‘Winner’ takes all

Pub date December 9, 2005
SectionFilm Review

IF YOU CONSIDER  it amazing that New York Times best-selling author Augusten Burroughs was able to maintain a lucrative job in advertising while consuming enough alcohol nightly to poison a small town (see the opening pages of Dry), consider the talents of Evelyn Ryan, who, through the ’50s and ’60s, not only supplied America’s merchants with enough advertising jingles to last the century but also raised a family of 10 while avoiding the wrath of a husband who also consumed enough alcohol nightly to poison his own small town. Unlike Burroughs, Ryan never really did get rich off her advertising campaigns – she won just enough prize money to keep her family fed and housed, and her husband never quite made it into rehab. But her daughter, Terry Ryan, did write a winning memoir about her mother’s startling and subversive stay-at-home career conquering the jingle contests popular at the time. And this weekend Ryan’s memoir hits its own jackpot, as the Jane Anderson-directed film of the book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, opens. Anderson (the TV director of Normal, as well as the 1961 segment of If These Walls Could Talk and When Billy Beat Bobby) turns the perky pre-post-feminist into a model of good-humored heroism.

The leaf doesn’t fall far from the tree. Despite her recent diagnosis with stage-four cancer, Terry Ryan, a tech writer and cartoonist who lives in Noe Valley with her longtime partner, Pat Holt, former book review editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, amiably entertained journalists from a room at the Ritz-Carlton a few weeks back. She said she was incredibly happy with the film, though she can barely remember it; she says she was too amazed by Julianne Moore’s re-creation of her mother to concentrate. The most difficult aspect of the whole project, she says, was the death of her mother, which led to the discovery of the vast jingle archive she used for her memoir research. In her papers, Terry Ryan also found evidence of her mother’s real poetry – witty rejoinders to poems by the likes of Edna St. Vincent Millay – as well as the rhymes that paid the milkman and the mortgage, like "For chewy, toothsome, wholesome goodness / Tootsie Rolls are right – / Lots of nibbling for a nickel / And they show me where to bite."

Like her resourceful mother, the younger Ryan is also a poet (published), and, following in family tradition, she too found her way to the contesting world. One of her most memorable wins? A Bay Guardian cartoon contest more than 25 years ago. (Susan Gerhard)

‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’ opens Fri/30 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in film listings, for showtimes.