Bob Colburn wrote ads for Old Dutch, Fritz

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2011 - 9:45 PM

The Twin Cities native, a poet and jazz lover as well as ad man, had a distinctive, commanding voice.

Bob Colburn

Before Bob Colburn wrote jingles for Old Dutch potato chips, served as ad manager for Walter Mondale's first U.S. Senate campaign and worked as program director at Channel 11, he and his wife were known as Mr. and Mrs. Music on their daily radio show in Fairmont, Minn.

Dorothy Colburn would play piano. But it was the commanding voice of Bob Colburn, who later wrote the first TV commercials for Polaris snowmobiles and was the voice of Better Homes and Gardens commercials, that drew the attention of listeners.

That voice was silenced, after 85 years, when Colburn died in his recliner in his Edina home last week. But for those who remember it, that voice will serve as a soothing tribute to a man whose golden throat and ideas were the perfect match for the golden era of radio and television.

"When the ad agency my dad worked for was hired to do Walter Mondale's Senate campaign, Dad had this idea of doing man-in-the-street interviews," recalled Carla Tollefsrud, one of Colburn's four children. "Dad did the interviews, which would always be with Mondale supporters, and then Mondale would comment on what the people said. And Dad would be the narrator.

"It worked well ... well enough to overcome a slight mistake in the first 20,000 campaign buttons that were produced. They were for Walter E. Mondale. I guess somebody missed the Fritz part."

Born in St. Paul and raised in Minneapolis, the 6-foot-3-inch Colburn joined the Navy to "clean up after Pearl Harbor," he often said. He returned from the USS Los Angeles to Minnesota after World War II and, on a whim, enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College, where he met Dorothy Anderson. They married two days after they graduated from college, a marriage that lasted 61 years.

Colburn taught English and debate in Pipestone, Minn. Tall, dark and handsome and a lover of the spoken word, he was a natural for the theater. He directed school plays and the Song of Hiawatha Pageant in Pipestone.

But as his family and bills grew, Colburn was lured away by a chance to break into advertising. He moved to Iowa, where he handled the Blue Bunny ice cream account and competed nationally in a barbershop quartet called the Vigortones. He began as the lead singer, but a bout of laryngitis turned him into a bass.

When the Colburns returned to the Twin Cities, he landed a job with the Colle McVoy ad agency. Clients included Old Dutch, McGarvey Coffee and SuperAmerica. In his eulogy, son Tim talked about marveling at his father's "burst of creative energy surrounding those projects."

He wrote poetry, loved jazz and Lake Superior and had an incurable sense of humor -- even when he battled lung and prostate cancer and kidney problems.

At Colburn's funeral last week, somebody referred to him simply as "The Voice." He liked to say that he was the original Mad Man.

In addition to his daughter Carla and son Tim, Colburn is survived by his wife, Dorothy; two other daughters, Kimberly Colburn and Linda Colburn, and their families.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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