Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who Murdered Little Miss Sunbeam's Killer? - Part I

Several months ago we published a column mentioning Donald Wayne Darling II, a Lauderdale County man accused of the murder of a local drug dealer. Since then, we've had several requests for the "whole story" on the murder of Wilburn May Jr. While all the details of these events may never be known, what these interwoven tales say of justice in North Alabama is fascinating.

It was 1942 when Quality Bakers of America, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced a brand of white bread that it dubbed Sunbeam. In an era before rapid transit, an era that was also shrouded in war time restrictions, Quality Bakers decided to franchise its product. In Alabama, the Flowers Bakery Company produced Sunbeam Bread, a product whose recipe quickly made it a favorite of the American consumer.

Just as in today's tight economy, marketing could make or break a product in the 1940s, and Quality Bakers hired illustrator Ellen Segner to create a brand icon that would distinguish it from other products, most importantly Sunbeam Appliances. Segner, who died in 2001, was noted at the time for her semi-erotic pin ups, but is remembered today for her creations of Dick and Jane, as well as Little Miss Sunbeam.

While sitting in a New York park, Segner saw a young blond girl playing. She immediately took out her sketch pad and created what was to become one of the most recognizable faces of the late 20th century; however, before Segner could approach the child to offer her a formal sitting, the little girl had disappeared. Segner then used other models to finish various portraits that came to represent Sunbeam Bread in advertising across most of the United States.

After the war, Sunbeam Bread continued to grow in popularity, and one franchiser hit upon the idea of selecting a real-life Little Miss Sunbeam to represent their area. The first Miss Sunbeam, Patty Michaels, was chosen in the New York area in 1955, but finding public appearances too tiring, left the Sunbeam company after only two years. Michaels went on to appear in The Sound of Music and enjoy a moderately successful recording career.

With the success of this live mascot in one geographic area, other franchisers followed suit. Flowers Bakery held its contest for a Miss Sunbeam in the late 1950s, and thus Marie Burns of the Central community in western Lauderdale County became the Southeast's Little Miss Sunbeam, enjoying the title's fame well into her adulthood when, in the mid-1980s, she was killed by impaired driver Wilburn May Jr.

Tomorrow: Wilburn May Jr.

Today's illustration: While it depicts the topic of today's column, let us remember the caption as well.