Today marks CollectingCandy.com’s second anniversary (launched on February 6th, 2012 with our Retrospective of Big League Chew) – and it’s also our 450th post! With so much to celebrate, we wanted to bring you a great feature as well as one that is uniquely the fare of CollectingCandy.com. We think this one does the trick.
The Willy Wonka candy brand was launched in 1971 in concert with the release of the feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It would eventually become one of the most successful candy brands of all time, having just celebrated its 43rd birthday. For the first half of its successful run, a man named Mark Sweet represented the brand by playing the real-life Willy Wonka – in print ads, television commercials, videos and hundreds of personal appearances around the country.
Mark Sweet hung up his Willy Wonka top hat and cane nearly twenty years ago, though he’s remained a busy entertainer within the television industry and beyond. Last year I contacted Mark and he generously agreed to share his story and experiences of playing this iconic confectionery spokesman with CollectingCandy.com. More than just the recollections of a candy company’s costumed spokesman, Mark Sweet’s story is a classic showbiz tale of hard work, perseverance, and a whole lot of magic.
Today’s post is one of the most in-depth I’ve ever presented and it’s also one of the richest stories that I’ve ever had the pleasure to share. Without further ado, here is the story of Mark Sweet: The Real-Life Willy Wonka!
When I first approached Mark to ask him about his years of playing Willy Wonka, I didn’t know what to expect, but as we spoke, a fascinating and inspiring show-business tale unfurled before me.
In order to appreciate his path to confectionery-spokesperson legend, it’s important to understand Mark Sweet’s entertainment origins, which date back to his earliest years:
I was born 1951 in Detroit, Michigan. My father Fred Sweet managed a movie theater in downtown Detroit called the Telenews.
A few blocks down the street was another movie theater called the Fox Theater and inside the Fox Theater building was a magic store called Fox Fun N’ Magic. When I was five years old my dad would bring me into the magic store which was next to a deli in the Fox Building, and I remember him saying once “If you finish your milk, I will buy you a magic trick.” I never had any toys as a child, just magic tricks.
The owner of the magic store was a colorful gentleman named Roy Kissell and after these early interactions, he became a lifelong friend. Roy would tell me that “…you do not need a lot of tricks – just learn five and do them well. With that, you can put together an act.”
So I began with doing shows in my garage for the kids in the neighborhood for a nickel. Right about this time I put a sign at the local A&P Grocery Store, Mark Sweet: Magician for all Occasions.
By the time I was eight years old my parents were divorced. After the divorce my mother Fay began working for an office of five pediatricians, sitting behind a desk booking all of the appointments for them. My mom is the most sincere, gifted and natural-born promoter of people she believes in, and who do mothers love and believe in more than their own kid?
Since she had to book their doctor’s appointments, my mom knew when all of these kids were celebrating their birthdays, and she would promote me by telling their parents “my son is a magician”.
So by the time I was eight, I was doing magic shows for kids celebrating their fifth birthdays. Mom was usually at work so my grandfather would drive me from show to show.
I would give every kid attending these parties my business card, and between my mom promoting me, my business card hand outs, the sign at the grocery and word of mouth I was very busy – I did hundreds of shows. Some weekends I would do three shows on a Saturday and two on a Sunday. Eventually it led to larger parties, picnics, Cub Scout Banquets, even some adult shows. By the time I was fifteen I had saved $3,000.
Around that time, one of the doctors my mom worked for recommended a stock broker in downtown Detroit for me to meet with: WC Roney and Co. The broker asked if I had an agent and my answer was “No, just my business cards, my sign at the grocery store, and of course my mom.” He picked up the phone and called Gail and Rice Agency, set up an audition with John Bonino and the owner Al Rice. They booked me at The Detroit Boat Club on Belle Isle for $60.00 to do a 30 minute Comedy and Magic Act, and the show went fine. That led to 10-15 dates a month.
In 1970 they booked me at the Detroit Auto Show for Chrysler which immediately morphed into 100 dates a year for 25 years – just for General Motors! I would perform at the Detroit, New York, Cleveland, Chicago Auto Shows, plus the Texas State Fair, RV shows in Louisville and on and on.
In 1972 it was his tireless and successful work within the trade show industry that would put Mark Sweet in front of the executives charged with finding ways to market the recently-launched Wonka candy brand.
In 1972 I met another magician, Johnny Thompson at the Auto Shows. Johnny was going into Las Vegas for a year and wanted me to meet his trade show agent, Gene Bullard. I flew to Chicago and ended up meeting Gene along with his new clients, the Willy Wonka people. I performed a little close-up magic for them in the Ambassador Club. I was hired on the spot to perform a three day trade show for the NCWA [National Candy Wholesalers Association] as Willy Wonka.
Mark’s multiple performances at that NCWA trade show were a big success and helped the fledgling Wonka brand stick in buyers and distributor’s minds.
