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IRBIR the Alien says, “I’d Rather Be In Rochester”

March 25th, 2014

Wheeler Dealer board game, Rochester edition. c1980. [PHOTO: Laurie Dirkx]
A RocSubway reader is looking to sell this old Rochester “Wheeler Dealer” board game ($50)*. Wheeler Dealer is a game of two parts. First, players travel the world while buying, selling, bargaining and trading products. In part two those products are sold back to the bank or auctioned to the highest bidder. Licensed versions of the game were produced for many cities around the world in the 1980s, including this one for Rochester…

The Wheeler Dealer game is pretty neat. It features lots of local businesses from the time period and a few landmarks like Highland Park. [PHOTO: Laurie Dirkx]
The game features many local businesses like Sibley’s, McCurdy’s, Vic & Irv’s, and Captain Tony’s Pizza. And even a few local landmarks like Highland Park (where players start out).

Pretty neat. But the game isn’t the most interesting part. Check out the alien in the corner of the game board…

Do you recognize this guy? It's Irbir the alien, a Rochester mascot from the early 80s. [PHOTO: Laurie Dirkx]
Do you recognize this guy? It’s Irbir the alien, a Rochester mascot from the early 80s. He appeared in advertisements and television commercials by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce and was used to promote local retail businesses.

Rochester, New York's alien mascot, IRBIR, as pictured in the Oct. 27, 1982, issue of the now-defunct Fairport (N.Y.) Herald-Mail newspaper. IRBIR is an acronym for Rochester's tourism slogan of the period, 'I'd Rather Be In Rochester.' [IMAGE: Deepthirteen, Flickr]
Here’s the only other image I could find of Irbir, from the Fairport Herald-Mail (Oct. 27, 1982). Thanks to Deepthirteen on Flickr external link for this.

And here’s one of the old “I’d Rather Be In Rochester” TV commercials from the early 80’s. This not the one with Irbir, but it does feature the catchy jingle, plus a few well known Rochesterians: Ramon Santiago (artist) external link, Terry Diehl (pro golfer) external link, Joe Altobelli (pro baseball player and manager) external link, Jeff Tyzik (musician) external link, and Don Potter (musician & producer) external link.

Animator and producer Brian Bram external link told the story of how Irbir came to be in the comment section of Rocwiki…

3 years BEFORE E.T. was released, my friend Jeff Sackoff came to my office (The Effects Factory) with an idea for doing a commercial that would showcase our talents. He had gotten permission from the Chamber of Commerce to use the jingle to the “I’d Rather Be in Rochester” civic pride project (from Hutchins Y&R), and suggested we do a kids commercial about a little alien landing in Rochester because he’d rather be there than anywhere else. We storyboarded a spot that had him arriving from space, passing by the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and coming to Rochester where he looks down at and says, “I’d Rather Be in Rochester…It’s Got It!” With the Chamber of Commerce’s blessing, we began production.
Irbir was the result of several talented people working together. Including Dave Kindlon, known more recently for his work on the “starring” robot in I, Robot and other films. (note that “Irbir” is the acronym of “I’d Rather Be In Rochester). In addition to Dave Kindlon there were about 10 others that directly contributed to the project. Dave’s friend Derek designed Irbir’s face. I can’t remember everyone’s name now, but there was Larry (?), Marte Cellura, Chris Elling, Gale Gand, Terry Conheady, legendary view camera photographer Mark Sampson, and Jim Bennett, a makeup fx friend of Dave and Derek’s. If I’ve left someone out, please forgive me.
We built the Irbir figure in an industrial loft in the Cox Building at 25 St. Paul Street. We did the first commercial at Channel 31 where I had done the “Sci-Fi Saturday” movie open. Mark Phillips and Ron Dylewski at 31 were kind enough to let us use the studio for our production. They also arranged for Irbir to appear on The Buckaroo Club with Ranger Bob several times, and had Irbir do a RIF (Reading is Fun-damental) PSA. It took seven of us to operate the puppet in that first spot.
The first spot, featuring great music by Terry Conheady, aired with heavy rotation (lots of showings), and we decided to make a second one. We rented a cherry picker and shot on Cobb’s Hill (with giant rubber mushrooms to make the scene more magical), following Irbir as he walks up the path to look out upon his chosen home, Rochester. Then we built a version of the puppet that was capable of live appearances. A cabinetmaker whose name I’ve forgotten built a large-scale version of Irbir’s spaceship, MXR donated a pitch transposer, and we began to do appearances in shopping malls. Derek designed T-shirts (for sale at McCurdy’s) and Terry operated the puppet (redesigned to be operated by one person). We did several live appearances at area malls and at Camp Good Days and Special Times before retiring Irbir. Last I knew, he was in a series of boxes in Jeff Sackoff’s basement around the corner from Jeremiah’s.
E.T. came out about 6 months after Irbir debuted on the air. We ran into a lot of people who thought this was an E.T. imitation. Irbir looked absolutely nothing like E.T., but the timing was such that people (especially kids) saw any little alien character as E.T. We became disheartened as we had to explain again and again that this was not E.T.
McCurdy’s wanted to leverage the Irbir character for promotion (of McCurdy’s), but didn’t want to pay to license it from us. We offered full rights to the American Cancer Society with underwriting by corporate sponsors, but they declined (Bill Finger, a McCurdy’s executive was on the ACS board and allegedly killed the proposal…and Irbir). So Irbir went in the box. Additional info can be found in the Times-Union archives in an article about Irbir by journalist Karen Heller.

