The La Choy brand of easy-to-prepare Asian foods was founded in 1922 by Wally Smith and Ilhan New, two Detroit friends who grew bean sprouts, canned them, and sold them in Smith's grocery store. The company opened its first plant in 1937, and grew into a nationally sold brand.
Jim Henson produced a series of eleven TV commercials for La Choy from 1965 to 1967. The series included 6 sixty-second commercials and 5 twenty-second commercials. A 5½ minute presentation reel was also created in 1966.
The star of the campaign was Delbert the La Choy Dragon. Loud and clumsy, the Dragon bullied his way through the ads, proclaiming the virtues of La Choy products, and cooking everything with bursts of dragon fire (which, in some cases, set the filming studio on fire).
There were two sets of ads produced for the campaign. One set featured a hand puppet version of Delbert, interacting on a studio set with Mert, a timid Muppet in a suit. In the other set of ads, a large full-bodied Muppet version of the dragon interacted with real humans.
Some ads are summarized below. Other ad titles are "Ingredients" (60 seconds), "Fire-Breathing Act", "Lunch Break" and "Hot Salesman" (all 20 seconds).
- Supermarket (60 seconds)
- A suburban mother and her Cub Scout son meet the Dragon in a supermarket, where Delbert ends up destroying the store as he promotes La Choy chow mein and noodles. The human cast for this commercial consisted of Beverley Owen as the mother, Phil Grab as the store clerk, and Patrick Ostonic as the Cub Scout.
- Kitchen (60 seconds)
- The Dragon terrifies a woman (Saralou Cooper) in her kitchen.
- Sobbing Bride (60 seconds)
- The Dragon visits a woman (Kelly Wood) who has trouble cooking, and explains how easy it is to prepare La Choy chow mein. Directed by Jim Henson, shot by cameraman Fritz Roland.
- Wifeless Husband (60 seconds)
- A poor man tries to cook dinner for his hungry children while his wife's away. The Dragon appears with a puff of smoke to offer him a can of La Choy chow mein. This commercial and the "Sobbing Bride" were the last Henson made for La Choy; both were shot in October of 1967.
- Six-Minute Sunday Supper (60 seconds)
- The Dragon tells Mert that he doesn't eat La Choy chow mein often enough. It's the perfect six-minute Sunday supper! The Dragon demonstrates how he cooks the chow mein in dragon fire, and burns Mert's house down.
- Campaigning (20 seconds)
- Mert campaigns for crisp chow mein.
- Secret Agent (20 seconds)
- Mert asks where a suspicious stranger (Delbert) got info about chow mein.
- Visual Demonstration (60 seconds)
- Mert intends to show viewers a "sensational visual demonstration" of how Delbert cooks La Choy chow mein in dragon fire .Delbert breathes fire on the can of La Choy chow mein and Mert continues lecturing on the good chow mein while Delbert continues repeatedly breathing fire and starts burning everything. Mert announces Delbert is fired at the end.
The longer 5½ minute presentation reel from 1966 also starred Mert and Delbert, and featured a cameo appearance by Rowlf. The latter's presence is a direct result of his fame at the time from his inclusion in the cast of The Jimmy Dean Show. As such, the running gag is that Rowlf is only allowed to say one line; otherwise they'd have to pay him more. This idea is prolonged to the point where Rowlf continues to interject with his one line, "Howdy," until Delbert becomes fed up and begins to brawl with him.
The Muppet portions ultimately bookend a film reel about Muppets, Inc. and the making of the La Choy commercials. Jim Henson is shown meeting with executive officers for the client company, while Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and two female members of the Muppets costuming department feature in a comedic look at how the process came together from concept to filming.
Mert closes the presentation by introducing the commercials produced thus far, as Delbert and Rowlf continue to duke it out.
The Jim Henson Company files include a letter dated November 9, 1965, sent by William F. Grisham of Campbell-Mithun Inc., the Chicago advertising company who was producing the spots. In the letter, Grisham congratulates Henson on his work:
“Dear Jim Henson: We have reviewed the rough cuts of the La Choy commercials here at the agency. They are fabulous. The world's wackiest dragon. You must know what a pleasure I have had working with you on both the Wilkins and the La Choy projects. What a pleasure to work with people whose views of the world are unrestrainedly mad. These commercials are going to make a lot of people happier for having seen them.”