Long ago and far away, when the Subway cost 50 cents, and a gallon of gas about the same … when there were just six commercial TV stations, and all 16 million of us in New York seemed glued to them... there were these TV commercials.
How to describe these commercials for those not around to bear witness?
Well, foremost, they were local — hyperlocal, some for businesses just down the street or around the corner.
Local and low-budget, they were unpolished, uninhibited and unstoppable.
They were kitschy and annoying, endless and everywhere.
They got in your face and under your skin. They screamed, cudgeled and browbeat. They demanded your attention, and once they had that, your soul.
They were insaaaane.
From these we learned that nobody beats the Wiz, and that every day is a sales day at Mays (maybe why Mays is no more.) Disconcertingly, we were told Dick Lewis of Newmark and Lewis "is watching," and that he "personally guarantees it." The person who did voice-over for Raceway Park seemed to have just inhaled helium (also disconcerting.) From these ads we heard over and over (and over) of "beautiful" Mount Airy Lodge," or of these "spectacular" holiday sales at Levitz, and that Kaufman was the "carpet expert."
"What's the stawreeey, Jerreee" filled our ears, then our heads, eventually our every waking minute. Luba Potemkin told us about cheapo Caddies, Tom Carvel about Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss. Joe DiMaggio explained that it "pays to save" at the Bowery (and if Joltin' Joe does the explaining, this must be so).
They were hard-sell and hokey, without question. Nevertheless, time and nostalgia have ways of healing our collective trauma. Viewed now, the hucksterism has been replaced with charm and found comedy. Rather than soul-sucking, they're remnants of a bygone world, their pitchmen (and women) long gone too.
Could "What's the Stawreeey" Jerry be at long last lovable?
Could these ads finally be cool?
Maybe. You decide. Here are nine of the most insaaanely memorable:
Over nearly a 13-year span, beginning about 1975, and ending in 1989, New Yorkers were bludgeoned into submission by commercials for Crazy Eddie, a chain of discount electronics stores. There was no escape, no recourse or peace. You had a TV set or listened to a radio, you had Crazy Eddie burned into your brain. Crazy Eddie is still there. As proof, complete this sentence: "Our prices are [.....]." (Anyone need a clue?)
Pitchman Jerry Carroll, a New York disc jockey known on the air as "Dr. Jerry Carroll," led the charge. He told Newsday in 1986 that he had first met Eddie Antar — chief executive of Crazy Eddie — in 1972. "I was the high-energy night jock, and when Eddie heard me, he said, 'gee, I wished they could all sound that way" for the radio ads. Carroll at first did only radio commercials for the chain.
Larry Weiss of Plainview, who created the Crazy Eddie campaign, told Newsday by email recently, "Early on we had a variety of announcers voicing Crazy Eddie radio commercials, among them New York disc jockey 'Dr.' Jerry Carroll. With Jerry's high-energy delivery we started using him exclusively for radio, but watching Jerry's animation behind the microphone, I also realized he would make the perfect TV pitchman."
Carroll cut his first TV ad for Crazy Eddie in 1976 (airing on an episode of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," which also premiered that year) and 7,500 — yes, that many — followed, for radio and TV. Weiss said, "I initially proposed ending the spots with the line ‘Crazy Eddie — the man is insane!’ [but] Eddie actually took personal offense at this. We eventually settled on ‘Crazy Eddie, his prices are insane.'" The insanity seemed endless, the variations on insanity too. When disco was hot, Crazy Eddie got into disco and "Saturday Night Fever" parodies. In late summer, there were "Christmas in August" ones. When Crazy Eddie opened its 10th location, Carroll appeared in a commercial parody of "10," with Ravel's "Bolero" tracking in the background. They all reminded us that "we are not undersold, we will not be undersold, we cannot be undersold AND WE MEAN IT." Earl William "Madman" Muntz (who died in 1987) had pioneered this high-decibel pitch for an earlier generation of TV viewers (hawking cars and electronics) but Antar — who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in 1987 and died in 2016 — took the insanity to a whole new level.
SY SPERLING'S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN
"Remember," said the pitchman — his voice a low drone, his charisma at an even lower register — "I'm not only the Hair Club president, but I'm also a client." Sy Sperling then held up a picture of Sy Sperling without his patented hair weave covering his head — a bald Sy. That little tagline, also that drone and that charisma, eventually made this plumber's son from the South Bronx a millionaire. Many times over, in fact. Sperling, a former Long Island resident, in time became the most famous follically-challenged man in America — a celebrity who landed appearances on every show from "Saturday Night Live" to "WrestleMania." He was the star of his own 2007 documentary entitled (what else?) "Roots." Such fame would spark a backlash: Richard Sandomir, a former Newsday writer, now with The New York Times, wrote a book in 1990, entitled "Bald Like Me: The Hair-Raising Adventures of Baldman'' in which he noted that "Sy is a nice guy" but that "he remains an enemy of my people." Sandomir argued that "bald men are the equal of haired men," and he profiled others like author and basketball commentator Dick Vitale, who told him that "bald is beautiful, baby, bald is sexy. No rugs get on my scalp." In another profile, Sperling told the Wall Street Journal that "people perceive me as the guy next door. My speech is imperfect. My whole TV success had to do with the fact that it was believable and that I was able to afford good TV time by going on late at night." He died in 2020 at the age of 78, but Hair Club is still in business.