Do you remember Irbir? If you do, or if you have photos of the friendly space alien, please drop a comment below.

*UPDATE: Sorry, the Wheeler Dealer game has sold 🙁

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 at 7:18 am and is filed under Art + Culture, Rochester Gifts, Rochester History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “IRBIR the Alien says, “I’d Rather Be In Rochester””

  1. Wow! I can get $50 for a copy of that game? I see them all the time in the thrift stores and even picked up a copy a while back for $2.

  2. @Tony, thanks! I feel better now for passing on the offer 🙂

  3. We’ll have to do a gaming night. 🙂

  4. Just got an email from Brian Bram. He told the following story of Irbir’s final public appearance…

    Irbir’s final appearance was at Camp Good Days & Special Times (a camp for kids with cancer). They were having a “Christmas in July” party (you can guess why), and by this point in time, it was just Jeff and I doing the shows. Sometimes he would run the puppet and I’d be out front, but this night I was operating the puppet and Jeff was doing the emceeing. I’d be inside the orange spaceship set piece; my right arm was up inside the puppet and holding a harness inside his head. I operated his mouth with my fingers. My other hand and feet were used to operate levers and pedals that moved his arms, fingers, and feet. I would talk into a microphone that was fed through the MXR pitch transposer to get the “alien” voice effect. The whole effect was pretty lifelike. I could see what I was doing via a video camera trained on the set as well as a door viewer mounted just behind Irbir’s head.

    The show worked like this: The spaceship would be closed; Jeff would greet the crowd and warm them up. Then, he would introduce Irbir; that was my cue. I’d start the music (written and recorded by Terry) and turn on the smoke machine and the strobe lights. Under cover of the smoke, I’d slide the curved “hatch” open and slide Irbir’s seat out. When the smoke cleared, Irbir would be sitting in the ship with his legs out over the side. Then Jeff would invite each kid up to meet and talk with Irbir (I could hear the kids via a parabolic microphone mounted above the ship). We had a lot of great “business” we did, like Jeff asking the kid how old he or she was, and “Irbir” would volunteer that he was exactly the same age (they loved that). Jeff and I figured out how to get Irbir to autograph his photo right in front of the crowd; it was a combination of Irbir moving his hand with a pen in it and Jeff actually moving the picture slightly so that a crude version of the word ‘Irbir” was formed. Really. Anyway, we had about 20 kids up on the stage, one at a time, and I had noticed that there was a little girl in a wheelchair by the side of the stage all night, and she never took her eyes off Irbir for a moment. Finally, we came to the end of the evening, and Jeff asked her if she wanted to meet Irbir. She was a bit wobbly, but she got out of the chair and came up on the stage. Jeff and I did our routine, and she answered the questions, but she was kind of quiet. It was easy to see that she was very, very ill. All of a sudden, she threw her arms around Irbir’s neck and hugged as hard as she could (remember, my arm is inside the figure and goes up through the thin rubber of his neck into his head. So I can feel her hug very strongly. Then she whispers into Irbir’s ear (I can hear it perfectly), “I love you, Irbir. Please don’t ever forget me.” I was crying; Jeff was turned away because he was crying, too. I managed to choke out, “I won’t, (name). I love you, too.” Then it was all over. We packed up, drove away, put the boxes containing the puppet, mechanics, ship, and props in Jeff’s basement, and it was all over.

    Best,
    Brian

  5. MinkyUrungus says:

    ^ Man… 2:’-/

  6. Bill O'Dell says:

    I would love a copy of the “I’d Rather Be in Rochester Commerical. I was in the commerical. I was throwing the Frisbee to the St John Fisher President. I have been looking for it for years and would like to find a way to get it or purchase it. Anything you could do to help would be great.

    My brother and his family, live in Rochester and are quite involved in sports. The O’Dells are the Volleyball family of Rochester.

    Thanks,

    William (Bill) O’Dell
    bodgm@aol.com

  7. camden dechert says:

    What is the font used in “i’d rather be in rochester”


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