After that initial three day trade show they asked if I wanted to do a three week shopping mall tour. I would do three shows a day at the mall and also go with the local candy brokers on sales calls and to wholesalers in the AM. Then they retained a P.R. firm and I would go to local newspapers, TV shows including news, kid shows, and talk shows as Willy Wonka.
The candy brokers loved my Willy Wonka appearances, as it gave them a vehicle to help sell and promote the line. At the time all we had was Super Skrunch and Oompas.
One of Mark Sweet’s earliest television appearances as Willy Wonka is also one of my favorites. Mark appeared at the Kentucky State Fair with Jerry Reed in 1976 for one of Jerry Reed’s television specials. Here’s a clip:
Beyond his many personal appearances as the character, Mark Sweet would go on to be featured in some of the earliest Willy Wonka television commercials.
Fortunately for us, Mark held onto and preserved many of these videos as part of his early reel material and has shared them on his YouTube page. Here are a trio of those early spots:
As years of his work added up, Mark’s importance to the Willy Wonka brand continued to grow.
In 1980, Sunmark, the parent company of Breaker Confections and Concorde Confections, merged the two companies together to form Willy Wonka Brands. When they did, it was Mark Sweet’s Willy Wonka who was used to make the announcement to the candy trade:
It was in the 1980’s where Mark Sweet’s Willy Wonka saw the greatest exposure. Mark’s incarnation of Willy Wonka was now featured in consumer print ads and point-of-purchase displays:
Comic book fans who were collecting in the 1980’s will certainly find the following ad featuring Mark’s Willy Wonka familiar:
More and more, Mark’s Willy Wonka became the face of the brand’s promotions as well as making it onto a series of in-store point-of-purchase materials:
Mark Sweet’s Willy Wonka was undeniably the face of the brand’s new rollout to the candy trade:
This was also a time when Willy Wonka Brands set out to create a public service campaign to provide nutrition information to parents and children:
Mark Sweet’s personal appearances as Willy Wonka were also in full swing during the 80’s. I asked if he was ever sent samples of the actual Wonka brand candy product to sample and he explained that he almost always had some on hand:
Candy was always shipped out to all of my engagements. I also would perform at fairs in the summer as Willy. The Willy Wonka Candy Co. would send 200 pieces to every show for me to give away. So yes, I always had the latest, greatest product to give away.
As for sampling it myself? I was never a candy eater even though my last name is SWEET!
Mark’s Willy Wonka appearances were successful in not only promoting the brand, but also the goodwill around it. Mark shared a few of the correspondence he received during those years:
I asked Mark if he recalled the introduction of some of the bigger Willy Wonka candy releases of the 1980’s, which prompted him to recall a Willy Wonka children’s show where Nelda Nerd was featured as a puppet character.
In the mid-1980’s, I was a guest on a TV Show in Shreveport, Louisiana and on the way to the airport we discussed flying in one day a month to film six episodes of a Willy Wonka show. We did it, and ended up making 76 half hours in all. It was called “Willy Wonka’s Fun Factory”. I had a puppet made named Nelda Nerd, and one called Timmy Tart N’ Tiny. I believe they were on every episode.
From the clip on Mark’s YouTube page, it would appear that Willy Wonka’s Fun Factory was a children’s show in the classic mold with puppets, guests and remote visits as well. Take a look at this clip from a 1986 episode of Willy Wonka’s Fun Factory:
Mark continued on with his Willy Wonka appearances through the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. After Nestle’s 1988 acquisition of Willy Wonka Brands however, Mark’s role as the face of Wonka would lessen while Nestle looked for ways to put their own new spin the Wonka brand.
One of the last promotions involving Mark Sweet’s Willy Wonka can be found with the Willy Wonka Secrets of Magic video, offered on candy packages and in print ads in 1990 and 1991. Mark had always known that his skills as a magician helped him get the Willy Wonka job back in the early 70’s:
Magic was something I brought to the character and that set me apart from anyone else they were considering. I was already well versed at doing the magic and weaving in product information from my previous trade show experience. I eventually produced a video on how to do 10 magic tricks with everyday objects as Willy Wonka entitled “Willy Wonka’s Secrets of Magic”.
From the beginning to the end, magic always played a role with Mark Sweet’s Willy Wonka. Here’s a 1990 Nerds box with the Secrets of Magic video mail-away offer included:
The following year, Willy Wonka Brands advertised their boxed candy lineup along with the Secrets of Magic Video in magazines aimed at kids:
The Secrets of Magic video offered back in 1990 and 1991 is another treasure that Mark Sweet preserved and is available for view on his YouTube page. Here it is:
Mark Sweet’s role as Willy Wonka came to an end in the early 1990’s after two decades, which included hundreds of performances around the country, as well as numerous appearances on television and print as the character.
I asked Mark if performing and making appearances as a character made famous in the classic film by Gene Wilder presented any challenges. His answer was quite simple:
Oddly enough Gene Wilder’s name almost never came up. The PR angle was that Gene Wilder played my life story in the Willy Wonka movie. I seem to recall hearing that at the beginning they tried to get Gene Wilder for appearances, but they heard back that he does not do commercial endorsements. Honestly, it came up maybe three times in 23 years.