TOM CARVEL AND CARVEL ICE CREAM
The story of Carvel Ice Cream is both complicated and singular, but it all begins simply enough, with a voice and a face. Those were singular too. Born Athanasios Karvelas in Greece in 1906, Tom Carvel began selling his "soft ice cream" out of a truck in Westchester County in the late 1920s, and by the time he was telling viewers about Fudgie the Whale (an ice cream cake in the shape of a whale), he had hundreds of Carvel franchises around the country. Carvel, who died in 1990, had been the star of his own commercials for years until then. Eccentric and super-low-budget, they commanded your attention by confounding your brain. Who was this elderly gentleman speaking of a brand of ice cream that's "thinny-thin for your fatty-fat friends?" At the height of his advertising fame in the mid-80s, he told Time Magazine, "the professionals ridicule my commercials, but who cares? You can have a six-foot tall handsome announcer with a perfect voice, perfect diction, perfect grammar. But very few ice-cream buyers look like that. Our commercials are for the people who look like us, talk like us, and sound like us." In fact, during an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," Carvel suggested another reason for doing his own ads: "No one works cheaper," he told the host.
In the '70s and '80s, a few corporate overlords decided their ads needed a personal touch, and who better than the corporate overlord himself? Victor Kiam (Remington), Lee Iacocca (Chrysler) and Frank Perdue (Perdue Chicken) each pursued commercial stardom but Cadillac king Victor Potamkin had perhaps the better idea: He got his wife to do the starring. Born Luba Chaiken (they married in 1941) she was to become the ubiquitous "Cadillac Lady" with the catchy catchphrase: "If this nameplate [POTAMKIN] isn't on the back of your car, you probably paid too much." Potamkin pushed an upmarket brand into the bargain basement of car sales and General Motors wasn't pleased. But when Victor died (in 1995), he had 54 dealerships, and was married to the spokesperson who helped make it all happen. Luba did it all the old-fashioned way — lots of blarney, hard sell, cornpone, and the occasional shameless bid for cultural currency, like this 1978 "Disco Party." But Luba was good — very good — and later took her talents to the fight against Alzheimer's, as a fundraiser. Upon her death in 1994 (from Pick's disease, a form of dementia), her son Robert told the Miami Herald that his father had "doted on her."
"What's the story, Jerry?"
"That's the stawreey …"
And there you have, in a phrase or two, pretty much the entire history of New York TV high-decibel hucksterism, circa 1970s, or at least the most vivid part of that history. Nothing was more pervasive, or more obnoxious, no one more effective either. But "effective" at what? Jerry Rosenberg — born Gerald W. Rosenberg in 1934 — and his brother Charlie ran an appliance firm out of a warehouse in Bayside, Queens, in which only union members were allowed as customers. The "stawree" was this: "know the model and number of the appliance you want [and] Jerry can get it for you wholesale." Starting in early '70s with his ads running 114 times a week, this lumpy lumpenproletariat turned J.G.E., or just JGE, into a success. JGE sold popular name-brand electronics twenty or thirty bucks cheaper than major retailers. Panasonic filed lawsuit over Fair Trade laws but Jerry and Charlie held fast to the original idea, for a little while anyway. As Jerry told Newsday in a profile, "we're not going to discount for the guy who comes in from Roslyn or Manhasset Hills with a fat Corona in his mouth." Nevertheless, problems began to mount. In 1974, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs filed suit against the Rosenbergs to "obtain restitution" for customers who had been "victimized" by JGE. Meanwhile, Jerry branched out — Jerry's Disco, "off Exit 25 on the LIE, under the WTFM antenna!, in Fresh Meadows" — which would also be shut down by the city. By 1977, "what's the story" was history: Rosenberg placed a "sales job wanted" ad in the Wall Street Journal, which said he was "ready for a [new] challenge."
By the way, did Rosenberg in fact create the most famous tagline in New York commercial history? Richard Castellano — soon to be Clemenza in "The Godfather" — first said "what's the story?" in the 1970 movie "Lovers and Other Strangers." So maybe not.
What happened to Rosenberg? His son, Jeffrey, who lives in Florida, said in a phone interview that his father died in 1998 at the age of 63. "My dad was bigger than life, he just was," said Rosenberg, "and he was a pioneer when he did those ads." (Weiss, who created the Crazy Eddie campaign, said he had studied the J.G.E. commercials before he launched his own high-decibel ones.)
Rosenberg said his father also had wide-ranging interests beyond "what's the stawreee...," including this unexpected one: "He had pigeons that he flew. He had hundreds of homing pigeons that he kept on the roof of J.G.E. He flew them everyday. It was something he was passionate about."
