Not just an environmentalist but also an educator and an actor and a compactor of trash.
I’m talking, of course, about Crunchy, the Talking Garbage Truck, one of a number of creative mobile educational programs created by Milwaukee Recreation over the years.
As the recreation department of Milwaukee Public Schools noted in its 100th anniversary brochure, “Milwaukee Recreation has always embraced the philosophy of accessibility. In other words, if you are unable to travel outside of your neighborhood for recreation programs, we just might have a solution! Over the years, this concept has led to a number of fun and creative mobile recreation units.
“For example, we’ve created a Summer Trailer Theatre, a Museumobile, the Traveling Star Wagon (a mobile planetarium), two Survive Alive trailers for fire safety lessons, the Barnyard Friends Van, the Super Snake Show Van, circus trains with live zoo animals, the Rec. ‘N’ Roll Mobile, and the Wacky Wheels Skate Van. And let’s not forget Crunchy, the Talking Garbage Truck!”
Let’s definitely not forget about Crunchy, who is fondly remembered by many now-grown students who remember the talking trash compactor visiting their school. (Some of them have even started a Reddit thread about the Crunchster and coined the hashtag #bringbackcrunchy.)
It’s unclear exactly how the idea for Crunchy was hatched, but Milwaukee Recreation organized the program and completed planning for it in 1986 in conjunction with Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, Inc., that describes itself as a nonprofit that, “works in partnership with its communities to create sustainable communities through clean, healthy, and beautiful neighborhoods for generations to come.”
In addition to creating a “Crunchy’s Story” activity book with a story, drawings, connect the dots, a maze and drawing activities, entire scripts for Crunchy “melodramas” were penned. Shows were created for students in grades K-5 and 5-8.
But, most importantly of all, the program required a truck.
In late 1986, Milwaukee Public Schools took possession of a 1978 GMC 6500 diesel – with 82,300 miles on it – from Waste Management, which traces its roots to 1893 Chicago and Dutch immigrant Harm Huizenga, who got his start picking up trash with, what the company history describes as, “little more than a modest (horse-drawn) wagon.”
By the early 1980s, Waste Management had grown into the largest waste disposal company in the world, notching more than $1 billion in sales.
The truck needed work and MPS set to having rust and dents repaired, a bumper and right quarter fender replaced and a new bench seat installed in the cab.
In January 1987, Waste Management picked up the tab for painting the truck green with yellow details and white text, as well as adding eyes on either side. The rear of the truck, where the trash compactor opened, was adorned with painted teeth to make it appear that the truck was chomping down trash.
In February, a camera was mounted and an audio system added and in March a new exhaust system and other repairs were made.
When the work was finished, Waste Management officially donated the truck, conveying ownership of Crunchy to Milwaukee Public Schools.
That autumn, Crunchy and his program co-stars hit the road, making their first stop at Hawley Road Elementary – appropriate considering the school now has an environmental focus.
Schools interested in having an on-site Crunchy visit paid a $20 program fee (or $30 for back-to-back shows on a single day), and were provided with an environmental curriculum for a two-day program.
Day one – in preparation for Crunchy’s arrival – was “Clean-Up Day.”
Students were tasked with cleaning up a designated area to gather three or four bags of non-food trash for Crunch to munch.
Day two was “Crunch Day.”
Crunchy and crew would arrive and set up 30 minutes before the program and you can imagine kids were excited to see the ravenous monster truck pull up at their school.
This is surely why school staff was advised, “Please make sure that students
are not in the area when crunchy is being set up.”
Once ready, the Crunchy program would begin with an emcee that would lead the program, including engaging students and staff in a dialog before the big moment arrived.
Then, Crunchy would munch the trash the students had collected the day before.
Whenever Crunchy spoke, his “eyes” would flash.
At the end of the appearance, each student got a membership card, signed by Crunchy with an autograph featuring a Pac-Man-style “C,” that read, (NAME) is my friend and an official member of Kids Against Litter.”
The school got a certificate commemorating the visit and stating that it was now officially part of the Crunchy Kids Against Litter Team.
