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21Country: Wabash’s famous illustrator lives on through iconic commercial art

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WABASH, Ind. (WPTA21) - Charles “Chuck” Showalter was among Haddon Sundblom’s creative ad agency team that dominated the market decades ago.

Much of Showalter’s works, are kept at the Wabash County Historical Museum, often displayed during the holidays, due to his most iconic work: the Coca-Cola Santa Clause.

Showalter was born on Christmas Day, 1917, in Wabash, and died in 2005 in Geneva, Illinois.

His children donated what they had of their father’s work, to the museum.

“He got drafted in World War II. He ended up serving with the 90th operation group, the Jolly-Rogers,” archivist TJ Honeycutt explained, “he was a pilot and that put him at another crossroads, because he had to choose ‘do I become a commercial airline pilot or take a huge risk and go back to art school?’”

Already showing the interest and aptitude for art, Chuck Showalter’s father encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

Success soon followed, after Showalter was hired at the Sundblom ad agency in Chicago.

Haddon Sundblom is credited for illustrating the modern day image of Santa, through his advertisement work for Coca-Cola.

It was Showalter however, who continued to refine the images we still see used today, every holiday season.

“He definitely crystalized the image of the jolly, old man in a suit,” Honeycutt said, “and because of Coca-Cola’s control, and size in our culture, that sort of solidified it forever.”

Showalter’s resume includes McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Ovaltine, the Zenith TV set, even International Harvester refrigerators!

However, the museum’s collection may slightly differ, from the ads you may see elsewhere.

“There’s some controversy with him as well, due to the nature of the ad agency,” Honeycutt told us, “so if you buy prints of him, that he did, at art auctions or eBay for example, from collectors - the examples that we have here, are often different from the ad that actually ran, because the client would want edits done.”

And while Showalter would continue to create art throughout his entire life, his work as Sundblom ended as technology, and styles changed.

“That style was so prominent in American culture from the 20’s through the 60’s,” Honeycutt said, “where if you ran an ad, it is this polished, painted looking object.”

“Later photographer took over and that was the end of his career, with the ad agency,” Honeycutt continued, “because they shifted completely over to photography.”

Despite Showalter’s legacy, when it comes to his work, commercial artists remained largely unknown then, and today.

“All of those artists who worked for Sundblom kind of exist in obscurity later in life,” Honeycutt explained, “and unless you collect commercial art and are into it, they’re usually not signed either, so you don’t really know who did it.”

Women depicted, were often done by using the same model.

Showalter would alter the color of her hair and eyes.

His children were also used in ads, and many of his illustrations.

Showalter’s sketches, are on delicate drawing paper, and must remain in storage for much of the year as protection, however, you can see his work on display again around Christmas.

The Wabash County Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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