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The OTHER Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, with apologies to M. TwainPosted Monday, August 15, 2011, at 8:07 PM
Skip Hoppenjan of Marshall, formerly of Sonoma, Calif., leans back and crosses his legs, sitting on a rock ledge at a local water garden. Time hasn't been kind to Hoppenjan, his once-green skin shining silver in the late afternoon sun.
"My father was a champ, y'know. And his father before him. Winning was a family tradition. And my brothers and me, well, we thought we'd be winners, too. It was in our blood."
He flips a cigarette butt into the grass and sighs.
"Man, those two could really jump," he says. "Pop and Grandpop set records, back in the day."
"We trained day and night," he said. "We had the best coach flies could buy. Dad worked overtime at the pond for years, just so my brother and me could learn how to jump. And we loved it. We loved every minute of it," Hoppenjan says.
"Joey and me, we were born to win."
But Skip and Joey lost their first two attempts at the annual championship. Hoppenjan says that didn't bother them.
"We didn't think we'd just jump all over the competition. We wanted to hold back a little, get the lay of the land, see what the big time is like."
Then he pauses.
"Well, it didn't bother ME much. But Joey, he took it hard. Said he was through jumping."
Joey had a girlfriend who wanted to get married, settle down and have two or three hundred tadpoles, Hoppenjan says.
"I understand how a frog could feel that way," says Hoppenjan. "It was easier for me, not having to worry about a family, so I kept at it."
But victory continued to elude Hoppenjan, who never finished higher than sixth in 10 years of competition.
"Jumping is a young frog's game, you know," he says. "And the game changed, too," he says.
"They started bringing in the bigger frogs, those muscle-bound types . Ruined it for the rest of us normal frogs," he says.
"And you ask me, I think most of 'em couldn't pass a drug test. I mean, how big does a frog have to get before somebody notices it just ain't normal?"
He pauses for a moment.
"I coulda been a contender. Yeah, I coulda maybe even been better than the old man."
For the next five years, Hoppenjan jumped from job to job, never really settling anywhere. He moved down the California coast, fell in with a crowd of drinkers.
With a couple of friends named Weis and Bud, Hoppenjan became the third man in the comedy team of "Bud, Weis and Er." They made a few bucks now and then, singing and doing their shtick at waterfront bars. And then one night, while the trio was entertaining friends at a San Diego watering hole, a talent scout heard their routine and signed them for a beer commercial.
From 1995 to 1998, Bud, Weis and Er were the biggest thing in beer. Even after parents complained that the three were part of a campaign to encourage children to drink, the three frog-friends were the hit of Super Bowl XXIX. Their work still makes the lists of highest-rated Super Bowl ads.
Hoppenjan wasn't sorry when the hubbub died down. In the frenzy of fame, he'd married a much younger frog, but she left him for a good-looking bullfrog soon after. The divorce cost him what little he'd saved in the glory days.
"And I was the third guy in the group, you know? Never really out front, just a backup vocal, that was my role."
These days, Hoppenjan spends his summers in Marshall, working as a security guard for a local couple with a nice water garden.
He prefers to be called Er, he said, because it's shorter and easier to remember. He has no regrets.
"I like the work here," he said. "I thought about tending pigeons, like Mike Tyson does."
"But," he says, looking at his four legs, "I don't have opposable thumbs, so the possibilities are kinda limited."
"I'm happy here in Marshall," he says. "There's water, there's sun, and there are flies. What more could a frog want?"
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.