day, they sprung the question on me, “Can you do Franken Berry?”
I grew up with that voice — which had been done by Bob McFadden until he died in 2000 — so I knew it well. I did it for one project, and then I was blown away when they told me I was the official voice some time later.
I never met Bob McFadden, but he’s a hero of mine and his son is now one of my dearest friends. I always text him when I sign something for Franken Berry. Bob was a legend in the voiceover community — he did so many voices, and the way he said “strawberries” with that lilt was amazing. All I did was imitate him. When I do Franken Berry, I’m just honoring Bob McFadden.
It’s a great cereal too, even if it did turn my poop pink when I was a kid.
Dion: Yeah, Franken Berry did make headlines in 1972 for turning kids’ poop pink, they called it “Franken Berry Stool.” Once they found out about it, General Mills switched the dye they used in the cereal.
John V. Payne, retired pediatrician and author of the 1972 study “Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal — The Franken Berry Stool”: Back in 1972, I was a pediatrician in Baltimore. From what I remember, a child was brought in because they thought he was bleeding from the rectum. I’m sure he got all sorts of unnecessary tests and such before we figured out that it was just some harmless red food coloring in the cereal he was eating. I forget the name of the cereal — Frankincense or Frankenstein Stew, something like that — but it turned the boy’s stool red, and then I wrote a small entry on it in The Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Spooky 1970s
Pat Giles, creative director overseeing General Mills characters from 2004 to 2014: That first commercial for Monster Cereals is such a masterpiece in TV marketing. You’re in this store, and the box opens up, and it’s Count Chocula and then Franken Berry comes in! It was like a part of a show I wish I could watch! That style of animation too — by Bill Melendez of Peanuts fame — that was something really special.
Manny Galán, creative director overseeing General Mills characters from 2008 to 2014: In that first commercial, you can tell it’s Melendez because in it, you can see a child that looks suspiciously like a Peanuts character.
Tollis: My dad and Mr. Melendez were best friends. My dad worked in New York at the advertising agency, and he’d draw up storyboards there. Then he’d fly out to California to do the commercials with Mr. Melendez. He was a very sweet man. He had this big handlebar mustache and he used to give me rides in his Jaguar — just a lovely, humble man.
Giles: In the early 1970s, General Mills was playing with all kinds of weird tropes for cereal mascots, like Sir Grapefellow, a World War I pilot. They were trying out all different kinds of themes, and Count Chocula and Franken Berry just blew up out of the gate, which is why they soon added another cereal.
Roger Barr, founder of I-Mockery, video game designer and Boo Berry super-fan: After Chocula and Franken Berry were introduced, the line was successful so they wanted to add a third, blueberry-flavored Monster Cereal. Boo Berry was first test-marketed in 1972, and then went national in 1973. His voice was inspired by the actor Peter Lorre, who was in many crime and horror films.
Kenney: Paul Frees, who was legendary as a voice actor, did Boo Berry first, and then Peter Waldren did him for a while. I got to work with Waldren, but I never met Paul Frees. I wish I had though. He was the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy for years and the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. He was also Mr. Magoo!
Chris Phillips, voice of Boo Berry beginning in 2009: Mascot characters were so great back then, you don’t really get that so much today. The voice I do for Boo Berry is essentially Peter Lorre, but I did go back and listen to the Paul Frees commercials. I was always a huge Paul Frees fan.
Giles: I was totally fascinated by Boo Berry — I was obsessed with him. Who was he? What killed him?
Hollis: Boo Berry was also covered in chains like Jacob Marley, but all those chains are a pretty good indication that, when he was alive, he wasn’t one of the good guys. Boo Berry must have a pretty dark background to be carrying all those chains in the afterlife.
Galán: And, especially in that first commercial, those chains look like they start at the nipple!
Barr: Boo Berry is the only breakfast cereal mascot with nipple rings.
Tollis: I don’t know too much about it, but I do know that my dad worked on both Boo Berry and Fruit Brute commercials.
Frank Santopadre, Monster Cereals fan, Emmy-winning TV writer and co-host of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast: Being named Frank myself, Franken Berry has always been my favorite Monster Cereal and it’s turned into an obsession as I own a bunch of Franken Berry bobble heads, fridge magnets, shirts and cereal boxes. That being said, I do think Fruit Brute deserved more love.
Dion: Fruit Brute came in 1974 and it didn’t do as well as the first three. It was before my time, so I don’t know what its downfall was, but I wonder if part of it was the flavor. For the rest, you had the very distinct flavors of chocolate, strawberry and blueberry, but with Fruit Brute, it was just “fruit” with lime marshmallows. It only ran for eight years, but it was a wonder that it lasted as long as it did.
