Featured photo: Betty Morton and Pat Schweitzer in a Reynolds wrap commercial (screenshot)
Betty Thompson Morton was a media star and social influencer long before those terms were introduced into our lexicon. Two cookbooks, more than 25 national TV commercials and radio spots over 14 years and one interesting career are all just one part of Morton’s life as a local celebrity. Known to millions as one of the voices of the “Pat and Betty” Reynolds commercials, Morton’s popularity rose as she appeared regularly on TV, radio, and in internet ads in the 1990s. After spending a lengthy career as a test-kitchen manager and home-economist for some of the nation’s largest and oldest food brands, Morton is now living life out of the public eye as a Kernersville retiree.
Morton was born and raised in Winston-Salem’s Dreamland Park neighborhood, tucked above East 14th Street just west of New Walkertown Road. She attended the original Atkins High School on Cameron Avenue, graduating in 1968. She grew up in a family of good cooks. She and her sister began making family dinners at the age of 10.
“My mother worked at a grocery store, so we always had good food,” Morton says. Her uncle, Clem Wilson, owned Wilson’s Grocery, where her mother worked, in Columbia Terrace, where Skyland Park is now. She grew up cooking alongside her grandmother and mother at home. In school, she drifted toward home economics classes.
Reminiscing about being a student at one of the Big Four historically Black high schools in Winston-Salem: Carver, Simon G. Atkins, AH Anderson and JW Paisley, Morton says, “They used to call me ‘Betty Crocker’ in high school. I used to bake a lot of cakes on the weekends and was very active in the Future Homemakers of America.” Her senior year, she was awarded the Crisco Award for outstanding work in home economics.
Morton went on to graduate from North Carolina Central University and earned a BS in Home Economics. Nowadays, home-economists have monikers like “domestic engineers” and “executive household managers,” under the family and consumer sciences umbrella.
In the early ’70s, affirmative action pushed major corporations to recruit heavily on HBCU campuses; Morton’s first job out of college was in Minneapolis at the General Mills test kitchen. There, home-economists were part of the marketing team, working with a range of products, responsible for package directions, recipes and any other promotional materials. It was there that Winston-Salem’s “Betty Crocker” got to work with Betty Crocker’s pie-crust mix, one of Morton’s first assignments.
“I can make a mean pie,” she says. “I still have skills after all of this time.”
After three years, she was looking for upward mobility and wanted to get as close to North Carolina as possible, so she moved to Chicago where she began working at the Quaker Oats test kitchen. The Windy City offered new opportunities and learning experiences, volunteer work with young people and exploration of the world through global cuisine at restaurants.
In the late ’80s, Morton jumped at an opportunity to work at the Reynolds Wrap test kitchen in Richmond, Va., which put her only five hours from Winston-Salem. At first, the job was more of the same recipe testing, product development and work with brand managers but with a diverse range of products to work with. And then something magical happened.
The idea came from execs at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City, the same agency responsible for the “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us Kid” jingle, De Beers diamond ads (“A Diamond is Forever”) and the “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner” campaigns.
“Some creative at the agency decided it would be a good idea to put people in the test kitchen in the commercials,” says Morton. “At the time, I was a manager in the test kitchen and Pat was a home-economist in the test kitchen.”
Morton and Pat Schweitzer, the Reynolds Kitchen home economists, were known in the ‘90s for starring in commercials featuring full, home-cooked meals wrapped in aluminum foil. The ads featured G-rated slapstick comedy that usually involved Pat conducting experiments while Betty penned the results on a clipboard. One commercial promoting Reynolds Crystal Color Plastic Wrap begins in a sterile, white test kitchen and moves to the front porch of a house. In the next scene, Morton presents a plain zucchini bread in a pan while her partner, Pat presents another zucchini bread swaddled in yellow cellophane with a plume of golden-hued ribbon eliciting an excited response from an off-camera voice over. A 10-second presentation of a pink packaged cake, a green bundled Easter basket and a tray of pastel-sheathed bundles all end in Pat and Betty wearing pastel-dyed lab coats in a pastel-colored test kitchen.
Representation matters, and Morton thought often of how she was portrayed on television.
“If you’re a Black person,” she says, “you’re more than likely to zoom in on it and say, ‘Hey, there’s a Black lady in a commercial,’ and that makes a difference too.”
Behind the scenes, it was a whirlwind of high-roller travel to New York, LA and Toronto mixed with high-intensity work.
“We still had our work and day-to-day responsibilities in the test kitchen,” Morton remembers fondly. “We’d get the script and the storyboard and the challenge of being able to deliver the lines, working with the directors and the script people, director of photography. We got better over the years, but It was another job, really.”
These days, Morton has slowed down considerably and is quite content to stay close to home and enjoy the Triad. She is into aging gracefully with research about self-care and enjoying a diet full of fruits, vegetables and hearty greens. For many years, her cooking and experiments were made to feed a generation of people across the world. Now, Morton makes one-pot meals at home because she’s cooking for herself.
“I have not traveled and been on a plane since 2009,” Morton says. “I’m good. I just enjoy seeing where everybody else goes on Facebook, so I feel like I’ve been there. I’ve traveled enough. I travel around the Triad. That’s good enough for me.”