“I’m a Real Live Wire, and I’ll Never Retire . . . Well, Maybe”

If you lived in Fort Worth during the second half of the twentieth century perhaps you assumed, as I did, that he was a local boy, one of our own, a Cowtown kid from the ’hood who rose to celebrity, like Fess Parker or Bill Paxton or Ginger Rogers.

After all, he seemed to be everywhere in Fort Worth back then. We saw him each night on WBAP-TV’s Texas News, sponsored by Texas Electric Service Company.

We saw him standing like a benign colossus at the Handley power plant.

He also loomed larger than life on a smokestack of the power plant on North Main Street.

We saw him on the side of the Electric Building, standing at the gateway to Show Row like an usher who was his own flashlight.

Once a month when we opened our electric bill, there he was, smiling at us.

Yes, Reddy Kilowatt was one of us, a member of our community.

But wait! If during the second half of the twentieth century you lived in Pennsylvania or Missouri or Ohio, you, too, may have assumed that Reddy was a local boy, a product of those areas.

So, what gives with this Reddy Kilowatt guy? Sounds sorta shifty, drifting around the country like that.

These days you can use the Internet to find out anything about anyone. So, I had a background check run on this Reddy Kilowatt character.

If that is his real name.

Turns out the guy had a record as long as an extension cord!

To start with, there is only one place that could truly call Reddy Kilowatt a “local boy”:

Sweet ohm Alabama.

Yes, Reddy Kilowatt was the brain child of Ashton B. Collins, manager of Alabama Power Company in Birmingham. According to company lore, during a lightning storm in 1926 Collins watched electric discharges strike the ground and imagined them to be the dancing arms and legs of electricity personified as a household “servant”—a servant who works for pennies a day, never eats, sleeps, complains, or calls in sick.

In 1926 about 90 percent of American farms did not have electric service. Collins believed that Reddy Kilowatt as the company mascot could promote (1) the electrification of rural America, (2) the consumption of electricity, and (3) the use of electric appliances.

Collins commissioned a company engineer to render the first drawings of Reddy Kilowatt: bolts of lightning for arms (four of them) and legs and antennae, a lightbulb for a nose, white gloves, and pointy-toed boots.

Reddy Kilowatt made his public debut on March 11, 1926 in the Birmingham News.

Yikes! That’s not the lovable Reddy we remember. The original Reddy Kilowatt, with a decidedly sci-fi alien visage, probably frightened a few kids.

Reddy was introduced to coincide with a Birmingham News-sponsored exhibition promoting electricity and electric appliances.

The next year Reddy got his first makeover: He lost two arms.

In 1934 he grew ears: wall sockets.

From the beginning, there was rhyme in Reddy’s reason.

Also in 1934 Collins began to license Reddy Kilowatt to other electric companies from coast to coast:

Even Hawaii:

By the end of the 1960s about three hundred electric companies licensed the Reddy Kilowatt character.

Reddy even got a passport and went overseas: Africa, Asia, Mexico, Canada, Australia.

In Spain he was known as “Don Kilovatio.”

Reddy in Kenya.

Reddy—“a friendly and interesting chap”—came to Texas (Marshall, Longview, El Paso) in 1936.

He arrived in Fort Worth and Dallas in 1937. Note his seductive “The more work I do . . . the cheaper I work” promise.

These two images in the Star-Telegram show that Reddy got another makeover in the summer of 1946, inspired by the cute characters people saw in animated cartoons at the movies. Now his eyes were more human, more expressive.

After World War II consumers began to use more electricity and more electric appliances: toasters, ranges, washing machines, refrigerators. And the cost of electricity began to fall. It was cheap and stayed that way for thirty years. Reddy Kilowatt was there right along to urge us to plug in, switch on, and power up.

“I can cook your meals, turn the fact’ry wheels.

“I wash and dry your clothes, play your radios.”

By 1950 Reddy had a new electric appliance to promote: television. He easily made the transition from the grid to the gridiron.

A B-58 made at the bomber plant was named for him. (Photo from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company.)

Here is the Reddy we remember.

But the year 1973 brought a shock to his system. The oil crisis began in October when members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo. Suddenly gone were the days of cheap and plentiful electricity. To many people Reddy Kilowatt became a symbol of corporate greed and conspicuous consumption. Electric companies began to abandon him.

In 1975 came another blow. To promote conservation, not consumption, during the energy crisis the Federal Energy Administration introduced Energy Ant. Energy Ant was, well, the ant-ithesis of Reddy Kilowatt.

Responding to a changing world, Reddy tried to “go green,” but a half-century of urging consumption made his conversion to conservation ring hollow with the public.

In Fort Worth, Texas Electric Service Company stayed with Reddy longer than had many electric companies. But in 1982 TESCO put Reddy on probation. Within two years the Human Resources Department put him out onto the sidewalk of West 7th Street.

After the energy crisis had passed, the public that had turned on Reddy turned back to him: He was fondly remembered, an object of nostalgia. The Collins family, owner of the trademark, had been very shrewd. Over the years the family had licensed Reddy’s image for all sorts of merchandise. How bittersweet it must have been for Reddy to find himself unemployed but collectible. A recent search for “Reddy Kilowatt” on eBay found more than five hundred items for sale.

The Collins family retained the Reddy Kilowatt trademark until 1998, when the family sold the trademark to Northern States Power Company. In 2000 Northern States merged with New Century Energies to form Xcel Energy. The new company stopped licensing Reddy Kilowatt.

As far as I could determine, Reddy is now retired, like Ipana’s Bucky Beaver, Alka-Seltzer’s Speedy, Budweiser beer’s frogs Bud, Weis, and Er, and Nestle’s Farfel the Dog. (“Chaaaaaaaa-a-a-a-clit.”)

Ah, but my research did find one Reddy holdout. In the Caribbean on the island of Barbados, the Barbados Light and Power Company—according to its website—still employs Reddy Kilowatt as its spokesbolt.

Of course, that’s just one electric company, and a small one in a climate without extremes of hot and cold at that, so Reddy no doubt has a lot of time on his hands these days. I hope he’s enjoying the sun and sand down there, humming along to Jimmy Buffett songs on the car radio as he cruises around the island with the top down on his convertible.

A Tesla, of course.

 

Reddy Kilowatt TV commercial on YouTube:

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