By Lois Armstrong
April 02, 1984 12:00 PM

Walter Mondale uses it to suggest there’s not much meat in Gary Hart’s “new ideas.” Johnny Carson relishes it as a punch line, and Wendy’s hopes it will charbroil the competition. Millions of Americans have so utterly flipped for a television ad slogan from the bunkers of the burger wars that they have made it not only the latest slang but a battle yell for the beleaguered everywhere: “Where’s the beef?”

That’s hard to say. But here’s the star: Clara Peller. She’s that bigschnozzed, gravel-voiced granny who barks Wendy’s war cry. In the first commercial, Peller and two white-haired companions (Mildred Lane and Elizabeth Shaw) stand at the counter in the “Home of the Big Bun.” They peer down—or in Clara’s case, across—at a monster bun with a midget-size patty in it while the peeved Peller growls, “Where’s the beef?” In the recently released sequel, Peller gets on the horn to the boss as he cruises aboard the S.S. Big Bun. Her cranky query knocks him right out of his captain’s chair.

Wendy’s, the Ohio-based fast-food chain that ranks third behind McDonald’s and Burger King, is delighted with the results. Its sales leaped 15 percent in January, and it has purchased $11 million worth of TV time for Clara to repeat—and repeat—her famous line. The commercials have also made Peller a whopping celeb. The lifelong Chicago resident went to Mexico last December after shooting the first ad and came back two months later to find herself a star. A retired beautician, she has been interviewed on the Today show (“You look familiar,” she told Bryant Gumbel). Clara Peller posters, buttons, dolls—”Me, a doll?” Peller says—coffee mugs and T-shirts are in the works, as well as a possible theme song and an MTV video. Americans can now enter Clara Peller soundalike contests and chanting fans mob her everywhere: “You should have seen the gorgeous fellow who came up to me last night,” Peller confides.

A grandmother of two, Clara has no beef with either her pay, about $30,000 from both commercials and profits from tie-in products, or with being a celebrity. “I love everything about it,” she booms. “It makes you young again.” Peller arrived in commercials about 10 years ago, when Chicago-based adman Josef Sedelmaier needed a manicurist for a Detroit TV news-show pitch. Since then, she has appeared in some 30 more, including a riotous spot as a bunny farmer, whose husband is either dead or dormant, hauling a hutch in her Jartran truck. Famous for his Federal Express ads, Sedelmaier says he uses Peller whenever he needs “a counterpart to the sweet little old ladies.” In the original Wendy’s script, a gentleman asked, “But where is all the beef?” “Why so polite?” complained Sedelmaier. “That’s when I brought in Clara.”

The 4’10” Peller has a residential-hotel apartment on Chicago’s North Shore near her daughter, a teacher. (Her son lives in San Francisco.) Married at 20 to a jeweler, Clara was divorced eight years later, and says she doesn’t know how old she is. Applying for Social Security, she gave three ages (she now claims to be 76, 82, or 85). When the clerk demanded to know which was the right one, Peller replied, “Whichever one will get me Social Security.” Although she insists that “everytime I work, I feel well,” ailments do hinder her. Because she is partially deaf, a stagehand sat beneath the counter and tweaked her ankle as a cue for the legendary line. The delivery, however, was pure Peller. “I didn’t talk any differently,” she recalls. “I just yelled a little louder.”

Her yell may have Hart and Mondale turning each other into political hamburger, but Peller remains unawed. “When I heard Mondale say that on TV, I thought, ‘They’re using my line—I could sue ’em,’ ” she says. Then she adds, “Who’s Gary Hart? Is he Monday’s aide?”