Chunky Monkey Business | Left Field | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Chunky Monkey Business 

It’s no secret that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield made a fortune playing the underdog. For more than 15 years, they were the counterculture hippies in the corporate world. In the end, though, they proved to be better at bringing home the loot than most of their button-down brethren. Ice cream was their product, but marketing was their game.

Cohen and Greenfield loved nothing more than a public relations battle with big, bad corporate lawyers. Their biggest break en route to being multi-millionaires had to be the legal harassment they received in the mid-1980s from the Pillsbury Corporation. Home of the infamous Doughboy and owners of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Pillsbury tried to elbow Ben & Jerry’s out of the market and intimidate them with a flurry of legal threats.

Cohen and Greenfield reveled in the attention, spun it as a Fortune 500 Goliath versus two hippie Davids, and trotted out the slogan that would forever be associated with the transformation of their fledgling venture: “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”

Now, with Ben and Jerry relegated to the role of mascots and the multinational corporation Unilever at the helm, the ice cream giant they created is hardly an underdog. Ben & Jerry’s seems to have become the bully it once abhorred.

Last month Ben & Jerry’s hired its own high-priced attorneys to file a lawsuit against Pauline Comanor, an 88-year-old New Jersey artist who claims to be the original creator of the Chunky Monkey character associated with its chocolate-banana ice cream. The lawsuit, filed by the Burlington firm of Downs, Rachlin and Martin, accuses Comanor of attempting to “extort” money from Ben & Jerry’s by asserting her ownership rights to Chunky Monkey. For Comanor, it’s just the latest skirmish in a war she’s been waging against Ben & Jerry’s since 1989.

A professional cartoonist since the late 1930s, Comanor cut her teeth in the trade with the late, great Max Fleischer, the creator of Betty Boop and countless famous Disney characters. In the mid-1970s, Comanor was visiting a zoo when she noticed a monkey that was less than frisky and more than a bit overweight. It was, in fact, a chunky monkey. And her character was born. Comanor’s Chunky Monkey has been a mainstay in her stable of popular cartoon characters ever since, appearing in books, on T-shirts, as a doll and as a prop in public workshops for children. Chunky Monkey is even the star of Comanor’s Web site, aptly found at www.chunkymonkey.com.

But in 1988, Comanor contends, Chunky Monkey was kidnapped by Ben & Jerry’s. Comanor still remembers seeing the first poached pint when she was vacationing in Massachusetts.

“I was stunned,” says Comanor. “I just sat down and cried. I created that character and there it was, stolen by an ice cream company that I knew nothing about.”

Comanor immediately set out to right the wrong. She called and wrote Cohen, Greenfield and the corporation itself dozens of times, getting nothing but silence in return. Ultimately, Comanor decided to let her artwork deliver a message of its own.

“I finally sent Jerry Greenfield a holiday card that I drew myself,” Comanor remembers with a chuckle. “It was a drawing of their ice cream factory with my Chunky Monkey sitting on the roof. He was looking rather sad and saying, ‘Ben & Jerry’s can never own me because Pauline Comanor created me.’”

The strategy worked. Shortly thereafter, Greenfield picked up the phone and asked if he could visit Comanor and her studio.

“Jerry was at my house all day. We served him breakfast, lunch and dinner,” recalls Comanor. “I think he was just coming to make sure I was really a professional artist and, perhaps, to give me a check for the character. But I didn’t want any money. I just wanted my character back.” (She was in fact paid a small sum, with the provision that she not reveal the amount.)

According to court papers filed on Comanor’s behalf in response to the Ben & Jerry’s lawsuit, Greenfield was moved by what he saw in her studio that day, even to the point of “literally getting on his knees, shedding tears and begging her to grant his company some kind of license, after the fact, for its use of the trade name ‘Chunky Monkey’ originated by her.”

By the end of the day, Greenfield and Comanor had a verbal agreement that Ben & Jerry’s could use up its remaining Chunky Monkey cartons and then cease with that line of ice cream. The verbal agreement was rejected by Cohen, however, who knew Chunky Monkey was a winner. He wasn’t about to relinquish it without a fight. And what a fight it’s been: 13 years of accusations and counter-accusations, culminating in the lawsuit filed June 11 by the Ben & Jerry’s Corporation in the U.S. District Court of Vermont.

“It’s strange that the corporate giant in this instance has sued the aggrieved party,” said Perry Sanders, Comanor’s attorney. “It’s an odd way to proceed with negotiations.”

Ben & Jerry’s contends that it only filed the lawsuit against Comanor “in response to her threats to sue Ben & Jerry’s.” In a statement released late last week, the company acknowledged that “Comanor is the creator of a monkey cartoon character called ‘Chunky Monkey,’” but she “has never used the name… to sell ice cream.”

“I don’t want any money from them,” Comanor told Seven Days. “I just want them to stop. This has been one concentrated bully attack on me.”

Earlier this week Comanor’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the Ben & Jerry’s lawsuit based on its “failure to state a claim” and for being filed in an “improper venue” — Comanor’s a New Jersey resident and Unilever’s a European corporation with U.S. offices in New York.

Who would have thought that the hippies who once ridiculed the corporate bullies would so quickly resort to the legal brickbats themselves? As Cherry, er, Jerry Garcia might say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Michael Colby can be reached at mcolby@ adelphia.net.

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