PHIL RIZZUTO FOR THE MONEY STORE
Phil Rizzuto was a valued and beloved member of the greatest baseball team in history (the 1951-56 Yankees) and after that career ended, spent another 40 years as a valued (and beloved) member of the Yankees broadcast team.. en, there was the long run with the Money Store. Oh, that. From the early '70s through the '90s, Scooter was the face of the Money Store, a subprime mortgage lender based in New Jersey. A great shortstop and fine broadcaster, Rizzuto's advertising talents were nominal. His fellow broadcaster, Bill White, wrote in his 2011 autobiography, "Phil's commercials started out simply enough: 'Hello, I'm Phil Rizzuto for the Money Store,' and then [they] had him sitting at a desk piled with tax forms [or] talking to Santa Claus about great holiday deals. 'One percent above prime?' Santa would say. The commercials were awful but effective." White wrote that Rizzuto occasionally gave the Money Store free plugs during the Yankees games broadcasts, "so finally one day I gave him a jab":
"'So Phil, about these loans from the Money Store. Do they break your legs if you don't pay [back the loan]?'"
"White!" he screamed. "You can't say that."
In 1993, the Money Store replaced Rizzuto with Orioles great Jim Palmer. (The Money Store was shut down by its then-owner First Union in 1998, although the name was revived in 2006 by a mortgage company.)
JOE DIMAGGIO FOR THE BOWERY SAVINGS BANK
According to a few accounts, Joe DiMaggio had been upset by Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" (1968), because in his mind, he hadn't gone anywhere. In the early '70s, he was national spokesman for Mr. Coffee and after retiring from the Yankees in 1951, he'd also done ads for Brylcreem, Wheaties and Camel cigarettes. Starting at or around 1972, the ads for the Bowery Savings Bank were the meal ticket.
In a 2011 profile for Vanity Fair, the writer Buzz Bissinger wrote that when DiMaggio first met the person he would hire to become his personal attorney, "much of the conversation centered on money, or more precisely DiMaggio’s lack of it, given that his net worth was somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000." The year was 1984 and per Bissinger, DiMaggio was worried Bowery was about to cut his salary, and asked the lawyer, Morris Engelberg, to negotiate a new deal. Engeleberg not only got DiMaggio a big raise, but also got him into the lucrative memorabilia business. (Bissinger said that when DiMaggio died in 1999, his estate was valued "at a minimum" of $45 million — much of that from memorabilia.) In April, 1992, the Bowery took the name of its corporate overseer, Home Savings of America, and its longtime spokesman was dropped as well.
For years, Coronet Warehouse Outlet in Westbury had been the most successful independent children's furniture store in the country. Then Babies R' Us moved next door and that run came to a hard stop. In 1997, the family-owned business filed for Chapter 11 and with the end of Coronet also came the end of the Talking Orangutan. Surely you recall the Talking Orangutan and the tuxedoed (and mustachioed) brothers, Wayne and Marc Greenstein, who promised a visit with this remarkable Orangutan if you visited their store? If not, a refresher:
"We did that first commercial [in 1979] as a private joke," recalls Wayne Greenstein, now 67, who ran Coronet with his mother, Ruth and his father, Paul. (Marc, a commodities trader, died in 2021). "Toys R Us or maybe Childworld had a talking panda so my mom who wrote the commercial tried a few different animals [but] the orangutan was the funniest. As time went on, it got recognized and people would [come in and] ask me about the orangutan. I started to realize, it was catchy, so for the second commercial we said there was no talking orangutan which was our way of saying 'we don't need gimmicks,' then we played that up."
And how: Coronet and its non-mascot orangutan aired on New York TV, mostly late night, for years, and Greenstein — who now lives in Roslyn Heights — says the ads were a big success. The brothers Greenstein also achieved minor celebrity. "We were invited on 'the Regis Philbin show with Ann Abernathy [who briefly co-hosted Philbin's 'The Morning Show' in the mid-80s before Kathie Lee Gifford joined in 1985]. We gave Regis two stuffed orangutans for his girls."
RITZ THRIFT SHOP
In terms of pure cheese, few ads compared to the glorious cheesiness of one for the Ritz Thrift Shop, purveyor of "pre-owned" furs on West 57th Street in Manhattan, now on West 29th Street. "You don't need a million to look like a million," said the voice-over, as a young woman emerged from the store, draped in dead animal skins. She paused, turned to the camera, and with the practiced sincerity of a practiced spokesmodel, replied: "Oh, thank you!" Beginning in 1975, these ran for fourteen years on New York TV, day or night, with little-to-no variation. Barbara Clement Gould, who died in 2018 at the age of 81, was the Ritz model and a durable one indeed. "I got off the bus [in the ad], and I went into the Ritz Thrift Shop, and then, like 20 years later, they took it off the air," she said in an oral history for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, according to her obituary in The New York Times. Indeed, the same ad ran over and over — thousands of times.
CORRECTION: In a Jan. 30 FanFare article about old TV commercials, a quote attributed to Crazy Eddie pitchman Jerry Carroll about the chain’s ad campaign was incorrect. The quote should have been attributed to Larry Weiss, who created the campaign. (Pg. 13 2/16/22)