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Marsha Phillips / Beer drinkers' Miss Olde Frothingslosh dies
Monday, May 29, 2000
By Dan Majors, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Some people go their whole lives without finding their niche, their place in the world, where they belonged.
My aunt belonged on a beer can.
Marsha Phillips, 54, a 300-pound-plus resident of Rochester, died of a heart attack Friday in the Medical Center in Beaver. But not before making her mark as Miss Olde Frothingslosh, the woman whose largeness was depicted on a specialty beer produced by Pittsburgh Brewing Co.
In 1968, Marsha was married to my uncle, Ed Majors, and they used to baby-sit my brothers and me sometimes. Marsha, a big girl all her life, also was a go-go dancer, billed as "The Blonde Bomber," who performed in East End places like The Casbah and Lou's Lounge.
That is how she came to the attention of the people at Pittsburgh Brewing, who were looking for a grand way to promote their novelty beer, Olde Frothingslosh, billed as "the pale stale ale with the foam on the bottom." It was really just Iron City beer inside, but we all know that it's what is outside that counts.
Except in the case of Marsha. What counted with her was what was inside. A wonderful, big-hearted woman with a sense of humor that couldn't be measured in fluid ounces, Marsha shared a hearty, heady laugh with everyone by donning a bathing suit and posing for pictures that the brewery put on cans, calendars and posters.
She received $800 for what was expected to be a one-time holiday promotion. But the cans were a huge hit, especially with beer can collectors who were quick to embrace the uniqueness -- they tell me she was the first real person to appear on a beer can -- and the humor.
Each can told a bit of the Miss Olde Frothingslosh story.
"She's from a small town outside Pittsburgh," the can declared. "It's considerably smaller since she left."
Another can in another color told of her appearance in a parade.
"Only one problem ... Miss Frothingslosh's float ... had to detour a few blocks because of the Seventh Street Bridge weight limit.
"But Miss Frothingslosh kept her chins up and waved happily to the surging crowd."
The beer itself had always been offered to Western Pennsylvania with a chuckle. First produced in the 1950s, Olde Frothingslosh was a splash from the creative juices of disc jockey Rege Cordic of KDKA Radio. The novelty beer was produced every Christmas, and the public drank it up.
My aunt came into the picture in 1968, when the brewery thought of tweaking the promotion with a campaign built around a fictional woman they called "Fatima Yechbergh," winner of a make-believe beauty contest.
My aunt was Fatima Yechbergh -- and all the guys loved her. Especially the beer can collectors.
Unbeknownst to many of us, there is a dedicated segment of society that holds beer cans close to its heart. For members of the Beer Can Collectors of America, their passion doesn't end once they've drained the last drop from a can.
Will Hartlep, 56, of Mt. Lebanon, is a past president and charter member of the Olde Frothingslosh chapter of the BCCA, founded in 1973. The chapter has 128 members and is one of a hundred across the United States. Hartlep recalled how the original brown Miss Olde Frothingslosh cans were "a hot item" when they debuted.
"We used to run ads in trade magazines, offering to trade those cans for original cone-top beer cans, and we'd get responses from all across the country," he said.
The response was enough for Pittsburgh Brewing to continue reissuing the cans every year. They would usually send Marsha a complimentary case of beer -- which she never drank -- but for the most part, her contribution by then seemed complete.
She and my uncle divorced and she went to work as a cashier at the Conway railroad yards. She also did time as a plus-size clothing model, a wig model, a real estate agent and a designer of floral arrangements. In 1979, she married Norman Phillips, but she always maintained a friendship with her ex-husband. In fact, she maintained lasting friendships with everyone she met.
In 1976, Marsha was the guest of honor at the BCCA's national bicentennial convention in Philadelphia. Hartlep said she was "the hit of the party. Everyone wanted to meet her. They stood in line for hours to get her to autograph their cans."
Phillips recounted how the crush of the beer can collectors became so intense that the convention had to provide security for Marsha, "big burly bodyguards" just to protect her.
Like most everything about life, Marsha laughed about it.
Later, in the early '80s, Pittsburgh Brewing Co. decided to update the promotion. They paid Marsha another $1,000 and had another photo shoot, this time in color. Marsha also agreed to three personal appearances, including one at Station Square. People -- admittedly, most of them beer can collectors -- turned out in adoring droves.
"All beer can collectors would instantly recognize her," Hartlep said. "I'm not so sure the average person on the street would."
But Marsha was happy with that.
In the '90s, Marsha's health began to decline. She suffered from heart disease, diabetes and post-polio syndrome. She was bed-ridden for a time and had to have kidney dialysis for the last couple years of her life. But she continued to be upbeat and called and corresponded with her friends, family and fans. "She had the most beautiful handwriting," Phillips said. "People loved getting notes from her."
"She was absolutely delightful," Hartlep said. "There was a beautiful girl inside that big woman."
And the cans remain popular. Hartlep said that while few collectors might have the complete set of Olde Frothingslosh cans, "most people who collect have at least a few." So a piece of my aunt -- an important piece -- can be kept by everyone.
Marsha -- Mrs. Phillips -- was a 1963 graduate of Beaver Area High School. She is survived by her husband, brothers Chip Fortune of Rochester and Daniel Fortune of Salem, Ohio; and their children, five nieces and one nephew, whom she adored.
If you don't mind, I'll consider myself a nephew as well.
Friends will be received tomorrow from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at the J.T. Anderson Funeral Home, 205 College Ave., Beaver. The funeral will be there at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
The Olde Frothingslosh chapter of the BCCA is having a meeting Saturday at Pittsburgh Brewing's Ober Brau Haus. Hartlep assured me that the members would have a moment of silence for Marsha, and then someone will make a toast. "Followed by a beer."
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