Ottumwa, Iowa & the battle for Radar's hometown

The real town had to fight to use the M*A*S*H character's name.

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Sometimes a fictional character has a very real hometown. For every "Mayberry" or "Springfield," there's a "Scranton, PA." While creators like Tolkien could sweep readers away with descriptions of far-off magical lands, nothing grounds a character in concrete reality like giving them a real locale to hail from. 

M*A*S*H is, from the start, rooted strictly in the real world. It has to be. Only by highlighting real-world details can the creators truly display the surreality of war. The series works because of that contrast. M*A*S*H is believable characters that are forced to do unbelievable things. They are humans witnessing a historically inhumane event. The characters must, then, be tethered to a world that viewers can feel and relate to. In the case of Gary Burghoff's character Radar O'Reilly, that world is small-town America.

Radar, a fictional character, is from the very real Ottumwa, Iowa. There is a softness to Radar that only comes from growing up far away from the big city. He has a rare kindness hardly found outside of towns where everyone knows each other. Sure, these characteristics are attributable to Burghoff's skills as an actor. But really, they're thanks to the writing, which pays care and attention to making each character as authentic as possible. Burghoff is able to imbue Radar with that small-town feeling because the writing indicates that Radar is from Ottumwa, Iowa. The creators were able to use "Ottumwa" as shorthand for those midwest, rural values and traits they wanted Radar to embody. 

So, surely Ottumwa was able to take advantage of its new small-screen fame, right? Well, no, or at least not at first. The town was proud of its newfound notoriety, but the situation was more complicated than it may seem. According to the Associated Press, Ottumwa citizens fought for years to attain permission to use Radar's likeness to promote the town. A 1986 news piece details the struggle Ottumwa went through, battling it out with 20th Century Fox to use its most famous (fictional) resident for promotional purposes.

"People all over the country know Ottumwa as Radar's hometown, so we're trying to capitalize on that exposure," said Dennis Butler, then-executive vice president of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. It wasn't until three years after M*A*S*H went off the air that Ottumwa, Iowa, was finally permitted to use Radar's name. 

However, all was not in vain, as Ottumwa now displays several M*A*S*H artifacts in its Wapello County Historical Museum. To visitors worldwide, Ottumwa, Iowa, is now proudly able to promote that it is the hometown of TV's Radar O'Reilly. 

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12 Comments

CaptainDunsel 13 months ago
Speaking of "real world". how about Klinger's beloved "Tony Packo's Hungarian Hot Dogs" back in Toledo, Ohio? Actually a real-world company, still in business today! Just search "Tony Packo".
wally1121 CaptainDunsel 13 months ago
We made sure to eat at Packo's on our way through Toledo. Great food, decent prices, and MASH memorabilia for sale in the back room!
PDCougar 13 months ago
"M*A*S*H" was "rooted strictly in the real world"? That word "strictly" should probably be something more like "largely." I mean, in terms of geography alone, that world had places called Crabapple Cove, Maine, and River Bend, Missouri...!
carriefan62772 13 months ago
Love M*A*S*H* Radar is one of my favorite characters on the show
KawiVulc 13 months ago
Yet if some "artist" used Radar's image in, say, some sort of sick barnyard frolic "art" piece in the name of satire they'd have pretty much had to take it...
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LoveMETV22 13 months ago
I guess they would have to base that on how many times the beverage was mentioned throughout the span of the series.
LoveMETV22 13 months ago
Good story. Thanks for sharing it MeTV Staff.
It seems there was a bit of a double standard going on. It was O.K. for 20th Century Fox to use the towns namesake in the series, yet not O.K. for the town to enjoy a similar privilege in the use of the Radar character namesake.
Well at least they were finally able to enjoy the privilege, even if it was several years after the series ended.
Moody LoveMETV22 13 months ago
It's not quite the same thing. A town or city or any other public place is public domain, if you will. You don't necessarily need permission to use the name because it exists as public property. The use of a fictional character is the property of those who created him/her so anyone wanting to use his/her name or image would need the creator's permission.
LoveMETV22 Moody 13 months ago
I hear you there. I understand the difference between the two ( I mean that politely Perhaps 20th Century Fox could have said " You are free to use the likeness, once the series is done. I wonder if there is a timetable or regulations regarding it. But it seems it worked out in the end.

Hope you enjoyed your trip. It's always nice chatting with you.
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