The Johnny Pfeiffer plaster-of-paris figurine depicts a Revolutionary War minuteman playing a fife. Designed by Walt Disney Studios in 1951 for the Pfeiffer Brewing Company, the back bar statuette was made by the Plasto Corporation in Chicago. A company spokesperson says Pfeiffer Brewing commissioned eight different versions of Johnny over the 1950s. Two thousand of the 7.25 inch figurines were produced every month making it the most common and least valuable statue they ever produced, currently selling on Ebay for $25 to $45 depending on condition and the motivation of the buyer.
Brewery founder Conrad Pfeiffer brought the original beer recipes from Germany in the late nineteenth century. The original styles were "Pfeiffer's Famous"--a light lager--and "Pfeiffer's Wurtzburger"--a dark lager. Their brew masters used only new seasoned white oak kegs and barrels to insure consistent quality and taste. Pfeiffer became Detroit's third most popular beer brand behind Stroh's and Goebel before Prohibition took effect in 1920.
Repeal was passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1933, ending America's nightmare experience with Prohibition. Beginning in February 1934, Pfeiffer restored the exterior beauty of its original building built in 1889. The interior of the plant was completely remodeled, enlarged, and modernized. Legal beer shipments resumed on May 15, 1934.
Pfeiffer gained considerable market share after Prohibition repeal largely due to heavy-handed distributors who intimidated vendors and tavern owners to take their beer products over other brands. Complaints from vendors prompted the Michigan Liquor Commission to investigate Pfeiffer distributorships.
On February 22, 1935, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gordon E. Tappan testified at a Liquor Commission public hearing that "(Pfeiffer Brewing Company) made no attempt to screen its distributors for character, qualifications, morals, or police records." Tappan charged the company and its agents with using strong-arm tactics to muscle in on Michigan's beer industry. The company made no attempt to rid itself of underworld influence.
The Macomb Distribution Company had Mafia boss Joe "Uno" Zerilli and his underboss William "Black Bill" Tocco on their board of directors with Anthony Lambrecht, Alfred Epstein, Abe Rogoff, and H. Armin Weil, who also had police records. The board of Meyer's Products Company--another Pfeiffer distributor--included Donald F. Gray--president; Charles Leiter--vice-president and Oakland Sugar House Gang co-boss; Henry Shorr--treasurer and Sugar House Gang co-boss; Elda Ruffert--secretary; James Syla--manager; Sam "the Gorilla" Davis--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer; and Henry Toprofsky--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer.
Pfeiffer Brewery officials were required by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to show cause why their brewing license shouldn't be revoked. Then president William G. Breitmeyer pled ignorance and said the company was having trouble keeping up with demand. They didn't need to force their products on anyone. On April 10, 1935, the company agreed to bar all persons with criminal records from serving as beer distributors and suspended their contracts. Despite the bad Depression-era publicity, Pfeiffer became Detroit's most popular brand overtaking Stroh's and Goebel by the end of the 1950s. But trouble was brewing on the horizon.
In the 1960s, Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst sought to become national brands. Because of their assets, access to capital, and huge advertising budgets, the Big Three brewers put many regional brewers out of business--not because of superior products but because of marketing and financial resources.
To compete with the Big Three, Pfeiffer changed its corporate name to Associated Brewing Company (ABC) in 1962. ABC acquired and consolidated smaller Midwestern brands and breweries to position itself in the national market, but they overextended themselves and became overburdened with debt. The old Pfeiffer brewery and bottling plant on Beaufait Avenue closed in 1966, and by 1972, the rest of ABC's remaining assets were sold off.
Detroiters are left with some aging memorabilia and a few random facts. In some small measure, the microbrewery movement of the twenty-first century is nipping at the heels of the national brands and cutting into their profits. Many of the old-style beers are once again available for our quaffing pleasure.
Many thanks Renee Reilly-Menard for gifting Johnny Pfeiffer to me along with the Vernor's gnome. The Detroit Historical Museum already has Johnny Pfeiffer in its collection. He looks good on my mantelpiece. I think I'll keep him.
Home for the gnome: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2019/01/vernors-gnome-found.html