"I HADDA CALL IT SOMETHING..."
They said that Dudley LeBlanc could sell anything to anybody. The gregarious “Coozan Dud” from Cajun country began proving that as a young man, generating enough income to put himself, his brothers and his cousins through college.
By 1932 , at age 38, he was successfully making and marketing Happy Day Headache Powder containing heavy doses of laxative until the Food & Drug Administration shut down the enterprise.
Falling victim to beriberi in 1942, he was cured of the thiamine deficiency with vitamin compounds and inspired to go to work in his family barn in Abbeville, Louisiana, and create a vitamin B based cure-all that mixed the vitamins with minerals, honey, hydrochloric acid and 12% alcohol.. Testing it on cattle, family and friends, he named it Hadacol for HAppy DAy CO LeBlanc.
Although when asked about the name’s origin, he joked, “I hadda call it something!”
After his reelection to the Louisiana State Senate in 1948, LeBlanc began marketing Hadacol through radio testimonials and contests - saturating stations with easily identified Mystery Songs, challenging listeners to name them for a free, eight-ounce bottle of the new wonder elixir, Hadacol, retail value $1.25 Before long winners were invading drug stores throughout the South with coupons for a product they had yet to stock. But that changed quickly - so quickly that the company was forced to abandon its rural roots for new, expanded manufacturing quarters in Lafayette, Louisiana.
The tonic’s popularity soared, particularly in the South’s dry counties where Hadacol’s 12% alcohol content made it an underground hit. Hadacol’s recommended label dosage was one tablespoon in half a glass of water four times daily - although many drug stores sold it by the shot glass.
Its fame was spurred on by two Mercury Record regional hits in the summer of 1949, the country styled Hadacol Boogie by Bill Nettles and Professor Longhair’s Hadacol Bounce for the rhythm and blues market. The music’s popularity led LeBlanc to WSM/Nashville and sponsorship of Hank Williams’ Health & Happiness shows in October, 1949.
By this time the Federal Trade Commission had stepped in to curb Hadacol’s claims to cure cancer, tuberculosis, epilepsy and heart disease, but LeBlanc overcame that inconvenience with what he called The Four S’s of Salesmanship - Saturation, Sincerity, Simplicity & Showmanship. He forgot to mention Spend, Spend, Spend - but that would catch up with him later.
In the meantime, LeBlanc tried to cut corners with a $2,000 prize contest to be awarded to the five radio stations that provided “the best cooperation and merchandising efforts - including free play of Hadacol transcribed spots” in the early fall of 1949. Industry indignation to LeBlanc’s lure was best expressed by KITE/San Antonio, which replied in Broadcasting magazine, “You certainly prove that Barnum was right. Your recent invitation was the absolute best sucker deal we have ever had the privilege to look in on.”
Undeterred, LeBlanc wanted something the media couldn’t ignore - so he launched his first Hadacol Caravan on August 21, 1950, across 3,000 miles of the South - a $250,000, 15-day vaudeville production starring the odd mix of Mickey Rooney, Burns & Allen, Roy Acuff, Connee Boswell and Chico Marx. Admission to the traveling show was two Hadacol box tops for adults and one box top per child. Crowds of ten to 12,000 weren’t uncommon in Atlanta, Macon, Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery plus LeBlanc’s home state cities of New Orleans, Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana. Local officials estimated that a total of 400,000 attended the shows.
He followed that up with a special children’s Christmas event on December 23rd, offering a “free” Hopalong Cassidy movie matinee and prize party in 570 theaters for the admission of one Hadacol box top. A heavy spot radio campaign placed through LeBlanc’s in-house agency and a $5,000 cash contest for those stations “best cooperating” with the promotion helped assure its success.
At a year-end party given in his honor by WNOE/New Orleans, LeBlanc claimed Hadacol had grossed $20 Million in sales during 1950 with a $6.0 Million net and credited radio for much of that success. He backed up that claim by increasing Hadacol’s spot radio schedule to 900 stations a month later.
LeBlanc invaded Los Angeles in January, 1951, with his typical sledge-hammer salesmanship - a dozen radio spots a day on 16 stations - only this time he added the big-time touch of Network Radio. Buried in the season’s unranked programs are the two one-shot offerings - The LeBlanc Hollywood Party on Mutual, Friday, January 12th, starring Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Vic Damone, Victor Moore and Minnie Pearl. The half-hour show was repeated on ABC the following night with the cumbersome title, The LeBlanc Comedy & Musical Show The network shows cost a reported $50,000 in time and talent but helped contribute to first month Los Angeles Hadacol sales of $1.0 Million.
