Besides the remaining Rockefellers, Bill Gates, and the current presidential family, just about every American dreams of winning the lottery. Now, the educated among us will believe that such dreams should remain in the realm of fantasy. “Lotteries are just taxes for stupid people,” or so they say.
Every so often though, even the most cynical among us are proven wrong. We’re treated to images of happy people whose unlikely windfall truly changes their lives. Of course, we rarely hear about what happens afterward…
Scotty was thirteen years old and already working a part-time job to help his impoverished family make ends meet. It was a cold February day and Galax, Virginia was in the middle of a cold snap. On his way home from work, Scotty had picked up a bunch of old newspapers to use as kindling in the family’s wood stove. It wasn’t enough, but it would do.
Up until that day, Scotty’s family lived off the land. The wood stove in Scotty’s house was used for everything, from cooking the veggies they grew in their backyard garden, to the animals they hunted in the Appalachian hills. As Scotty rifled through the newspapers, he noticed a sudden flash of shiny black plastic tucked into the folded papers. It was a good thing he noticed it…
Scotty didn’t own many records, he didn’t own any at all in fact, but his parents did have an AM/FM turntable that could play them. He didn’t know what was on the record, but even if it was one song he’d never heard, he was happy to finally have a record of his own: something he’d never have been able to afford otherwise.
He put the vinyl onto the turntable and dropped the needle. A strange song began to play. It was a song he remembered hearing before, though he couldn’t quite recall where that had been. When the odd tune had ended, a voice crackled into life and instructed the listener to call a number to claim his prize…
What was It?
The record, as it turned out, wasn’t a record at all but something called a flexi-disc. These thin pieces of vinyl or vinyl-coated paper were created so that records could be distributed more widely and affordably than they would have otherwise. The purpose of them was almost purely promotional.
Because of the cheap cost of production, flexi-discs could come in all shapes and sizes. Most people had turntables in their homes in those days, so these flexi-discs could often be found attached to the spines of magazines, mailed out as postcards, or even on the back of cereal boxes. Everyone had them, but it was the fast food industry that made the most use of them…
Fast Food Flexi
It was the 1980s, and the fast food industry loved them some flexi-discs. They even started putting them in Kid’s meals. Burger King had flexi-discs featuring Alf and before long, brand favorite McDonald’s finally got into the game. They were going to go above and beyond their competitors though.
McDonald’s had upped the ante on Flexi-disc production, printing 80 million flexis of its “Menu Song” in one go. For scale, this is the equivalent of an 80-times-platinum record, which dwarfs the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. MJ only sold 66 million copies of his record. Scotty’s disc was one of that 80 million…
When Scotty was a child, his poor family never really ate out at McDonald’s, a place that today is synonymous with fast food but was, in his mind, his favorite restaurant. It was a luxury to eat out anywhere, especially when keeping enough food in the Landreth house was a challenge in and of itself.
This particular McDonald’s promotion was, at least for Scotty, a real Charlie and the Chocolate Factory situation. You see, one of the 80 million Menu Song records offered a $1 million prize for one lucky recipient. As it turned out, that recipient was one of the people in the US at the time who most needed it: Scotty Landreth…
“I figured we might have won a car or free meals: either way it would have been good to me,” explained Scotty. “I never, ever could have thought that it’d be a million dollars.” Once that record came into their life, the Landreth’s lives changed for the better. Not just for them, but for the whole town of Galax, Virginia.
More than a Miracle
There was one caveat, of course, Scotty was still a minor, which meant that he couldn’t officially collect his winnings. Thankfully, his mother, Charlene Price, was able to do so on his behalf. Finding the winner of the McDonald’s contest was a big deal, as it turned out, and the next year saw the family undergoing several big changes…
Charlene was flown out to Chicago to promote the campaign and show the world that there were indeed winners in the McDonald’s contest. Oprah’s stylist even did her hair for the performance. Scotty’s family had been elevated to minor celebrity status and it gave them a newfound sense of purpose.
The Price is Right
The family returned to Galax with a new idea in mind. Charlene Price worked in a local grocery store prior to the win and wanted to take it over, to build a business for her family. She purchased the store and renamed it The Price Is Right. She hired family members and even set up a credit system for locals in need. It was what the community needed…
Charlene married the love of her life and the store did well…for a time. Despite her best efforts and best intentions, things didn’t pan out for the family in the long run. 30 years since that windfall, the bittersweet memories of their one-time win have haunted what’s left of the Landreth family.
A decade after she won the money, Charlene Price died penniless in a hospice bed in her sister’s trailer. The Price and Landreth families, as well as many other residents of Galax, tell very different stories of their downfall. Many of them believe that Price, who had been poor her whole life, was ill-equipped to deal with her newfound wealth…
Couldn’t Handle It
This could be so, after all, the same happens to many lottery winners. Many believe the problem was that her first mistake was her taking all the money in a lump sum up-front. Still, others say that greedy family members stole money from Charlene, or that she spent too much on lavish trips to Dollywood, Guatemala, or Hawaii.
Charlene’s marriage fell apart, she was forced to close the Price is Right, and some say her new boyfriend cleaned out their bank accounts and left town soon after. When the money left, so too did Scotty’s chances at getting ahead in life. He ended up getting a full-time job to support his family by working at, you guessed it, the local McDonald’s…
Today, Scotty makes his living at that McDonald’s and by working odd-jobs like tree-trimming and gardening. His sister Tammy meanwhile, lives at the Galax motel. The two rarely ever talk because of some long-forgotten argument over the flexi-disc. And the “golden disc” that brought them their brief fortune, it turns out they lost it along the way.
Fortune turned Scotty’s life from upside down to rightside up and back again. His mother’s early death may have been, in some part, due to the fact that she could not reconcile the loss of their newfound fortune. It wasn’t a golden ticket after all, but a piece of plastic heartbreak that ruined all the lives attached to it.