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Charleston Says Goodbye To Tony The Peanut Man
Published:
11/30/2016 3:26:49 PM


Tony ‘The Peanut Man’
 

Tony ‘The Peanut Man’ putting on a show for the crowd at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in 2015. Photo: Tolbert Smalls, Jr.
 
By Barney Blakeney


Charleston this week said goodbye to one of its most recognizable citizens. Anthony ‘Tony the Peanut Man’ Wright was buried Wednesday. He was 63.

For most of the past 25 years Wright was among the iconic figures most identifiable with Charleston. His omnipresent smile, topless straw hat and white coat were the uniform he wore as he sang his trademark song and danced the moves that made him an unforgettable favorite of visitors and residents alike.
   
Wright began selling peanuts at Charleston’s downtown Market in 1990. Over the next 25 years he built his street vending peanut business into a budding conglomerate that included hat and t-shirt sales, canned Gourmet Goobers sold in select stores, a comic book and his most recent venture, the Peanut Man Experience, in which he took his unique style of retail entertainment to private venues.

Wright stumbled into the role that would define him and the community he serviced. In a 2011 interview he shared how he became ‘The Peanut Man’. He grew up in West Ashley’s Maryville community and attended Wallace and Moultrie high schools. He failed to graduate after being expelled for fighting so he enrolled in the Job Corps where he obtained a GED. Then he enlisted in the military. After a six-year military stint, he returned to Charleston in 1979. Five years later he began working at the old Lockheed aeronautics plant in Ladson. When the plant closed in 1990 Wright found himself an unemployed father of four drawing unemployment compensation.

Struggling to support his family, Wright soon tossed pride aside and took a job selling peanuts. His mother had a friend, Marion Heyward who had a business selling peanuts. When Heyward’s primary street vendor Benjamin Campbell quit because of health issues, Wright took the job.

Heyward taught Wright about selling peanuts.

But he felt selling peanuts from a basket amid downtown’s tourists was the epitome of downfalls, Wright recalled. He’d been prosperous at Lockheed earning more than $15 per hour when the minimum wage was below $5. He sold the peanuts, but not enough to support his family.

A woman selling sweetgrass baskets at the Market suggested Wright change his style and attitude. And a subsequent heart to heart talk with Campbell set him in the right direction. Campbell told Wright to put aside his embarrassment and use the time-honored rhythmic call of Charleston’s black street vendors to draw attention to himself and his goods. The tactic worked. Wright saw an immediate increase in his peanut sales.

“I started rapping and rhyming and added some moves,” he said. He even was having fun. His sales soared beyond his imagination as Wright took his peanuts to local ball parks and other events. Soon he said he was making more per week selling peanuts than he did working at Lockheed. And his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Wright created a persona that was symbolic of Charleston’s Black culture. He marketed both the persona and the peanuts. They both sold well under the auspices of his company, Phenomenuts, Inc.

Wright’s brother, William Lee Sr. described ‘The Peanut Man’ as an awesome guy whose business persona was an outgrowth of a personality developed growing up in Maryville. Their mother called the two siblings ‘Mutt and Pep’ an offshoot of the comedic characters Mutt and Jeff. Wright was called Mutt because he always busied himself doing something and his older brother was called Pep because of his peppy demeanor.

In recent years Wright was hampered by the disease, multiple sclerosis. Still he remained true to the nickname given to him by his mother. He never stopped being busy, Lee said.
 

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