I've Been Wondering: The Weatherball

11:56 AM, Feb 16, 2007   |    comments
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For more than 30 years, the people of the Twin Cities took their atmospheric cues from a glowing orb atop the Northwestern National Bank building in downtown Minneapolis. On the most basic level the Weatherball was a beacon that changed colors to signal the next day’s forecast. But it was much more than that. It became a familiar site, a pop culture icon and an image inextricably tied to the Northwest Bank. All of the bank's advertising featured the ball and there was a catchy jingle that firmly implanted the meaning of the colors to every potential customer. You might even say the bank's very identity was wrapped around a blinking sign. However, if you didn’t live in the Twin Cities from 1949 to 1982 you’ll have a hard time finding the Weatherball. On a recent visit to the Nicollet Mall I encountered a wide variety of responses in my quest to find the ball. Some people had never heard of it. Some told me it was still up there. Still others, mainly younger pedestrians, actually accused me of making up the whole thing. Finally I encountered some more mature women who gave me the hard truth. "You’re 20 years too late." In fact, I’d have to travel back in time almost 25 years to see the Weatherball with my own eyes, or hear that famous rhyme. I’d have to go back to the days before Northwestern became Norwest and then Wells Fargo. "Red means warmer weather is ahead," said Megan Schaack who is the curator of the Wells Fargo Museum in Minneapolis. "See it rhymes so it's easier to remember." Megan has become somewhat of an expert on the ball. And the scaled down replica of the sign is one of the museum’s most popular displays. Megan’s also memorized the entire code. "Green, no change is foreseen. White means colder weather is in sight. And if the weatherball blinks by night or day, precipitation's on the way!" Megan says the ball debuted in a grand fashion in 1949 with a celebration that included a fireworks show. The tower, perched atop a 12-story building, stood an additional 157 feet tall. The light inside the globe came from one and half miles of neon tubing. It was built to withstand winds up to 140 mph and just three days after the dedication lived up to its billing, surviving a 90mph gust during rare 'land hurricane' as they called it at the time. It was visible from 15 miles away at night, making it the perfect fix for a town addicted to weather. "I think it's just the people of Minnesota, the upper Midwest, have a great yearning about the weather. A great interest in the weather," said legendary TV weatherman Bud Kraehling who was the other reliable source of weather at the time. Kraehling concedes there were a lot of gimmicks in the forecasting world at the time, including the Shell Weather Tower that served as his set for a time in the 1950s. It was an indoor studio designed to create the illusion that Kraehling was up in an observation tower exposed to the elements. And from time to time he’d give a nod to the big ball. "Made the Weatherball part of my forecast. I would pretend to look out across the sky and I could see the Weatherball, from the weather tower, and would say something like, well we both agree on how the forecast is going to be tonight," he laughed. Of course Bud and the Ball pretty much had to agree. They both got their forecasts from the same source at the time - the National Weather Service office at the airport. Eventually the weather service would have a direct link to the ball, but in the first decade the information was phoned in to bank employees. Everyday at 4:15, an employee would go down to the control room and change the colors. Peter Gillette, a former NW Bank vice president told KARE 11 that there must have been office pools going on what color the ball would be. "We used to get calls all the time from a guy around 4 p.m., asking us if we’d changed the colors yet!" Image-wise, the ball and the bank were inseparable. "Mr. Weatherball was an actual figure," said the curator Schaack. "He was on all the commercials and the ads, and he could talk to you." And if customers forgot the secret code, assuming that was humanly possible, they could consult their miniature Weatherball coin banks which debuted in 1959. And if you opened a savings account with $25 or more you got a free metal Weatherball bank. And it was very popular." The old TV ad still plays at the Minnesota History Center’s weather exhibit in Saint Paul, in the shadow of another Weatherball replica. That’s where we found visitors Patty Bringle and Barbara Benshop taking a stroll down Weatherball lane. "You just heard the jingle on the news all the time, and it was just a fun thing to see," said Bringle when asked how she can explain the phenomenon of the ball to outsiders or young people. "Everyone wanted to see what's it gonna be? What's it gonna be?" Barbara added, "That's how you knew what was happening. We didn't always get to stay up until ten o'clock and listen to the weather." And while it’s been decades since they heard the old jingle they can still fill in the blanks when asked what those colors mean. "Colors blinking by night and day?" I asked. "Oh it's going to rain or snow!," laughed Patty. Just in case you don’t see any connection between banking and the weather, you’ll find that at end of the jingle. "Money is a ball!" The music stopped playing for good on Thanksgiving night in 1982. A spectacular fire in the vacant Donaldson’s Department Store building spread to the Northwestern Bank building next door. The bank would eventually be taken down in a memorable implosion. The Weatherball sign, though still standing, would never be lit again. "Old fashioned or not a weatherball is a friendly site for a lot of us," News 11 reporter Buffy Stone could be heard saying in a 1983 report lamenting the loss of the ball. The ball, it seems was a casualty not only of the fire but of the bank’s changing identity. The loose chain of Northwestern Bank was in the process of being consolidated into a unified banking corporation known as Norwest Banks. "We have to change our name," Peter Gillette told reporters at the time. "And when you change your name, you change your look, your image." World renowned architect Cesar Pelli was hired to create a new bank tower. It would become a modern classic, but would have no room up top for an aging relic. A new plan emerged that would conceivably keep the Weatherball around for generations. The bank entered an agreement with the Minnesota State Fair to put it on permanent display there. According to transcripts of the news conference of January 4, 1983 the bank would dismantle the sign and deliver the ball to the fair. The fair would pay to restore it and have it on display in time for the 1984 fair. On January 26, 1983 a helicopter plucked the ball from the tower and placed it on the roof of the burned-out bank building. Then a construction crane lowered the beloved beacon gently to the street. Little did we know our first close-up view of the familiar symbol would be our final glimpse. The ball sat in storage at the fairgrounds for 17 years, first in the Department of Transportation building and then later in the Cattle Barn. "It was our intention to restore the Weatherball, and put it up for display at the fairgrounds," said Fair spokesperson Brienna Schutte. But she’s sorry to report, the big ball became too costly to revive. "It was stored here on the fairgrounds until the year 2000, when it went to recycling." Recycling? Our ball? In scrap metal heaven? For real? Sensing that we weren’t quite buying the story she reiterated that the ball is no longer there. "It's not here!" Schutte declared. The same goes for Elvis. "No Elvis isn't here. He has been spotted here. But he's not here." Unfortunately current employees can’t find a record of which salvage yard picked up the Weatherball in 2000 and carted it away from the fairgrounds. Otherwise we’d go snooping around for any piece of it. But here’s a thought. Assuming the Weatherball, or pieces of it, were actually recycled as scrap metal. Then, in a way, it could live on all around us. In fact some of it could be in the change in your pocket. After all, as the jingle reminds us, money is a ball.

By John Croman, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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