He’s the cheerful cartoon pig in suit and tie who has been a mascot of the L.A. County Fair, off and on, since 1948.
And at 75, Thummer‘s saga has as many twists as a pig’s corkscrew tail.
Along the way he’s changed his name, his fashion sense and even his gender, and also disappeared for long stretches.
But he’s now seemingly at home at the fair, which this year began May 5 and ends May 29. In advance of the opening, he was the star of many of the fair’s social media posts. A costumed version of Thummer made public appearances, including at a Pomona Art Walk, to invite people to the fair.
“It is Thummer’s 75th birthday,” confirms Renee Hernandez, the fair’s communications director. “He’s outlived many things and many people here at the fair. He remains a mascot for us just like he’s been since 1948.”
I figured the best way to piece the story together was to visit Cal Poly Pomona, where the fair donated the bulk of its archives in 2021. An archivist is nearly through cataloging and organizing them.
And thus Wednesday morning found me in the University Library’s Special Collections department, wearing cloth gloves to page through file folders of precious documents concerning a cartoon pig. Hey, it’s a living.
The pig did indeed debut in 1948 in something akin to his present form: a pig in a suit, vest and tie. One hoof held a suitcase with a travel sticker advertising the Los Angeles County Fair. The other hoof was extended as if requesting a ride.
1948 was the first fair after the grounds closed for wartime uses. A crush of visitors was expected and they were encouraged to share vehicles, a message the ride-thumbing pig helped promote.
Yet his name wasn’t Thummer. He was Porky the Hitch Hiking Pig.
Didn’t the world already have a cartoon pig in a suit named Porky? It did. Porky Pig debuted on the big screen in 1935 and had appeared in dozens of Warner Bros. cartoons by the time the county fair came up with its own pig named Porky. We’ll come back to that.
Morrie Stewart, a Pomona High grad who was the fair’s art director and sign painter from 1935 to 1986, usually gets the credit for the future Thummer. He had created a pig mascot for Kaiser Steel in Fontana in the 1940s to represent pig iron.
When fair CEO Jack Afflerbaugh asked him to dream up a new fair mascot to replace a giant pumpkin, Stewart came up with the pig.
“He created wooden signs that were 6 feet high and were stationed along the road to the fair to point people to the parking lots,” Andrew Kopp, the Cal Poly archivist, tells me.
In 1951, the fair’s publicity campaign may have leaned a bit too heavily on its version of Porky.
Some 100,000 decals with the character were distributed. According to a Pomona Progress-Bulletin story dug up for me by the Public Library’s Allan Lagumbay, so were “500,000 attractive, four-color cocktail napkins,” distributed throughout Southern California.
Did a Porky napkin make its way to a Warner Bros. legal eagle? No documentation has turned up, but according to a history of the character compiled in 1988 by the fair, the movie studio objected on the grounds of copyright infringement.
That led to a clever, face-saving “name the pig” contest on an L.A. radio station in 1952 to rebrand the fair’s mascot. The winning name: Thummer. He had a similar pose as before but a more adorable design. To my eyes, he actually looks more like Porky Pig, not less.
It wasn’t a clean break. A Progress-Bulletin story about the 1952 fair reported that “a million napkins bearing the familiar ‘Porkey’” (sic) were given out, with the next paragraph stating that “some 90,000 ‘Thummer’ buttons were distributed to children.” The Porky name showed up in a few Prog stories as late as 1958.
By 1978, the pig’s 30th anniversary, Thummer’s image appeared on trash containers and directional signs around the fairgrounds as well as on promotional decals, according to a Prog story, which claimed: “Pomonans make sure they have several Thummer decals when they go on vacation.”
Three years later, Thummer went through an identity crisis, one that sounds straight out of 2023.
“During the 1981 fair,” as a later press release by the fair put it, “Thummer underwent a sex change.”
A young pig had been donated to fair CEO Ralph Hinds, who spontaneously named the pig Thummer and said he represented the spirit of the fair. Soon it became clear that the pig was a she, not a he, and was pregnant.
In response, the fair’s cartoon mascot was made a female too and named Mrs. Thummer.
“Thus, Thummer was transformed from a male to a female pig,” read a 1984 press release from the fair. “However, in the past few years, Thummer has again resumed the role of a male, both in his character and get-up.”
Ron DeSantis must be relieved.
The character underwent another, equally short-lived alteration in 1984. Thummer ditched the formal wear for overalls and a bandana and gained a bunch of barnyard friends. In a flash, he was more “Hee Haw” than “High Society.”
“He became more of a farm animal than a pig in suit, vest and tie,” Kopp observes.
That rustic version of the pig didn’t have legs, so to speak, and was quickly put out to pasture.
In 1988, the character’s 40th anniversary, he was lured from retirement. The fair had surveyed its employees over which Thummer they preferred: Country Pig or City Pig?
The urban look prevailed. Thummer returned in his familiar suit, vest, tie and suitcase. He’s still sporting the same look at 75, with modest tweaks.
“It’s such a great story,” Kopp enthuses. “He began as a pig designed for Kaiser Steel, which became a pig designed for the fair, which became a naming-rights issue, which became a radio contest, which led to a redesign.”
In a first, LACMA partners with LA County Fair on art exhibit
Several redesigns, really, as well as a brief sex and pronoun change. But Thummer is hardly the only celebrity to lose his way in the ’80s and find his way back.
“At the end of the day,” Kopp concludes, “he’s still Thummer.”
And th-th-that’s all, folks.
David Allen, who is all thumbs, writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.