I think McDonald's owes Galax, Virginia some kind of debt.
On a cold February day in Galax in 1989, a 13-year-old boy named Scotty Landreth was rifling through a stack of newspapers looking to start a fire in his family’s wood stove—the same stove used to heat the house and to cook skillet cornbread, vegetables from the garden, and animals hunted in the Appalachian hills around.
Then, like Roald Dahl's chocolate-loving Charlie, young Scotty noticed a sudden flash. Even better to him than gold, it was shiny and black—a record! Scotty ran for his AM/FM turntable. It was the very first record he could call his own.
He put the vinyl on, dropped the needle, and a song began to play. When it ended, a voice came on and prompted Scotty to call a number to claim his prize.
“I figured we might have won a car or free meals — either way it would have been good to me,” Scotty said. “I never, ever, could have thought that it’d be a million dollars.”
Scotty’s first record was actually a flexi-disc, one of 80 million produced by McDonald’s in the late 1980s.
A flexi-disc is any thin piece of vinyl or vinyl-coated paper you can play like a record. Often promotional in nature, flexis come in all shapes and sizes. When turntables were ubiquitous in family homes, flexis were often attached to the spines of magazines by a perforated edge, mailed out as postcards, and even ripped off of the back of cereal boxes. (See Kiss Krunch and Post Cereal’s Jackson Five campaign.)
And in the 1980s, fast food loved the flexi. At one point, every kids meal from Burger King came with one of several flexi recordings by Alf. (Check out “Melmac Girls” and “Take Me, ALF, to the Ballgame.”) And then, McDonald’s seriously upped the ante, printing 80 million flexis of its “Menu Song” in one go—the equivalent of an 80-times-platinum record. That number dwarfs the sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, which has sold 66 million copies.
But the McDonald’s promotion had a true Charlie and the Chocolate Factory twist: one of the 80 million records entitled the person who found it to a $1 million prize.
If you were sentient and in America in the 1980s, and especially if you were a kid, you knew the McDonald’s “Menu Song.” It was the centerpiece of a massive ad campaign of national television ads. I personally know several people in their 30s who can sing the song by heart. One of them learned it in an elementary school class.
The “Menu Song” lyrics are a full recitation of every item McDonald’s sold at the time. On the flexis, you hear a “class” trying—and failing—to learn the song. But on one record, the winning record, it’s sung correctly all the way through.
That was Scotty’s first record.
A million dollars couldn’t have meant more anywhere than in Galax, Scotty told me over a Quarter Pounder meal at the Galax McDonald’s.
“Before that, it was working every day for a small paycheck, it was digging in change,” Scotty said. “Keeping enough food in the house for everybody.”
As a kid, Scotty didn’t even have enough money to eat more than occasionally at his favorite restaurant, McDonald’s.
“Once that record came about, all the worrying went away,” he said.
Since Scotty was a minor, his mother, Charlene Price, collected the winnings. She flew on a plane (for the first time) to Chicago and appeared in a commercial to further promote the campaign. Oprah’s stylist did her hair. And when she returned to Galax, Price married the love of her life, used her money to buy the store she had been working in, and renamed it The Price Is Right. She staffed it with her family members and set up a credit system for locals in need.
But things didn’t pan out for the family, as I discovered on my trip to Galax. What transpired in the nearly 30 years since the story unfolded is bittersweet—but maybe not quite in the way you’d expect.
The family and other Galax residents tell conflicting stories about what happened in the ensuing decade or so after Charlene Price won the money, at which time, she died, penniless, on a hospice bed in her sister Kathy’s trailer.
I can’t be sure it’s all true, but here’s what I heard: Some years after winning the money, Price sold the Price Is Right at a loss. Some say family members stole money from her. Some say she just didn’t know how to handle money, and that she took too many lavish vacations—to Dollywood, Guatemala, Hawaii, and Oklahoma City. She sold the annuity to get a larger lump sum up-front in lieu of regular payments. Her marriage fell apart, and one day, she awoke to find a boyfriend had cleaned out both of her bank accounts and left town, never to return.
Not too long after he found the winning flexi, Scotty ended up taking a job at the very McDonald’s where we ate together, just to make ends meet.
“Galax is a small little place and there’s not a lot of money to be made, that’s for sure,” Scotty told me, finishing off his ten-piece nuggets, fries, and Dr. Pepper.
When I visited him in Galax last August, Scotty was between jobs, and doing some occasional tree-trimming work when he could get it. When we went to see his sister Tammy at the Galax Motel across the four-lane from the Galax McDonald’s, the siblings had a spat over how the winning flexi-disc was found (you can hear it in my Lost Notes story on KCRW). They haven’t spoken since, Scotty recently told me. Tammy, who had once gone on vacations with her mother to exotic locales, had recently witnessed a stabbing death at the motel.
I don’t know that it was the money that tore the family apart, but I know it didn’t help keep them together.
I ended my trip to Galax in The Blue Ridge Grill, the last surviving old-time beer joint on Main Street, and a place I’d heard Charlene Price used to frequent.
I watched as owner Clint “Pete” Funk prepared a cheeseburger on a nearly century-old cast iron grill, in the way they’ve been done here since the 1950s: a griddled beef burger with American cheese, sweet cabbage slaw, mustard, chopped onions, and chiles. Funk said he’d made a few of these for “a guy from Wendy’s,” before the "Carolina Burger" (with just about the exact same ingredients) showed up on the fast food giant’s menu.
“Wasn’t nothing 'Carolina' about it,” Funk quipped.
As for what became of Scotty’s 1-in-80 million flexi? In the course of reporting this story, I discovered—alongside Scotty—that the record he believed was that fateful winner, that he’d kept in a special three-ring binder for nearly three decades, wasn’t even the correct record. On my Lost Notes episode, we discovered that when we finally find a turntable to play this most rare of records, it turned out to be nothing but a flimsy old piece of plastic.
For Scotty, his mother is dead, the money’s all gone, he doesn’t speak to his sister, and his most prized possession isn’t even real. The magic flexi brought nothing but heartbreak.