Hollis: I assume that Fruit Brute was a werewolf, but we never saw him change from one form to the other. Also, unlike the other characters, there was nothing really distinctive about the voice of Fruit Brute, and the voice of a character is very important to their success.
Barr: Fruit Brute does get some love from Quentin Tarantino fans because a box of Fruit Brute appears in both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Since then, some Fruit Brute boxes have gone for thousands of dollars on eBay. Some cereal box collectors have seriously deep pockets.
Galán: The 1970s had some really great prizes in the boxes. My favorite ones were these PVC snap-together race cars. I wish I still had them!
Maybe the coolest thing from that time were these records that had five-minute little radio plays on them. They had this technology that allowed them to press a thin layer of plastic onto the actual cereal box, then you’d cut out the record and play it on your record player. They had “Count Chocula Goes to Hollywood” and “Monster Adventures in Outer Space.” My favorite, though, was “The Monsters Go Disco” because it was 1979 and disco was huge.
Kenney: I remember doing that one with Bob McFadden and Peter Waldren. We went into a music studio for that, and they had a full complement of musicians.
Eeeek! It’s the 1980s!
Dion: The Monster Cereals stayed popular throughout the 1980s. Fruit Brute was gone by 1982, but the other three still did really well.
Peter Bregman, art director and copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi from 1997 to 1999: My favorite commercial from Monster Cereal history was in the late 1980s when they did a promotion with Universal. They had these commercials and cereal boxes that featured Boris Karloff with Franken Berry and Bela Lugosi with Count Chocula. That was really exciting as a monster fan. I heard they got in trouble for the Dracula box, though.
Dion: In 1987, General Mills received complaints from Jewish customers because it looked like they put the Star of David around the neck of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. This was particularly disrespectful because of an anti-Semetic legend about the “Jewish Blood Libel.” It’s all very complicated, but the basic idea was that Jews would steal the blood of non-Jews.
For General Mills, it was an accident, as Dracula’s necklace was actually a pendant with a jewel, but shrunken down on a cereal box, it did look like the Star of David. Anyway, once General Mills found out about this, they stopped production on the box and edited the box without the pendant.
Giles: The 1980s saw a lot of changes to how the characters looked, but I liked a lot of the commercials from that time. The commercials had this sketchy, pencily, wiry, noodly style that was very expressionistic — they went for a dark tonality that was very surprising. That look was a product of the London animation house Uli Meyer Studios. Those guys also did the first commercial for Yummy Mummy.
Fruity Yummy Mummy
David Charles Ebert, writer and director of “The Remaking of the Mash: A Monster Miracle” from 2021: At one point while I was working on the brand, I asked someone what the difference was between Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy and I just never got an answer.
Dion: Fruity Yummy Mummy came out in 1988 and that one was just “fruit” flavored again, but this time with vanilla marshmallows. That sounds better than Fruit Brute, but it only lasted until 1992.
Giles: I love both Yummy Mummy and Fruit Brute, but they’re like cousins. They’re welcome, but they’re not the core members.
Galán: I love Fruit Brute, and I like Yummy Mummy. I would get with Yummy Mummy, but I’d be thinking about Fruit Brute.
The Nightmarish 1990s
Kenney: By the 1990s, it seemed like there were more commercials for Count Chocula than for Franken Berry and Boo Berry. I don’t know why.
Barr: During the 1990s, I went years without seeing Franken Berry and Boo Berry. It was all about Count Chocula. Even if they weren’t officially out of production, I swear they just stopped making them for a few years.
Lisa Connolly, producer on Monster Cereals commercials in 1980s and 1990s: Franken Berry and Boo Berry were pretty much phased out by this time, but there was still a lot of great work put into the Count Chocula commercials. I remember being at the Edison Hotel with a 30-piece orchestra for one of those commercials. It would never occur to people that all of this work would go into a commercial for a kid’s cereal, but it would take a good four months for a single commercial to get made.
The 1990s were the last decade where they did these commercials, but tragically, many people didn’t appreciate the artwork that went into them. I remember that they would just throw away the animation cels, which is heartbreaking. Fortunately, I grabbed a bunch for myself.
Giles: While the 1990s doesn’t have my favorite era of Count Chocula art, there was one notorious commercial that was especially bad. It featured a live-action Count Chocula by a guy wearing all these prosthetics. I think whoever made that one hated these characters. Fortunately, they only did one.
