Last week, in the upstairs loft at Meshuggah Coffeehouse in the University City Loop, something Unreal took place. Two Hallmark greeting-card writers, an editor, at least two publicists, another Hallmark employee and ten suburbanites converged to experience together the national Hallmark Meaningful Moments and Memories Tour, one of six stops in St. Louis on a journey that will take them to Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and elsewhere. This was at Meshuggah, where Loop rats get their coffee, where bohemians cuddle with DJs, where wannabe philosophers argue with poets about existential bullshit. Where most meaningful moments involve a cigarette and a double-shot.
Seated between a video screen and a circle of women who are clearly not Meshuggah regulars, Hallmark card writer Matt Gowen holds up one of his creations. (Cue string section. ) "Here's an example of a card I wrote," he says into a headset mic that makes him look like a member of *NSYNC. The card is a photo of an apple sitting next to an orange. Thanks is written in the corner. Gowen opens the card. Inside it reads, You're beyond compare. The crowd smiles. "This phrase on the inside -- it's not a new phrase," he acknowledges. "This is an example of a card where the package, with the visual, makes it, even if what you're saying isn't exactly brand new."
Next, Hallmark writer and St. Louis native Jennifer Fujita, who's celebrating her fifteenth anniversary with the Kansas City-based company (later her colleagues will present her with a card) shows one of her efforts, which reads: You are riding on a float of pink roses through streets lined with your adoring public. She opens it. Happy Birthday. Another adoring sigh from the crowd.
"What we're doing is communicating with people in an emotional way," Gowen tells Unreal. "That's not usually the mission of most companies." He used to be a journalist, he says, but got sick and tired of only writing about things like war, famine and greeting-card promotional tours. "It got to the point where I thought: 'You know what? I think I would rather that my words energize people, excite people, interest people, make people happy.'"
Steak Your Claim
Most news organizations fail to see the importance of assigning a scribe to the meat-sandwich trademark beat. That's why God made Unreal, who keeps a close eye on griddle conundrums at blue-plate broilers all around the region.
Hot on the heels of our riveting "Gerbergate" reportage (see the issues of October 8 and December 3 last year) comes a meat-sandwich trademark battle of epic proportions. The combatants: Steak n Shake and Burger King. At issue: Whether Burger King's new Steakburger is an illegal rip of Steak n Shake's trademark line of belly bombs.
On May 3 Steak n Shake filed suit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, accusing Burger King of trademark infringement, false designation of origin and trademark dilution. Their beef: Burger King's Steakburger, which debuted on May 1, is "an apparent attempt to free ride on Steak n Shake's reputation and renown."
Burger King spokesman Blake Lewis believes the fast-food mavens of One Whopper Way are in the clear.
"We clearly believe 'steak' and 'burger' are available to us just like 'the' and 'and,'" says Lewis.
Steak n Shake, whose representatives did not return multiple phone calls to their Indianapolis headquarters seeking comment for this story, has gone so far as to secure multiple trademarks involving the term "Steakburger" (among them a trademark for "Original Steakburgers"). But Steak n Shake isn't the nation's sole proud owner of a "Steakburger" trademark. Natural Meats Montana holds the rights to "Natural Steakburger" -- and none other than Burger King Brands, Inc. has trademarked "Great American Steakburger."
But then, these cases are hardly as simple as who's registered what trademark, says Paul Fleischut, a patent and trademark attorney with Senniger, Powers, Leavitt & Roedel of St. Louis.
"Steak n Shake's challenge here is that they will have to prove that the public in Steak n Shake's trade area attributes the name 'Steakburger' to Steak n Shake and Steak n Shake only," says Fleischut (the trade area in this case being the St. Louis region). "And their other challenge will be to prove that Burger King's Steakburger will confuse the fast food-eating public into thinking that there is an affiliation between Burger King's Steakburger and Steak n Shake.
"If you interviewed people in St. Louis and you asked, 'What does the term "Steakburger" mean to you?' it would seem like a lot of people would attribute that to Steak n Shake," Fleischut posits. "On your next survey question -- 'Burger King must have a deal with Steak n Shake' -- I don't know."
