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Father of TV Dinner Dies


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By David Schwartz


PHOENIX (Reuters) - Gerry Thomas, the former poultry-company executive who helped marry American television with mealtime as inventor of the TV Dinner, has died at age 83, his family said on Wednesday.


Thomas, honored with a Hollywood ceremony in 1999 to mark the 45th anniversary of his innovation, died of cancer at a Phoenix hospice on Monday after a long illness, according to his wife, Susan Mills Thomas.


"He was very proud of the TV Dinner, but it never crossed his mind that he would ever get any notoriety out of it," she told Reuters. "He just ate up the publicity. He was a real ham."


A decorated World War II veteran, Thomas was a marketing executive at C.A. Swanson & Sons in the 1950s when he conceived of the frozen TV Dinner as a solution to the company's post-Thanksgiving surplus of turkeys. Swanson is now a unit of Pinnacle Foods Corp.


"It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention," Thomas himself recalled during the 1999 Hollywood ceremony at the landmark Grauman's Chinese Theatre.


The TV Dinner not only helped change TV-viewing habits in American homes, it helped transformed Swanson from a poultry company into a major frozen-food manufacturer.


The idea of packaging Swanson's turkey surplus as an entree for a frozen meal dawned on Thomas, then 30, during a business trip to Pittsburgh, where he saw a box of single-compartment metal trays that were being tested by an airline as a way of serving heated meals.


Thomas coined the term "TV Dinner" as a marketing gimmick aimed at tapping into public excitement over the then-new broadcast medium. At the time he did not even own a television.


Swanson, encouraged by the success of the pot pies it had introduced in 1951, seized on Thomas' idea, and the TV Dinner debuted nationally in 1954.


Initially sold for 98 cents, the original TV Dinner featured turkey, corn-bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes, all packaged in a three-compartment tray.


Grocery distributors were at first reluctant to stock the dinners, as many American homes lacked freezer space. But the product caught on with consumers, and Swanson added frozen fried-chicken later that year.


By 1995, production had soared to 25 million TV Dinners per year and kept climbing, the company said. The trademark "TV Dinner" was dropped from Swanson's packaging in 1962 but was brought back in 1999 as part of a promotion centering on its 45th anniversary.


The Nebraska-born Thomas led a varied career, including stints as a private marketing consultant, art gallery executive and co-founder of a company that produced animal treats.



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