Such is a kitchen genie's soufflé-like journey.
Betty Crocker began life in 1921 as a signature on letters to homemakers before blowing up into a real-ish person on radio and TV for the next 80 years. Arguably the most famous real or fictitious Minnesotan — move over, Prince, Paul Bunyan and Mary Tyler Moore — Betty's incarnations include being a faceless red spoon.
But between being an autograph and a utensil, the General Mills corporate spokesmodel flowered into a huge cultural figure that answered questions from ordinary housewives, fraternized with Hollywood stars and embodied a wholesome American aesthetic.
Betty also reflected the changing roles of women in the home, even as she was dishing out advice on how to make banana bread and chicken pot pies, said playwright Cristina Luzárraga.
Luzárraga wrote the story for "I Am Betty," a new musical that premieres Saturday at St. Paul's History Theatre. It charts the journey of women in the 20th century through the rise and diminution of the Oprah-like kitchen queen who also became America's homemaking confidante.
"She offered recipes, advice and comfort," Luzárraga said. "Her influence peaked in the 1940s, but she was a beacon of hope in a time when women didn't have a lot of homemaker role models or outlets to find validation and joy in life."
Brains behind 'Betty'
In addition to the 34-year-old Luzárraga, the creative team behind "Betty" includes Theater Latté co-founder Denise Prosek, 55, as composer, and director Maija Garcia, 44, the Guthrie Theater's professional training director who is best known for choreographing Broadway's "Fela" and staging its national tour.
The show has a nine-member all-female cast, with each actor playing about 10 characters. The casting choice is an attempt at a corrective for a checkered history.
"We're reflecting the power of the women behind the brand," Garcia said. "The invisible work of women makes you think that something has happened by magic. But it's through innovation and ingenuity, often uncredited and underrated, that some of the things that make us marvel come to be."
"Betty" takes a multifarious look at the icon, including her impact on the struggles for women. Betty, after all, trended with the times but never led them, Cathy Swanson Wheaton, executive editor of General Mills' cookbooks, told the Star Tribune in 2021.
"The question of whether Betty Crocker's image has been helpful or harmful to women, I would say both," Garcia said. "She was an influencer from the '20s to the '80s, offering something vivacious, optimistic and loving. She spoke the language of what people needed, which was something quick and easy as our lives got busier with rising consumerism. But she didn't represent everyone."
If nearly American household has a Betty Crocker story, that's because of her success. The Big Red Book that has her face adorning collected recipes has sold over 75 million copies since 1950. Many a cookbook has pages tattered and stained by repeated use.
Food has its own sensual allure, and all the talk in the show about it might make more than a few people hungry, Garcia said, laughing.
Betty also has endeared herself to many because during World War II, Betty was a patriotic symbol helping to rally the nation, Luzárraga said. Different women have represented Betty over the years.
Betty Crocker vs. Betty Friedan
People are most familiar with the 1950s persona of Betty, which is a Stepford housewife with an apron. But in the 1960s, Betty Crocker met the co-founder of the National Organization for Women Betty Friedan, and her decline became almost inevitable.
General Mills would try to shape Betty to be more contemporary, but as they addressed one issue, others arose, including about how to acknowledge the nation's growing diversity.
"Things became a lot more complicated around her with the feminist movement but her message of what you're doing in the home is worthwhile and deserves recognition is still valued," Luzárraga said.
The musical uses two Bettys to represent the myriad of women who played the role on radio, TV and in print. The first act centers on home economist and businesswoman Marjorie Husted, one of the most influential figures in the development and promotion of Betty. She started at the Washburn-Crosby Co., a predecessor to General Mills, in 1924, and retired in 1950. In her 26 years, she led a department that turned Betty Crocker into a newspaper columnist and broadcast star. It is said that Washburn-Crosby bought a radio station, WCCO, to promote Betty.
But Husted suffered from sexism. Even though she made the company goo-gobs of money, she was paid only a fraction of what the salesmen made, Garcia said.
The second act of the show focuses on Barbara Jo Davis, a Black dietitian who spent 20 years in General Mills' test kitchen. After she retired from General Mills, she and her husband, Ken Davis, ran a successful barbecue sauce company.
The century-long span of the show offers opportunities to create decade-by-decade pastiches, said Prosek. As she crafted her songs for "Betty," she drew on different musical styles, including 1920s ragtime, Andrews Sisters-esque harmonies for the 1930s and classic Hollywood movie musicals to represent the 1940s.
There's boy-band music inflected by doo-wop to represent the 1950s, protest songs as women strove for equal rights and power in the 1960s and '70's R&B.
"That one was not in my wheelhouse so I struggled at first," Prosek said.
"Betty" includes vaudeville-style numbers plus Hart-like music to cover the 1980s before wrapping up with an Elton John-ish, gospel-influenced ballad.
"Sprinkle in some jingles — duh — and you've got a fun show," Prosek said.
Davis said Monday that she's looking forward to "Betty" even though she is not sure how she will respond to seeing herself represented onstage. That has never happened before. But she will be there fortified with support.
"A whole group of us ex-Bettys will be there," Davis said. No word yet on whether the theater will be handing out spoons.
'I Am Betty'
Who: Book by Cristina Luzárraga. Composed by Denise Prosek. Directed by Maija Garcia.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
When: Nov. 25-Dec. 23: 10 a.m. & 7:30 p.m. Thu., 7:30 p.m. Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $30-$74. 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.