Gerry Thomas Dies; Cooked Up TV Dinner

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

Gerry Thomas, 83, the Nebraska marketing whiz who became an innovator of the TV dinner when he developed an ingenious way to dispose of excess Thanksgiving turkey, died July 18 at a hospice in Phoenix. He had liver cancer.

Mr. Thomas loved publicity and occasionally feigned indifference to his role in helping spawn a billion-dollar industry while working for C.A. Swanson & Sons. Some debate persists about the actual "inventor" of the TV dinner -- Maxson Food Systems Inc. created in-flight "Strato-Plates" in 1945 -- but Swanson's sophisticated branding of the TV dinner, a term the company coined, ensured greater renown for its product.

For his part, Mr. Thomas was immortalized in the Frozen Food Hall of Fame, run by the American Frozen Food Institute, and won a place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (his handprints were featured alongside a tray print). Maxim, a men's magazine, called him one of the "50 Greatest Guys of the Century," along with James Bond and the inventor of the La-Z-Boy recliner.

When Mr. Thomas joined Omaha-based Swanson in 1948, the business sold fowl, eggs and other commodities in bulk to restaurants and large processors. Executives grew alarmed when about 520,000 pounds of unsold birds crisscrossed the rails in refrigerated boxcars.

Mr. Thomas, a $200-a-week salesman, approached Swanson's owners -- the sons of the founder -- and suggested an idea that would solve their turkey problems. While visiting a distributor in Pittsburgh, he told them, he had seen a meal tray that Pan American Airways was perfecting to serve hot food on overseas flights.

"It was just a single compartment tray with foil," Mr. Thomas later said of Pan Am's product. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

Mr. Thomas transformed the concept into a three-compartment tray, based on his World War II service. "I knew that no man would eat one of these if it was served in metal like his mess gear was," he told NBC News last year. "The idea of my design of the tray was to separate the different food items and put them where you could identify what they were."

The rest was pure marketing, capitalizing on the new craze of television. Mr. Thomas, who did not even own a TV set at the time, said, "I think the name made all the difference in the world."

The Swanson sons were ecstatic, having already had some success with frozen meat pies. The company summoned the turkeys back to headquarters, cooked them and placed them in the three-compartment aluminum trays amid cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas. The retail price was about $1 each.

Mr. Thomas was given a $100 raise and a bonus of $1,000, which he considered substantial at the time. The company sold 10 million TV dinners in 1954, the first year of production, and Mr. Thomas came to regret not asking Swanson to renegotiate his contract for a penny a dinner as long as he lived.

Gerald Ehrmann Thomas was born in Seward, Neb., on Feb. 17, 1922. His father, a lawyer, lost his job during the Depression, and his mother moved to Omaha to start a boardinghouse.

During World War II, he served in the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific and worked as a Japanese code breaker on Okinawa. Afterward, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where he and Johnny Carson acted together in a musical comedy. At Swanson, later bought by the Campbell Soup Co., he was praised for his TV dinner work and was amply promoted.

In 1970, he left the business after suffering a heart attack, moved to New York and spent a decade as director of an art gallery in Grand Central Terminal.

He also formed a business with his second wife, offering gourmet pet treats for Christmastime. Their products included tiny champagne glasses with catnip ("Kitty-Nip Cocktails for Two").

They settled in Paradise Valley, a wealthy enclave near Phoenix. An Arizona reporter visited their home -- more specifically, their freezer -- and found instead of frozen dinners lots of ice and two bottles of Mr. Thomas's favorite prepared martini mix.

His first marriage to Joann Thomas ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Susan Mills Thomas of Paradise Valley; five children from the first marriage; two stepchildren; a sister; and six grandchildren.

For all his latter-day praise, the inductions and the magazine write-ups, Mr. Thomas said, his TV dinner idea was not initially popular among men.

He said he received angry letters from men who "wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did. Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had. Men said I was ruining their lives."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company