Cheese hats are on, gloves off Wis. companies sue over business rights to cheese headdress; SUPER BOWL XXXI


To a casual television viewer on Sunday, it may appear that New Orleans has been invaded by giant hors d'oeuvres.

Fans of the Green Bay Packers, denied a championship for 28 years, will be out in force in the Big Easy for the Super Bowl. On their heads will be the sports world's most endearing, and conspicuous, regalia: hats in the shape and color of an oversized wedge of cheese.

The Velveeta-colored, foam-rubber headgear, which had languished for a decade in the fashion backwaters of Wisconsin, hit prime time with the Packers' drive to the Super Bowl. And with the spotlight has come a fight for the rights to sell the caps, standard issue for Packers backers worldwide.

Rival companies -- Foamation Inc. of Milwaukee and Scofield Souvenir & Post Card Co. of Menomee Falls, Wis. -- are producing as many of the triangular hats as they can. They've added employees and production shifts and are taking orders furiously by mail, telephone and the Internet.

Behind the scenes, however, the companies are hardly celebrating their, or the Packers', success. The firms are in federal court battling for exclusive cheese rights. One of the companies may come away with millions of dollars in profits earned by the other.

Best as anyone can tell, the story began innocently enough on April 21, 1987, at a major-league baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago's old Comiskey Park. Such games inevitably devolve into an outlet for the rivalry between residents of Illinois and Wisconsin, states that share a common border.

As a Brewers fan and Milwaukee-area resident, Amerik Wojciechowski came in for some ribbing. Sox fans taunted him )) and his fellow Wisconsonites as "cheeseheads." That's a standard insult for people in Wisconsin, where cheese is so big, each license tag proudly proclaims "America's Dairy State."

The next day, Wojciechowski came back to the ballpark wearing a homemade, cardboard, wedge-shaped hat colored to look like cheese. The Brewers lost the game, ending a 13-game winning streak. But a picture of Wojciechowski in his get-up appeared in the next day's Chicago Sun-Times.

This being America, Wojciechowski tried to make a buck from the gimmick. He had some wedges cut out of foam and took them to a silk-screening company to have holes stenciled, for a Swiss-cheese effect. He sold about 3,000, and then moved on.

Meanwhile, another Brewers fan had gotten into the business. Ralph Bruno, a Milwaukee businessman, was also at the April 21 White Sox game. He operated a company that made patterns for plastic-goods makers. Soon he was turning out a foam hat with cheese-like dimples.

The hats blossomed in popularity as the Packers approached the success they had during the Vince Lombardi years. The team made it to the conference championship in 1995 and Packermania was in full swing in Wisconsin.

The cheeseheads took on mythical proportions. One man, Frank Emmert, swore his life was saved in 1995 by a cheesehead when a small plane he was riding in crashed in Stevens Point, Wis. The hat reportedly cushioned the blow.

Wisconsin delegates wore cheeseheads to both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions last summer. One hat was included, along with a Dole pineapple hat, with the campaign artifacts shipped for preservation to the Smithsonian Institution's American History Museum.

Bruno's company, now called Foamation, expanded the product line to include wedge-shaped beer can holders, cheese neckties, cheese cuff links and a cheesey cowboy hat -- an especially hot item when the Dallas Cowboys go to Green Bay's Lambeau Field. There's even a CD, "Cheeseheads with Attitudes."

But the spongy hats are the staple of cheesewear and retailers were soon complaining about shortages. In 1995 some mentioned their troubles to Thomas Wedeward, owner of Scofield, a small wholesaler of novelties.

"We're always looking for things to do," Wedeward said. He hired a lawyer and checked for a copyright registration. They learned that Foamation had registered the name "Cheesehead" but not the hats themselves. Wedeward registered for a copyright on the hat design and even tracked down Wojciechowski and had him assign Scofield the rights.

Soon he was turning out his own "Cheese Tops." Business zoomed. Scofield doubled its work force, hiring an additional six people. "Cheese has been good," Wedeward said.

Foamation noticed. It filed for its copyright registration on Feb. 20, 1996. In September, Foamation filed suit, accusing Scofield of peddling counterfeit cheeseheads.

Foamation issued a press release on Sept. 13 saying it would sue retailers that sold Scofield's Cheese Tops. Walgreens, Sentry Foods and other customers canceled orders. Scofield counter-sued, demanding Foamation quit claiming ownership. It asserted Foamation was violating Scofield's copyright.

xTC On Dec. 2, U.S. Magistrate Judge William E. Callahan Jr. sided with Scofield after a preliminary hearing in Milwaukee. He ordered Foamation to stop claiming the exclusive cheese rights until the matter can be settled at trial.

Furthermore, the judge said he doubted Bruno's testimony that he, and not Wojciechowski, is the father of the cheesehead -- an account disputed by Bruno's former partner, among others.

"This was a huge win," said Scofield's attorney, John Fredrickson. Neither Foamation executives -- who are leading a bus caravan of Cheeseheads to New Orleans this week -- nor its attorney responded to a request for comment.

The one sure winner has been the Wisconsin cheese industry, which has gained millions of dollars worth of free advertising. The state's dairy farmers produce two billion pounds of cheese a year, a third of the nation's output and more than any other state.

"I've spent my lifetime waiting for this," said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Coming tomorrow

Tomorrow's coverage of the Super Bowl in The Sun will include articles on:

Coaches Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's state-of-the-NFL address.

Pub Date: 1/24/97

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