Connolly: I didn’t work on that one! Just want to make that clear. I think that commercial creeped a bunch of people out.
Dion: While the berry-flavored Monster Cereals were on the decline in the 1990s, General Mills did almost introduce a new Monster Cereal toward the end of the decade.
Bregman: As a kid, I grew up with the General Mills breakfast cereal characters and the Monster Cereals were my favorite because I was always into monsters. Lucky enough, my first job out of school was at Saatchi & Saatchi, who were handling all the General Mills characters.
At that time, around 1997, monster cereals were on the decline and General Mills was going to introduce a new mixed-berry Monster Cereal. I don’t know if that was going to be in conjunction with Boo Berry and Franken Berry, or if they were just going to combine those two into one cereal. Anyway, they wanted a new mixed berry-related character. I don’t know why, but a lot of people didn’t really want to do it. But I was all over it, so I volunteered and drew up some ideas.
I’m a huge fan of Universal Monsters, so I tried to draw from that era. I also thought it would be cool to introduce a female breakfast cereal mascot because, even today, there still isn’t one. General Mills probably just wanted a concept, but I went way overboard and gave them colored drawings of “Bride of Franken Berry” and “BerryPatchra,” a mummy. I also included a couple of male mascots, “Dr. JekyllBerry” and “Phantom-Berry.” The art was well-received, but they eventually nixed the plans for another cereal, which is one of the biggest disappointments of my career, to be honest.
A Monstrous New Millenium
Giles: 2000 was General Mills’ last big media buy on Monster Cereals. They couldn’t really quantify how much of a difference the ads were making either, so they stopped making the commercials altogether and, before long, the Monster Cereals went seasonal.
Barr: They also switched to a corn-based cereal in the early 2000s; everyone is still pushing for them to return back to the oats. It could be nostalgia talking, but I think they were better back then. Regardless, I still think Boo Berry is the best-tasting cereal there is.
The early 2000s was a weird time for me in regards to Monster Cereals. On one hand, I got well-known as a Boo Berry fan by being on The Daily Show, where I was interviewed by Stephen Colbert and jokingly outed Franken Berry on national television. I was also on Unwrapped and VH1’s Totally Obsessed. On the other hand, it was really hard to find Monster Cereals at that time. Fortunately, things would get better eventually.
Giles & Galán
Galán: When Pat Giles and I were at Saatchi & Saatchi, we lived under a completely different sun than everyone else at the agency. Everyone else was there because they wanted to be in advertising, but we were there because Count Chocula was there.
Giles: I started at Saatchi & Saatchi in 2004, and when I was hired, I was looking at the list of characters I was going to work on and I said, “You guys have the Monster Cereals!?” Unfortunately, I was told, “Don’t get your hopes up, there is zero funding for them.” So I just started drawing them in meetings over and over again in a style much more like what they looked like in the 1970s.
People kept telling me not to bother with the Monster Cereals, but I inked them up and made this style guide for them and started sending them to people at General Mills. Finally, it got to the right people, and they ended up being the big faces on the boxes starting in 2006.
After that, I kept wanting to do more and more with them, but didn’t have any luck. It was like this Sisyphean quest for me where I kept pushing these characters forward and no one seemed to care. Then I met Manny in 2008.
Galán: Like Pat did, I had a background in animation before coming to Saatchi & Saatchi. In 2008 I was working for Nickelodeon and I really enjoyed it there, but I still took the interview to work on the General Mills characters.
Then I met Pat, and on his desk, he had a Count Chocula bobblehead. One of the first things I asked him was, “How come General Mills hasn’t done a half-hour Halloween special with the monsters?” Pat froze, looked at me and blinked his eyes and said, “I love you. I want to marry you.”
Giles: It was this amazing, bromance moment and really the whole basis of our friendship and partnership formed around the notion of, “Why aren’t you doing anything with Monster Cereals?”
Galán: I was first conscious of these cereals in the late 1970s, and I just fell in love with them. I still remember what the old cereal tasted like and what the old wagon-wheel cereal pieces looked like. I remember the marshmallow sweeties being cylindrical, and I remember how they’d emulsify in the milk and become this amazing mush.
I was beyond excited to work on them, and like I said, Pat and I were kind of an oddity at the agency. Most marketers tend to see mascot characters as extensions of the logo or simply a brand element, but Pat and I saw them as characters and we saw huge potential for them.
Giles: There was still no funding for these characters, so we didn’t really have permission to work on them. Instead, we just kind of took permission and did what we wanted. We made a promotional CD, “Spooky Sounds from Count Chocula’s Castle,” then we had a remix done of “The Monsters Go Disco” by Jeff Elmassian at Endless Noise.
