March 21, 2012 — I would love to say that some of the most formative words of my pre-teen years, the ones that stuck with me, guided me, and comforted me in my most uncertain hours were pulled from the pages of Mark Twain or the stanzas of Robert Frost or the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Instead, they were these:
When that clock strikes half past six, babe, time to head for golden lights.
If you already know where I’m going with this, then God have mercy on your poor soul. Also, get your cholesterol checked. The words were sung to the tune of Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife by a black-suited piano player in sunglasses who had a giant crescent moon for a head.
A giant crescent moon for a head.
His name was Mac Tonight. It was a McDonald’s commercial.
Two decades later, I still find myself singing these words in the shower. And the crescent moon in the sky always wears sunglasses in my imagination. And Mac Tonight has remained one of my go-to doodles, up there with tesseracts and tornado funnels with spider legs.
In the late 1980s, McDonald’s was pioneering a late-night fast food menu. That’s right. Once upon a time, McDonald’s was not a 24-hour eatery. We had to invent fire, wheels, and light bulbs first in order to have Big Macs in drive-thrus at midnight. To really push this concept, they created a new mascot. Of course, they already had the wildly popular Ronald McDonald, but you can’t use a clown for late-night advertising. Because that would be creepy.
So they decided to find a more acceptable level of creepy by creating the enormously noggin’d Mac Tonight.
His first commercial debuted in 1986, and depicted him at a white piano, flying around on a cloud in orbit lounge-singing about how awesome fast food at night is. Later, they changed the lyrics a bit and dropped his altitude to about city rooftop level. In other commercials his piano was black and his stage would be a giant Big Mac or a rollercoaster or some such (see the end of the article for a compilation video from some forward-thinking historian).
Mac Tonight starred in more than two dozen commercials, and they merchandised the craters out of him, including stints in Happy Meals for an audience that wasn’t even the target of their late-night menu campaign. The one thing they never did, though, as least as far as I could find, was to put him in a commercial with Ronald himself. Professional jealousy.
But his was a candle that burnt at both ends. By 1990s, his initial run was over and, other than a brief revival stint in 1996-1997, Mac Tonight was gone from televisions in the U.S. He went the way of the Fry Guys, anthropomorphic chicken nuggets, and the more evil-looking version of the Hamburglar. I did find online that a CGI version of Mac Tonight has been used recently in commercials overseas, where true American genius is always recognized first. Here, though, they just didn’t need anybody to push late-night fast food because it was obviously just so right and a Eureka moment for all of us. Fries taste better at midnight. They just do.
However, recently, I discovered firsthand that in the suburbs of Chicago, they still venerate Mac Tonight.
I found him in a McDonald’s in Melrose Park, Illinois, just south of Chicago O’Hare Airport. He was life-sized and seated prominently in front of a large electronic piano right in the middle of the restaurant. He was also ringed by a specially created wrap-around bar and chairs. It wasn’t just some accidental arrangement or a random display. It was the centerpiece of the entire restaurant. Someone cared. It was awesome.
His body was that of a mannequin, and his black suit was real, all the way down to his tasseled wingtips. The electronic piano looked like it worked, if the plug and socket in Mac’s stage was any indication.
Eventually, I went up and ordered some fries and talked to the manager. He told me that the owner put it up some time ago after tearing down the PlayPlace…he wanted a classier joint, I assume, the type that ball pits of kids with Happy Meal boxes on their heads couldn’t give it. The type of class that only came with a suit-wearing moon-head in shades and shiny shoes.
The manager also mentioned that there were a few of these displays in other McDonald’s in the Chicago area, naming off two or three other towns. That jived with my prior research, although this was the only restaurant whose address I could track down with certainty (2627 Mannheim Road). Like every other place on the planet, there are a lot of McDonald’s in the Chicago suburbs.
I went back to Mac Tonight, sitting at his “bar” with my fries like they were some sacrificial offering at an altar. He asked me about life. I told him my woes. Asked him to play anything that Dean Martin would approve of while I ate and drank and pondered the vicissitudes of life.
Actually, I was thinking about Doug Jones, the ex-mime who played Mac Tonight for most of the commercials. The tall, thin, tiny-headed actor is more known these days as being Guillermo del Toro’s right-hand monster, playing Fauno and the eye-handed Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien and the Angel of Death in the Hell Boy movies. He has a ton of non-Guillermo character credits, as well, including Silver Surfer from the second Fantastic Four movie, the zombie guy from Hocus Pocus, and one of the Gentlemen from the "Hush" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But it pretty much all started with Mac Tonight.
If you need me, I’ll be on eBay looking for his merchandise.
UPDATE: After posting this piece, Doug Jones himself commented about in on the OTIS Facebook Page. First time anything I've done has ever been called "accurate." Feels good: