Time for a quick edition of “Allison in Madison,” and this entry is tinged with a hint of sadness. Don’t worry, this post won’t be all maudlin. Before I go any further, let me ask you this: Who loves pizza?! Ooooh, I bet there are a lot of you out there raising your hands. Well, here in Madison and most of Wisconsin, this is a frequent sight:
Rocky Rococo is a well-known chain of pizza restaurants, including the West Towne Mall location pictured above (that image is not from me but was found online; I didn’t yet get the chance to take a picture of a location myself). Rocky Rococo’s (or just Rocky’s for short) specialty is pan-style pizza. So what, you say? Well, yes, most places such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s and Little Caesars are known for selling pizza by the whole pie. Rocky’s does that, too, but they specialize in pizza by the slice. To the layperson (or at least me), it did sound like a somewhat revolutionary idea when the chain first started out with one store in the mid-1970s, and it sounded well suited for college students or other single people who had a hankering for pizza but didn’t want a lot of cold pizza occupying their refrigerator the next morning. Rocky’s has continued their by-the-slice model — complete with fine ingredients, tangy sauce, and dough made every day — to this very day, although they also do sell salad and similar healthy fare, along with full-sized pizza pies (including a special one I’ll talk about later).
Now, you may be asking, is this “Rocky Rococo” person as mythical as Ronald McDonald is or as real as Colonel Sanders was? Well, it’s actually little bit of both. Rocky’s was established in 1974 by two gentlemen, Wayne Mosley and Roger Brown; their first store was located on Gilman Street in Madison. They based the Rocky Rococo name on a character from the Los Angeles-based Firesign Theatre comedy troupe. The character they would use for the Rocky Rococo logo, a mustachioed gentleman sporting a white fedora and jacket, came from a sketch Madison-based artist Dave Muldowney created for a Mad Magazine story.
That Rocky Rococo character was only two-dimensional until about 18 months after Rocky’s launched, when Mosley and Brown met this gentleman:
Jim Pederson was originally from Chicago, where he worked with the Second City comedy troupe. He would relocate to Madison, where he would operated a marketing/consulting firm and later become a psychotherapist with his own small practice. But he would become well known for bringing Rocky Rococo to life, putting on that white suit and fedora, as well as a mustache and sunglasses (and an Italian accent full of bravado and boisterousness), to appear in everything from print promotions to radio and television spots (many of which Pederson himself would write), such as the one from 1994 that I’ve embedded below. Rocky was also the face and voice of a popular Rocky Rococo promotion for this time of year (and again I’ll get into that later). He also for a time served as host of a movie showcase on local TV that the Rocky Rococo chain sponsored called, of course, Master Pizza Theater.
Pederson, as Rocky, would also make several in-person appearances at Rocky’s locations, as well as making countless other public and charitable appearances. Male Mode Me got to see him in action during a couple such charitable appearances. I won’t get into too much details on the event (out of a need to protect Male Mode Me’s privacy), but Rocky’s charm was in full force: He would shake hands, pose for pictures, hand out coupons for Rocky’s pizza, and even perform a little bit of poetry and rap (a skill I bet Pederson learned at Second City).
No doubt about it, Jim Pederson made Rocky Rococo quite the charmer, taking what was originally a two-dimensional print characterization and turning him into a living, breathing personification of a chain whose locations can be found in malls, shopping centers, and street corners not just here in Madison but throughout Wisconsin and even a couple of franchised locations outside the Badger State. Unfortunately, that personification has come to an end with the news that Pederson passed away on February 4 at the age of 68. As Rocky’s co-founder Roger Brown commented to the Wisconsin State Journal in its obituary for Pederson, losing him is “a big deal… he had a big impact on the business.” No, Jim Pederson did not own the company or create the pizzas, but he — through the Rocky character — became so symbiotic with the chain that it will be weird not to hear him on the radio, see him on TV, or even witness him in the flesh.
Rocky Rococo the character, at least as Madison has known him over the past 40 years, may be in the past, but just as Wendy’s had to move on without Dave Thomas and KFC had to do the same without Colonel Sanders, Rocky’s the “rockin’ pizza place” (a lyric from their jingle) will still be around. Co-founder Wayne Mosley, in that same State Journal obituary, hinted that “the spirit of Rocky will live on and we hope it will be fun and a tad irreverent.” Obviously, the general public and maybe the powers-that-be at Rocky’s do not know what that will mean. But if KFC has been able to dress several actors as Colonel Sanders over the past year, perhaps Rocky Rococo will do something similar. What’s for certain, though, is that the man who previously wore the jacket and fedora will be hard to replace.
Oh, I’ve been promising that “special” pizza that Rocky Rococo offers at “this time of year.” Well, here is a portion of an advertisement on the back of a coupon catalog that came in my mail just this week:
The picture I have taken may not be the greatest (that flash takes away from everything), but that is indeed a heart-shaped pizza… er, I should say “Rocky’s Famous Heart-Shaped Pizza!” Yeah, I know, doesn’t that look so delicious?! You almost want to reach right into your computer screen and grab a bite. Valentine’s Day has always been one of Rocky Rococo’s busiest occasions, no doubt in part due to that uniquely-shaped pizza pie (and that heart-shaped pizza box it comes in), but also its endorsement by Rocky himself, who would argue in promotions that “my heart-shaped pizza is more romantic than candy or flowers.” He did have a point there, when you think of it: Chocolate may melt, and thorns may make roses less tasty, but pizza really brings the love.
Jim Pederson, as Rocky, would also appear at all of the chain’s Madison locations (as well as its locations in La Crosse, in Western Wisconsin) on or around Valentine’s Day, all to promote those heart-shaped pizzas. Rocky would offer breadsticks, pose for pictures, and sing or rap a song on the spot (again, probably a part of that improvisational training) to great applause. But perhaps the nicest part of the adventure, as recounted again in Pederson’s obituary: Rocky would take a break to saunter back into the kitchen, where he would greet the crew and offer thanks and appreciation for the job they would do so well. Yes, I agree, that sounded awfully sweet of him to do that. And, yeah, you may think it’s almost as if he ran the Rocky Rococo chain. No, truth be told, he didn’t; but for 40 years he was its heart and soul.