Galán: We played that thing on loop for about 48 hours. Our neighbors at Saatchi hated us, but we were obsessed with it.
Giles: Another thing we did was create a style guide for the characters, which is a standard practice in animation. It ensures that everyone has a central, consistent look for the characters and the guide can be used for products.
We wanted to position them as characters who can live off of a box and that you can wear on a T-shirt. We made the guide pro-bono because we wanted to prove our point, and from that style guide they ended up with licenses for NASCAR, Hot Wheels and Funko.
The one thing we really wanted to do though — a Halloween special — never got off the ground. We played with the idea that they were horror actors who lived in North Hollywood and they couldn’t get work anymore, but Count Chocula was a drama queen who still thought he was a huge star. We wanted it to be like this Neil-Simon-esque play about these three old mascots, but under all that it would be a Halloween special about becoming relevant again.
The Terrifying 2010s
Galán: Beginning in 2010, the Monster Cereals went seasonal. General Mills found that, if they just released them in that four-month window in the fall, they would sell just as much, if not more, because people were ravenous for it by the time they showed up.
Barr: Halloween is the perfect time of year for them, so I actually think it was good for them to go seasonal, it makes them more special.
In recent years, General Mills has done a lot of retro boxes, which has been really cool, but the biggest surprise came in 2013. That Halloween season, General Mills let me reveal the Monster Cereal boxes for the year, which was exciting because it was the first year ever where all five cereals were released at the same time. That was a hell of a year for Monster Cereals, I don’t know if they’ll ever top that.
Dion: For that release of Fruit Brute [now spelled Frute Brute] and Yummy Mummy, they switched up the flavors. Fruit Brute was cherry-flavored while Yummy Mummy was an orange cream flavor. That Yummy Mummy cereal was delicious. I honestly think it’s the best of any Monster Cereal ever released.
That was just a one-year promotion though. The next year they had famous comic book artists redesign the boxes for the three main cereals. They try to do something every season, which is really cool.
Karlee Morse, Monster Cereals fan and Emmy-winning FX makeup artist: In 2020, General Mills approached me and said they wanted to celebrate Halloween differently this year, so I pitched a few ideas and we landed on me doing Monster Cereal busts for an Instagram giveaway. Their only instruction to me was, “Do whatever you want, but don’t make them scary,” so they gave me a lot of freedom, and I tried to capture the spirit of each character.
Fifty Frightening Years
Ebert: For the 50th anniversary of Monster Cereals, General Mills created a version of “Monster Mash” sung by their monsters. I got to do a behind-the-music style mockumentary where I styled the monsters after The Beatles — Chocula was the John Lennon, and Franken Berry was the Paul McCartney who actually wrote all the songs. We worked out these crazy backstories — it was a lot of fun. My kids never care about anything I do, but they were excited about that one.
I also tried the new Monster Mash cereal, and it was surprisingly delicious. Wisely, they stayed away from chocolate, and the cereal itself is just Boo Berry and Franken Berry mixed together with marshmallows representing Count Chocula, Yummy Mummy and Fruit Brute.
Barr: It was smart for them to not actually mix all five cereals together. Back in 2013, when all five cereals were out there, I tried a real Monstar Mash with all five cereals. Let me tell you, it was not good.
Tollis: I love that new box art they did for Monster Mash! Over the years, the art has changed so much that it looked less and less like my dad’s characters. I think he’d be really happy with what they did with Monster Mash. I even made that image my Facebook background.
These characters were near and dear to my dad’s heart. He loved them, and he would still draw them right up until he died in 2008. Even when he was getting older and, unfortunately, suffering from dementia, he would still draw these characters.
Galán: To be able to put your fingerprint on a piece of pop-culture history like the Monster Cereals was really something amazing. Even after Pat and I finished with the brand in 2014 and moved on to Hasbro, we were reaching out to General Mills to do anything with those characters, like doing a Kickstarter for Halloween decorations or something like that. Hell, I still want to make that Halloween special.
Levine: I’m not sure why these characters have managed to stand the test of time. I’d guess part of the reason is because they were based on already-established characters that were already timeless — that might help. I also think that people like the names and, to be honest, I think the names are pretty cute.
I will say that I still get a kick out of them. Once in a while, I’ll be watching TV and someone will mention Count Chocula and I love to hear it. Honestly, I hadn’t realized that it had been 50 years until just now and that’s so exciting! I’m so glad I’m still alive to see it.