But Unreal knows something Fleischut doesn't: that the purest incarnation of the Steakburger exists at S&J Main Street Bar and Grill in Columbia, Illinois, where the sandwich actually contains steak, a far cry from the fast-food combatants' poseur patties.
"Is it better than their Steakburgers?" S&J bartender Janet Poole asks rhetorically. "Oh, yeah. It's steak, not a ground-up patty. Everybody raves about it."
After the catharsis of having our dream interpreted by a Webster Groves metaphysician last week, Unreal figured our night-side visions would subside for a while. Wrong. Last Wednesday night, after apparently taking too much cough syrup, we dreamed we saw Riverfront Times staff writer Ben Westhoff on KSDK-TV (Channel 5) last Thursday at, like, 6 a.m., talking to Art Holliday about the impending final episode of Friends. We woke up in a big drool puddle on our white Hungarian goose-down pillow, muttering, over and over, "What does Ben Westhoff know about Friends?"
We seem to remember it going something like this:
Holliday: Even though Friends will be with us forever because of reruns, we say an official goodbye in tonight's final episode. And here to put some perspective on Friends is Ben Westhoff, an entertainment writer for the Riverfront Times. Talk about the appeal of Friends. Why has it lasted for ten years?
Westhoff: (disheveled, wearing a mint-green V-neck sweater with no shirt underneath) Well, basically, uh, Friends is kind of a fantasy. It's really got kind of dysfunctional, incestuous relationships between these characters. They all live in this fancy New York condo and work in coffee shops. People just said, "Wow, that's a great life. I'd like to live it."
Holliday: On the short list of the greatest sitcoms of all time -- I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, The Andy Griffith Show, even The Cosby Show -- if you were choosing the best sitcom of all time, what would it be, and then, where does Friends rank? Is it in the sitcom hall of fame?
Westhoff: (gesticulating oddly) Well, I think the best sitcoms have really paved the way for new styles and new characters. You know, Seinfeld, All in the Family. Even shows like Felicity and Charles in Charge did new things. I don't think I'd put Friends in that list. I don't think it ranks up there, but maybe time will tell more than anything.
Holliday: Why do you think we get so attached to Mary Richards, Hawkeye Pierce, Sam Malone, the Seinfeld crew?
Westhoff: (high?) Well, I think for one thing, it's really hard for a sitcom to stay on the air year after year after year, and I think we really identify with the actors. You know, they want to stay relevant and keep their earning power, and we want them to succeed. And, when there are certain characters who we think are quirky enough that they should succeed, then we wish success upon them.
Holliday: Ben Westhoff, from the Riverfront Times, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts about the Friends finale tonight.
Westhoff: Okay. (awkward pause) Well, thank you.
Burn Me Up and Put Me in a Can
Death is a lot of fun at the new Ronald L. Jones funeral chapel at East Fair and West Florissant avenues in north St. Louis. At least it was at the mortuary's May 2 grand opening, which featured a live gospel concert, a free raffle for a TV set/DVD player, screenings of the locally filmed documentary Laid Out on a giant flat-screen television set and enough fried chicken to allow all comers to die happy. Black Bentleys, Jags and stretch Town Cars line the blooming residential streets outside, as event coordinator Kevin Lee leads Unreal on a tour of the marvelously restored marble-floored palace (the place used to be a funeral home but had sat vacant for fifteen years), from the plush lounges in the basement to the well-buffed Italian bronze statues on the main floor to the electric organ on the balcony upstairs.
The funeral home's flagship location -- on Delmar Boulevard just east of Skinker -- is nice, but at his new place Jones offers strictly one-stop shopping for all your corpse's needs. "You can have everything done here," says Lee, ticking off the amenities: urns, headstones -- there's even a florist! And the caskets! Starting at about $4,400 for your basic box, moving up to the bright purples and maxing out at $20K or so for genuine mahogany.
Just how fancy you want to get is "all about your pocket," Lee says. Then he waxes practical. "Personally," he confides, "just burn me up and put me in can."