The Art of Ronald and Friends
SETMAKERS COLLECTION REFLECTS EARLY DAYS OF RESTAURANT’S MCDONALDLAND CONCEPT
McDonald’s is more than a fast-food chain. It’s one of the world’s most influential businesses, shaping pop culture and breaking ground in marketing in the years after Ray Kroc assumed company leadership in 1955.
Kroc (1902-1984) is often grouped with American business legends such as Sam Walton and Jeff Bezos. “Few entrepreneurs can claim to have radically changed the way we live, and Ray Kroc is one of them,” notes the book Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s.
A big part of the company’s success was the clown mascot Ronald McDonald, introduced in 1965. The company soon launched its “themed entertainment” concept, and Officer Big Mac, Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace and Birdie the Early Bird joined the cheerful clown in McDonaldland. “Ronald McDonald and his Playland friends represent some of the most beloved and well-known pop-culture icons across the globe,” says Jim Lentz, director of animation art at Heritage Auctions.
A collection of artifacts dating to the dawn of McDonaldland is being offered at Heritage’s Animation Art auction scheduled for Sept. 22, 2018, in Chicago. The auction includes maquettes, prototypes, displays, hand-painted murals and life-size fiberglass statues from the collection of Setmakers Inc., the California company that designed and produced playgrounds and in-store décor for McDonald’s restaurants. “This rare collection of never-before-seen, one-of-a-kind artwork, playground and dining room prototypes and other treasures that brought these characters into McDonald’s locations around the globe is simply breathtaking,” Lentz says.
The themed-entertainment concept – designed to transport spectators into an immersive, imaginary world – became a focus in the early 1970s after the Illinois-based company created the mythical McDonaldland for a TV commercial.
“McDonald’s came to California from Chicago with their ad agency looking for a company to produce those commercials,” says Duane Ament of L.A.-based Setmakers, founded by his father Don. The elder Ament, the production designer for Screen Gems commercials, landed the job to design the TV sets and designs for McDonaldland.
“The commercials were great,” Duane says. “The issue started with kids going to McDonald’s and expecting to see the playgrounds they had seen on television.”
Soon, Don Ament and his creative team at Setmakers were designing and building the first playground equipment for McDonald’s Playland. That was followed by Setmakers creating in-store murals, indoor playgrounds and specialized seating. “We opened the first Playland at the Chula Vista McDonald’s near San Diego in 1972,” says Duane, who was named president of Setmakers in 1976. “Sales went up wherever they had a Playland.”
Among the notable concept artists hired by Setmakers were theme-park designer Wes Cook (Disney Imagineering, Tokyo DisneySea, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Sea World), and Lee Go (Marvel Studios, Universal MCA). “We had some of the best artists in the system,” Duane says.
“Cook,” Lentz adds, “was one of the most prolific concept designers and artists in the field of themed entertainment. He had an extensive career in the film and television industry.”
In those early days, Setmakers sold hand-painted murals, some up to 10 feet wide, to McDonald’s restaurants, who then added them to the décor. The company subsequently provided restaurants with more reasonably priced reproductions, while keeping the original artwork. Setmakers closed shop in 1986.
In addition to artwork, the Setmakers Collection includes statues of the world-famous McDonaldland cast. “We have the first Ronald McDonald statue we ever made in the first Playland,” Duane says. There’s also a full-size Ronald McDonald statue finished in bronze, one of only three made. One was presented to McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc at a company anniversary celebration in 1975.
“These never-before-seen gems of Ronald McDonald, Grimace, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese and all the McDonaldland characters,” Lentz says, “present a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all McDonald’s fans and collectors.”
For millions of people, Duane adds, the collection represents a time passed. “These are things kids enjoyed. They identified with all these characters. It’s about McDonald’s Playland. It’s real Americana.”
A portion of the auction proceeds will benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
This story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.