Andrew Jacob “A.J.” Cripe, who was born in Hebron, Nebraska in 1885, arrived in Pittsburg to start Cripe’s Town Talk Bakery in 1935 at the age of 50. Previous to that he operated bakeries in the Kansas cities of Garnett and Hutchinson and St. Joseph in Missouri.
When I recall A.J. Cripe I immediately think of the legendary P.T. Barnum who once said, “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”
Quick to realize the advertising potential of music, especially on the radio, he organized “Cripe’s Town Talk Playboys,” a country music band in which he sang homespun vocals. They played regularly on KOAM radio and travelled the area playing community functions and parades. An avid horseman, Cripe would at times ride in parades alone, throwing dollar bills into the crowd.
A photo of Cripe’s band shared by Dale Switzer of KOAM TV shows the 6’3” A.J. standing front and center sporting not only his signature Stetson but also a holstered gun, which gives credence to the story that during one of the band’s signature tunes, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” Cripe fired blanks into the air with his pistol.
Tales about the flamboyant Cripe abound. Randy Stanley reported in the Joplin Globe that he was told by Charlie Myers, former manager of the bakery, that, because of his recounting off color stories, he was asked by the KOAM radio station manager to suggest to A.J. that he tone it down, which Charlie did.
On the very next show Cripe announced that he had a very interesting letter to read “from a lady down in Missouri … down in ASS-bury.” After which he reminded the housewives listening in ASS-bury to include a loaf of Town Talk bread when they did their shopping. So much for toning him down. After the show, the station manager asked Charlie not to say anything else to Mr. Cripe about his show's content.
Accomplished accordion player, Bob Serra, of Frontenac, worked weekends at Cripe Bakery while in college in 1959. One Saturday A.J. walked in, verified that he played accordion, told him to go home and get cleaned up, and drafted him to be in the Playboys. “Yeah,” Bob told me. “We played in a parade on a flatbed pulled behind his Packard. I think it was in Independence.”
Serra also shared the jingle Cripe used to open performances: “How do you do everybody, how are you? How do you do everybody, how are you? If you eat Town Talk today, everything will be okay. How do you do everybody, how are you?”
Of course he used all the standard advertising and promotional venues like newspapers, caps, baby bibs, pencils, jacket patches, and porcelain signs, etc. as well as massive signs on the walls of brick buildings all over the area.
Some of them can still be seen. In Pittsburg there’s a large one half a block west of 4th and Broadway, and, if you stand on the corner of 2nd and Broadway and look south, you’ll see one that looks 3-D because it’s actually two Town Talk advertisements from different periods painted over one another in slightly different fonts, one slightly more diminished than the other.
At this point, I’m willing to bet some reading this are having flashbacks to the comforting smell of baking bread wafting through open windows of chrome-fendered Chevys and Fords while driving the gut past Cripe’s bakery (located just half a block east of Broadway on Rose Street) on summer nights in Pittsburg.
Or maybe to eating Town Talk toast and jelly for breakfast. Or munching bologna and mayo sandwiches made with Town Talk bread for lunch at grandma’s while listening to Cripe sing his signature “The Little Red Fox” on Melody Matinee.
Speaking of KOAM’s Melody Matinee, when the show premiered in 1954, it was, of course, sponsored by Town Talk Bread, with Cripe making occasional personal appearances to share his jingle and sing ‘The Little Red Fox.” I’m guessing band member “Fiddling Shorty Prewett” transported him to the show as he worked for Cripe delivering bread to local grocery stores. Note: At 6:30 p.m. this Saturday, October 3rd, KOAM Fox 14 will rebroadcast an excellent documentary about Melody Matinee created and produced by Dale Switzer and narrated by Dow Quick.
Another tale of Cripe’s unabashed approach to promotion comes from Ralph McGeorge by way of his father, Roy, who played guitar for years on Melody Matinee. It seems that after a local mortician announced the graveside services were concluded, A.J. stepped forward with, “Well, if nobody’s got anything else to say, I’d like to share a few words about Town Talk bread.”
Cripe’s charisma and flamboyant advertising methods paid off directly in his political life, getting him elected to represent Crawford County in the Kansas Senate where he introduced bills to add vitamins and minerals to flour, manage the selling of mined land, systemize garbage and trash collection, and administer retirement and benefits for city employees. All were approved by the Governor and became law. He sought election to lieutenant governor in 1948, but failed.
He also tried his hand at ranching, acquiring strip-mined land east of Pittsburg near the state line, which he developed into a productive operation raising cattle, turkeys, peacocks and deer.
Cripe passed away, at the age of 87, at Joplin’s St. John’s Medical Center on May 9, 1973 and is buried in Highland Park Cemetery in Pittsburg. Although mercurial as Southeast Kansas weather in March, the iconoclastic Cripe was, at his core, a civic minded, hard worker who left the Four States a unique legacy of leadership, community service, and free spirited entertainment.
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.