Thankfully, there is a video that survives of one of the programs – “Crunchy vs. Baron Von Litter,” featuring Tuffy Trash Can, his faithful sidekick and companion.
The shows encouraged the kids to sing along, congratulated them on collecting their trash and keeping the playground clean, led the singing of “Happy Birthday” if there were kids celebrating that landmark day and, of course, encouraged children to keep their neighborhoods clean.
When the emcee “accidentally” dropped a piece of paper, Crunchy admonished him, leading the embarrassed host to say, “See boys and girls that’s what happens when we are careless. Just think what it would be like if everyone here dropped just one piece of paper and left it. What an ugly mess! Thanks for reminding me Crunchy.”
After leading kids in a “Kids Against Litter Pledge,” the show was over, Crunchy left and everyone went back to class.
But Crunchy didn’t only visit schools and Milwaukee Recreation-run playfields.
In the March 1987 Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful newsletter, the question was asked, “What weighs 27,000 lbs., is two shades of green, and love both children AND garbage? Crunchy the Trash Eater, of course!
“Standing 12 fet high from the tips of his dual tires to the top of his two-tone compactor box, Crunchy the talking Trash Eater was once a rather ordinary garbage truck. His transformation to the superhero of the playground world started when Waste Management donated him to Milwaukee Public Schools.
“Just as soon as Crunchy feels comfortable with his new vocal system, he will be raring to go, eager to share his ‘Kids Against Litter’ message with area schoolchildren. With a little help from volunteer drivers from Teamsters Local #200-Retired Group, Crunchy will navigate his way to playgrounds, parades and other special events, spreading the Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful message about the importance of responsible behavior in dealing with litter.”
Groups who wanted Crunchy to stop in at their festival, special event or school were encouraged to make contact.
Crunchy appeared at the annual Children’s Fest at the Summerfest grounds, in the Circus Parade, the City of Festivals Parade, the City of Glendale parade, Mitchell Street’s annual holiday International Day Parade and other events.
In 1990, he roared onto the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Conservation Days, “An Earthly Event will feature a cast of characters that includes Al Uminum, Can Garoo, Smokey the Bear and Crunchy, the world’s only talking garbage truck.”
There was even a Crunchy Hotline that contained recorded messages, like this one from 1988:
“Hello boys and girls. You’ve reached me, Crunchy, at my hotline number. Say, you’ve been doing just a super job of helping me to keep the greater Milwaukee area clean and beautiful. We can all take pride in the work we have accomplished. But don’t stop yet. You know that fighting litter is a 24 hour a day job, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. We can never let up for a moment.
“It was fun seeing you in the City of Festivals Parade. I recognized so many of you from my visits to your schools. And on July 4th I’ll be in another parade, the big Fourth of July parade at Humboldt Park. I hope to see more of you then. And with you fun time, how about decorating your bikes and joining all the fun activities in the Fourth of July parades in your neighborhoods. You know that the coaches at your playgrounds are anxious to help you decorate your bikes, as are mom and dad. Show pride in your country, decorate for the parade, and march on July 4th. You might even win a prize. That’s all for now. Be good, and remember, don’t be a litterbug. Bye-bye.”
But Crunchy wasn’t long for this world and for some reason that appears to have gone unrecorded, the program soon halted.
In 1992, it must’ve been gone for good as Crunchy was donated to the City of Milwaukee Department of Sanitation and was never heard from again.
Why the program ended is unclear.
We reached out to retired Milwaukee Recreation Supervisor of Outdoor Education Programs Forrest Johnson – a Rec full-timer from 1970 to ‘98 that’s still working as a volunteer – hoping to discover Crunchy’s fate.
“I remember Crunchy very well,” Johnson said, “but can't remember why it folded. I don't think the truck failed.
“I do remember that many of the traveling shows run out of the outdoor education program folded when playgrounds were sort of downgraded or phased out,” he added, referring to when Milwaukee Rec’s focused shifted from playgrounds more to after school and academic enrichment inside school buildings.
So, it seems, Crunchy's ultimate fate may have to remain a mystery.
(NOTE: This article was written for Milwaukee Recreation's institutional history project. While the topic was provided by Milwaukee Recreation, the content was not.)
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.