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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 1:22 EDT

Gerry Thomas, father of the TV Dinner, dead at 83

July 20, 2005

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Gerry Thomas, the former
poultry-company executive who helped marry American television
with mealtime as inventor of the TV Dinner, has died at age 83,
his family said on Wednesday.

Thomas, honored with a Hollywood ceremony in 1999 to mark
the 45th anniversary of his innovation, died of cancer at a
Phoenix hospice on Monday after a long illness, according to
his wife, Susan Mills Thomas.

“He was very proud of the TV Dinner, but it never crossed
his mind that he would ever get any notoriety out of it,” she
told Reuters. “He just ate up the publicity. He was a real
ham.”

A decorated World War II veteran, Thomas was a marketing
executive at C.A. Swanson & Sons in the 1950s when he conceived
of the frozen TV Dinner as a solution to the company’s
post-Thanksgiving surplus of turkeys. Swanson is now a unit of
Pinnacle Foods Corp.

“It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention,”
Thomas himself recalled during the 1999 Hollywood ceremony at
the landmark Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

The TV Dinner not only helped change TV-viewing habits in
American homes, it helped transformed Swanson from a poultry
company into a major frozen-food manufacturer.

The idea of packaging Swanson’s turkey surplus as an entree
for a frozen meal dawned on Thomas, then 30, during a business
trip to Pittsburgh, where he saw a box of single-compartment
metal trays that were being tested by an airline as a way of
serving heated meals.

Thomas coined the term “TV Dinner” as a marketing gimmick
aimed at tapping into public excitement over the then-new
broadcast medium. At the time he did not even own a television.

Swanson, encouraged by the success of the pot pies it had
introduced in 1951, seized on Thomas’ idea, and the TV Dinner
debuted nationally in 1954.

Initially sold for 98 cents, the original TV Dinner
featured turkey, corn-bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas
and sweet potatoes, all packaged in a three-compartment tray.

Grocery distributors were at first reluctant to stock the
dinners, as many American homes lacked freezer space. But the
product caught on with consumers, and Swanson added frozen
fried-chicken later that year.

By 1995, production had soared to 25 million TV Dinners per
year and kept climbing, the company said. The trademark “TV
Dinner” was dropped from Swanson’s packaging in 1962 but was
brought back in 1999 as part of a promotion centering on its
45th anniversary.

The Nebraska-born Thomas led a varied career, including
stints as a private marketing consultant, art gallery executive
and co-founder of a company that produced animal treats.