Sept. 10--A famous used-car salesman.
The very notion seems absurd, and yet many who never met the man are mourning the death of car dealer Cal Worthington, who died Sunday at 92. Of course, for most of us, Worthington was not a car salesman. He was a TV star.
Worthington became a familiar face and name to Southern Californians via decades of TV commercials for his various car lots.
Today, it seems impossible that such a person could become famous, but in the 1970s and '80s, Worthington was simply the best known of dozens of local business people who earned some measure of fame for their awkward TV spots and grating earworm jingles. Pete Ellis Dodge has been out of business for more than 20 years, but hundreds of thousands of local folks can still tell you how to get there: "Long Beach Freeway, Firestone exit, Southgate."
Worthington did not even invent the role of homegrown-commercial star. Years before Worthington walked "his dog Spot" onto our TV screens, other Southern California car dealers had made a name for themselves with obnoxious television ads.
The first such star probably was Ralph Williams of Ralph Williams Ford "in the beautiful city of Encino." Williams became a national name in the 1960s, when Johnny Carson skewered him on "The Tonight Show." At the time, "The Tonight Show" was filmed in New York, with Carson and company making an annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where Williams would make the occasional guest appearance.
Worthington's "dog" Spot -- usually a tiger or some other exotic animal -- originated as a spoof of two other local pitchmen. Fletcher Jones, hawking his Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Los Angeles, was known for cuddling puppies and kittens onscreen and offering to give them away with a car purchase. Chick Lambert, who worked for many dealers including Ralph Williams, would show up in ads with his dog, Storm.
But it was Worthington's absurd, always poorly filmed commercials and that unshakeable jingle -- "Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal" -- that would generate the most fame. The first Spot spot came in 1971, which coincided with an explosion in locally produced TV ads.
The 1970s and 1980s were the golden era for these offbeat commercial stars. It wasn't just Worthington and his fellow car sellers like Ellis and Bob Spreen ("Where the freeways meet in Downey"). Other businessmen got into the act: Edward Nalbandian of clothing retailer Zachary All. Al Greenwood and his Bedspread Kingdom in Long Beach. Paul Goldberg, the King of Big Screen, in La Habra.
Becoming a star pitchman (and they were almost exclusively men) was far more art than science. It required a big personality and some sort of catchphrase or jingle -- both if possible -- but above all, it demanded a certain lack of polish.
And that's what made them great -- or memorable at least.
Neither attorney Larry H. Parker's overly dramatic "I'll fight for you" nor Sit 'N Sleep President Larry Miller's off-key "or your mattress is freeeeee" would have become iconic phrases had they been delivered by professional actors.
Today, locally produced TV ads still exist, but their impact has lessened. The television audience in general has fractured into smaller and smaller bites. Instead of three network channels and half a dozen independents, local viewers can choose from among hundreds of channels, only a few of which sell ads in local markets. Further, local stations often fill their late-night and early-morning hours -- once the prime spots for local ads -- with infomercials.
Those have bred their own sets of catchphrases ("Apply directly to the forehead!") and star salespeople, but they lack the unsophisticated charm of the old-style local pitchman. If you want the real thing, you still need to go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.
Michael Hewitt is the Register's TV critic.
Contact the writer: 714-796-7724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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