About this time LeBlanc appeared on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. When Marx asked the wily Cajun, “What’s Hadacol good for?” LeBlanc quipped, “It was good for five and a half million for me last year.”
LeBlanc announced in March a 1951 radio and television budget of $375,000, (3.4 Mil in today’s money), as the company spread its marketing reach to 31 states. Yet, he was up to his old tricks again, too, by staging another of his station promotion contests for an announced total of $44,000 in prizes.
With Hadacol sales seemingly breezing along, LeBlanc introduced a companion product for asthma sufferers, Amigo. The $4.95 tonic was offered to stations on a “per inquiry” basis - commercials were run without charge but every bottle sold through the station paid a $2.50 commission to the station. Most of the industry turned thumbs down on the "PI" lure.
The Hadacol Caravan of 1951 was even larger than the earlier edition. Its primary stars were Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl from WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Then, as the show moved from city to city, guest stars were added to its cast of jugglers, dancers, magicians, clowns and chorus girls - Jack Benny & Eddie Rochester Anderson, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Carmen Miranda, Dick Haymes and Jack Dempsey.
Escott, Merritt & MacEwen point out in their biography of Hank Williams that LeBlanc had a hidden agenda by this time. He knew that Hadacol sales had peaked. The Food & Drug Administration, American Medical Association and Liquor Control Board were closing in on the company. Further, its outrageously high advertising costs had created a $2.0 Million loss in the second quarter of 1951. LeBlanc wanted the Hadacol Caravan to create the aura of glamour and success so he could snare an unsuspecting buyer, sell out and again run for Governor of Louisiana
The show hit the road in Lafayette on August 14th with a budget of $500,000 for talent and $750,000 for promotion. A fleet of 15 Pullman cars was leased for the company’s use during the six week tour, the finest of provisions were stocked for their meals, laundry arrangements had been made and staging details were carefully made and assigned. In short, the Hadacol Caravan reflected the image of class that LeBlanc wanted to put over his sale.
But trouble began during the first week when the troupe reached Montgomery, Alabama, and their paychecks bounced. It took some fancy footwork on LeBlanc’s part to make good on the checks and keep the problem under wraps, but he managed and the show kept rolling on through the Carolinas and into Virginia. Bob Hope joined the Caravan for two shows in Louisville and Cincinnati, Milton Berle came on board for the St. Louis shows before the tour went on to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Then, LeBlanc surprised everyone and sold the company on August 30,1951, to a New York partnership headed by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Terms of the $8.0 Million deal called for $1.0 Million down and the balance payable over ten years, plus $100,000 a year paid to LeBlanc for 15 years.
Insofar as the $75,000 to $200,000 owed to his acts for the final weeks of the Hadacol Caravan were concerned, LeBlanc said it was no longer his responsibility and the new owners claimed that they had nothing to do with it.
It didn’t take long before the New York buyers realized that the smooth talking Cajun medicine man had taken them for a ride. Their accountants accused LeBlanc of hiding $2.0 Million in unpaid bills plus another $2.2 Million in “accounts receivable” that were actually cases of Hadacol out on consignment and much of it was being returned, adding to the $400,000 worth of Hadacol in warehouses.
As a final welcome to his party, LeBlanc also left behind a $650,000 Federal tax bill from 1950.
The new owners recovered from the shock, cancelled all Hadacol advertising, shut down the Caravan in Dallas on September 17th and filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, creditors - an estimated 7,000 creditors including hundreds of radio stations which were owed over $2.0 Million by September - organized to slap liens against LeBlanc’s new-found source of wealth. Among the show business names suing for back pay were Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Dick Haymes and Carmen Miranda. Eventually the number of creditors soared to an incredible 60,000 individuals and companies.
LeBlanc took a financial beating but still managed to escape the fiasco with $250,000, (2.3 Mil in today’s money), by explaining, “If you buy a cow and the cow dies, you can’t do anything to a man for that.” He followed through on his plan to run for governor of Louisiana but lost badly and later tried to make and market another tonic, Kary-On, but it just didn’t have the allure of Hadacol . But then, has anything since?
Dudley LeBlanc lived out his days in southwest Louisiana until 1971 when he died at 77. He’s still regarded as a folk hero in Cajun country as well as a political leader and quite arguably, the greatest medicine man of them all.
Copyright © 2015 Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org