It was clear to me that the Willy Wonka gig was a huge one for a performer, and I wondered how it impacted Mark’s career overall:
It made my career easier in that I had a job that went on for 23 years, 80 days a year, that was right in my wheelhouse. Plus the Wonka people were flexible enough to work around my Auto Show dates. So it gave me a platform to work, get TV experience, have a ton of fun and make a good living doing what I love.
Of course Mark Sweet was and is much more than Willy Wonka, with a career that has spanned decades and continues to offer him new highlights every year. A few of those highlights can be found on Mark’s YouTube pages, and I highly recommend you check them out.
I enjoyed learning about a few specific memorable events from Mark’s career that I wanted to include in today’s post. One that immediately jumped out at me came from Mark’s skills as a comedian and MC – which once allowed him the opportunity to open for Hollywood legend Bob Hope, back in 1981:
These days, Mark Sweet spends a lot of his performance time as a sitcom warm-up comic. But to be clear, Mark Sweet isn’t just any sitcom warm-up comic, because he’s widely considered to be the very best in the business.
Back in January of 2013, Mark was featured in a write-up by Zachary Pincus-Roth for LA Weekly entitled The Toughest Job in Comedy.
The cover of the issue showcases an unnamed comedian in decidedly Wonka-esque attire, but Mark says as far as he knows, the look “was purely coincidental”. Even so, we suspect there was some magic involved.
The LA Weekly article points out how Mark Sweet has held long-standing and highly-coveted warm-up gigs on four of Chuck Lorre’s hit shows for CBS; The Big Bang Theory (7th year), Two-and-a-Half Men (11th year), Mike and Molly (4th year) and Mom (1st year).
Before working on those shows however, Mark was warming up audiences for the hit Everybody Loves Raymond. Here’s a clip of Mark describing his job from the set:
Former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield even dropped his name in his recent memoir, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV when he called Sweet “the king of multicamera comedy audience warm-up.”
Mark Sweet has gone from a young neighborhood birthday party magician to beloved candy spokesman all the way up to working regularly with the biggest shows on television. Sounds pretty magical to me.
I wanted to share one last clip before I get to Mark’s closing comments. This is one I actually saw last fall, before I really knew who Mark Sweet was. On an episode of Raising Hope, Mark appropriately played the part of a sitcom audience warm-up comic:
During my interview with Mark, I asked him what some of his biggest obstacles in his career and his life had been. It was clear that he didn’t quite know how to respond. It seems that he rarely considered anything an obstacle.
Overall, I think we create the life we want. In my case, early on my mom would tell me, “Your dad is not going to give you anything so you’re going to have to do this.”
Before every one of my magic shows back in Michigan my mom would always tell me “Make them glad that you came.” I always thought that was a great piece of advice and a good thing.
Not long ago a friend said that she thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a kid. Honestly, I never once thought of it as pressure. To me, it was just great advice, and I always tried to follow it.
As a kid, I enjoyed the magic very much. It was unique, it could make people laugh, I could have fun fooling people with it and I was able to make money. But what kept me going was the art of it, never the money.
At every level of my career I had the sense to recognize the honest, decent and true people from the others who weren’t. I always seemed to find someone who would share something with me that was valuable, meaningful or motivational and those somethings would stay with me for years.
I did a show at a magic convention when I was sixteen-years-old. They put me on at 11pm, after about ten other acts. It was hot, late, and everyone was burned out by the time I stepped onto the stage. After my set, I walked off stage thinking that the show didn’t go so great. But that same act was reviewed in Magic Magazine and their comment about my performance was “Watch him grow.” That helped!
My greatest magic books were motivational books; Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Believing, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho Cybernetics.
As a performer, you have to believe in yourself – you cannot doubt. In that way it is not unlike a religion in that you have to have faith in yourself and that you have done a variety of things up to this point successfully and you have to believe that it will continue.
Inspirational words from an inspirational performer and man.
In addition to a successful career in show business, Mark has built a wonderful family. He and his wife Julie Sweet have been married for 32 years. Their 26-year-old son Griffin currently resides in New York City and is involved in branding partnerships at Billboard while their 23-year-old daughter Shelby just graduated from Syracuse University. I suspect they inherited some of their impressive work ethic from their dad.
It was an unexpected pleasure getting to meet Mark Sweet and to learn about his life and career. Far more than just the man behind a costumed candy spokesman, he is someone who has worked hard and created a magical life for himself. That’s pretty amazing.
Mark can currently be found working on the second half of the CBS network television season, but once that ends he’ll be headed to the MGM in Las Vegas where he headlines his Comedy Hypnosis Show from May 8-14, 2014.
I’m so glad I was able to celebrate CollectingCandy.com’s second anniversary and our 450th post by sharing Mark Sweet’s story. I hope you’ll agree it’s a pretty special one.
And that’s everything for today’s post (our 450th!). See you next time!