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Filmmaker flipped her lid over Tupperware

Sunday, February 08, 2004

By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Behind every burping bowl, there's a story. But who knew Tupperware had such a rich history? Certainly not filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. Until now, the Tupperware story was long forgotten, sealed as tight as one of the company's trademark containers.

 
 
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Kahn-Leavitt previously made "A Midwife's Tale," based on the diary of an 18th-century midwife in Maine. She stumbled onto the Tupperware story while researching a film on plastics.

"It's not just funny and kitschy; it's a really meaty, complicated kind of story," she said in a recent phone interview.

Complicated because it's not just the history of a famous product and its reclusive inventor. Tupperware also marked an important point of entry for women in the American work force. Not only was marketing maven and face-of-the-company Brownie Wise an unlikely corporate leader for the era, but the sales force of primarily women that she encouraged, nurtured and molded broke new ground for women in business.

Kahn-Leavitt's "Tupperware!" airs tomorrow as part of PBS's "American Experience" series and tells the story of Tupperware inventor Earl Silas Tupper and Wise, whose home parties made the product a hit. Kahn-Leavitt said Tupper was initially resistant to making Wise the face of the company, not because he wanted the spotlight, but because he thought the product was good enough to sell itself.

"It's a good product, but I think the company took off and succeeded because it was offering something to working-class woman that no one else was offering them," Kahn-Leavitt said. "They could control their own hours, they could do it out of their own houses. In the period there was pressure for women not to work, but they could say to their husbands, 'Don't worry, I'm just having parties.' It wasn't threatening to them."

Mary Siriani, who was a Tupperware distributor with her husband, Frank, said some women tried to placate their husbands by using the first $15 they earned selling Tupperware to buy their husbands a gift.

"You'd wrap it up pretty and put it on the dinner table, and he'd come home for supper and you let him be the first one to get a gift," Mary said.

For many women of the era, Tupperware offered new opportunities.

"It was a step up in the world for somebody with no college education and not many prospects in life," Kahn-Leavitt said. "Suddenly, they were the Tupperware Lady of their neighborhood, and Brownie taught them how to dress better, how to speak well in public. It was definitely upwardly mobile."

The Sirianis became Tupperware distributors in Peekskill, N.Y., in the 1950s. She was 24 years old, he was 26. Prior to that, both worked in a General Motors factory and Frank ran a luncheonette in a bowling alley.

A relative introduced Frank to Tupperware, and he was impressed. It kept his luncheonette salads fresher than any other containers. He began hawking Tupperware first but, "before you know it, Mary was much better than me. She could demonstrate me up and down, backwards and forwards," Frank said by phone last month.

"We talked about our own experience with Tupperware. All you had to do is tell them how you used it in your kitchen and what benefits you received from the product," Mary said from the Sirianis' home in Sarasota, Fla.

Mary attended her first seminar led by Wise at Tupperware headquarters in Orlando, Fla., in 1953

"I'm looking at this lady, and everyone had hats, suits and gloves on, they were all dressed to the nines," Mary recalled. "She served punch and tea sandwiches and introduced herself to everyone like it was an open house."

Wise and company introduced new Tupperware products to the recruits and offered training in how to properly demonstrate them at parties back home.

"It was an inspiring day. I didn't sleep at all that night," Mary said. "I was so excited about the new items that came out. I couldn't wait to get home and tell people there were new items. [Wise] moved me, OK? She was a great inspiration."

Frank was impressed by Wise's motivation techniques -- recognizing top salespeople in newsletters, giving a gift to top sellers at sales meetings.

"More than a gift, these women would much prefer the recognition and the applause they'd get from their peers," he said.

Despite Wise's less than amicable split from Tupper and Tupperware in 1958, none of her disciples left Tupperware to follow her. Frank Siriani thinks he knows why.

"We had no loyalty to Earl Tupper, but we had loyalty to the product, which was bigger than Earl Tupper," Frank said. "The product was the powerful thing that held everything together. ... We loved that product so much. Honestly, we did. We were all imbued with this wonderful product. It was amazing for its time."

Because of the "Tupperware" documentary, movie studios are circling with plans to turn the story of Wise into a feature film. Kahn-Leavitt will be on board as a producer and script consultant.


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Submit questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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