Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Remembering Cal Worthington

Los Angeles lost another one of its local TV celebrities. Cal Worthington passed away. He was 92. He owned car dealerships in southern California and advertised constantly on local stations. You couldn’t watch an old late night movie without it being interrupted by a Cal Worthington commercial.

In the early days of TV he did the commercials live. Wearing a big cowboy hat and delivering his spiel in a homespun drawl Cal implored you to get down to Bellflower or Downey or wherever the hell he was and buy this Ford or Dodge or whatever car he was selling on that channel. Ten minutes later you’d switch to a different station and he’d be in South Gate or Long Beach selling some other model.

And he’d always break it at just the worst time. Bogart gets shot, he’s lying in a pool of blood – cut to Cal, grinning, chuckling, saying “howdy friends!”

No kid in Los Angeles born in the ‘50s ever saw GODZILLA without Cal Wrothington in the middle of it.

And yet, even with these intrusions, we loved him. Why? Because he never took himself too seriously.

There was a competing TV car huckster named Chick Lambert. He always had his dog, Storm with him. So Cal introduced his dog “Spot.” Except it was never a dog. It was a tiger or a lion or a monkey or a snake or a member of the Los Angeles Rams.

And he had this inane jingle – “Go See Cal.” Lyrics included “I will stand up on my head/till my ears are turning red/Go See Cal/Go See Cal/Go See Cal.”  If you lived in Los Angeles for more than 24 hours you could sing that jingle. 

As corny and goofy as these techniques were, he sold more cars than anybody. Make no mistake, he was a smart cookie. He understood the value of advertising, showmanship, and sound business practices. He was also a decorated war hero in WWII.

Cal was pretty much the last of our local TV pitchmen. All markets had them. They were colorful characters who sold everything from cars to carpeting. They wore outlandish costumes and had various shticks. There was some car dealer in Minneapolis whose tag line was, “Bring the wife so we can dicker.”

Of course, back in those days you had either the three networks or a few independent channels. There was no thousand channel universe.  And how were these non-network stations going to fill 20 hours of programming every day? For the most part they did it with old movies. You could find John Wayne on at least one station at any given day and time. And sure enough, just when he was about to shoot the bad guy, there would be smiling Cal Worthington riding in on a pig. You don’t get that pleasure with Netflix.

Cal Worthington was 92 (I’m sure marked down from 98). He was an original and reminder of simpler more innocent times. R.I.P. Cal.  Here’s a sample of his commercials (or should I say “Spots?”)

41 comments:

willieb said...

When I was growing up in L.A. it seemed like Channel 9 ran NOTHING but Cal Worthington commercials and the Million Dollar Movie. Of course, when I went into radio I just had to do my own Cal parody:
https://app.box.com/s/tpjq06q6c5tb98a4s9wd

Anonymous said...

Cal even made it into the movies. I grew up in the Midwest, yet saw Cal's commercial in John Landis' Into the Night. I wonder how that came to be..... -Paul

Scooter Schechtman said...

Eulogy to be delivered by Ron Popeil. Who still isn't dead.

Mike Barer said...

Cal had a dealership in Federal Way, his commercials certainly were memorable.

Phillip B said...

First saw Cal as expressed by Art Fern during the Tea Time Movie on the Tonight Show, and as Ralph Spoilsport of Spoilsport Motors presented by the Firesign Theater.

Carol said...

Once again, you wrote a beautiful eulogy.

I recently saw an episode of Emergency! (exclaimation point required) wherein a car dealer had a heart attack while filming a commercial and they had get past a tiger to help him. I just checked to see if it was actually Cal Worthington, but I don't think so. I'm going to guess the character was based on him, though.

Jeffro said...

So that's what happened to Richard Parker. I wonder where he crossed the border.

Dan Ball said...

Holy crap, Ken! This is amazing!

While working at WLEX-TV a few years ago, I developed a fondness for goofy local ads. Here in Kentucky, we had a Louisville lawyer, Darry Isascs, who used some advertising firm's goofy, bad-CGI "Heavy Hitter" packages to do his commercials. There would be bad rip-offs of Transformers, ridiculous car wrecks, and all manners of lunacy.

But Cal Worthington, I see now, was the King.

Once I finished watching that Youtube clip, I felt like I'd just watched some of the great "performance art" along the lines of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or Jackie Chan. That's where I'd place Cal. Even more impressive because he achieved this through kitschy, local commercials. This reminds me of all the crazy stunts Krusty or Lance Murdock did on THE SIMPSONS.

Thanks for posting this, Ken. I feel my brain enlightening as I type. I now feel like local advertising is a veritable art form.

Michael said...

Carol, I was going to post about that Emergency! episode. Dennis Patrick, a fine character actor, played him.

Anonymous said...

Here in St. Louis we had our share of local commercials that everyone remembers:

Steve Mizerany, "On da Hill"
Becky, Queen of Carpets
Slyman Brothers
Uncle Leonard

All can be seen on youtube.

Pam aka sisterzip

John said...

I didn't get to experience Cal first-hand on Los Angeles television until the early 1970s, long after being exposed to Cal's name and his schtick via The Tonight Show (Johnny was still based in New York, but obviously loved the tackiness of the Worthington ads because they were all over his monologues during his ever-increasing trips to L.A.).

The fact that Cal's specific product was cars was one of the things that made his ads so iconic of the time, when you could still be in love with Southern California's car culture and hold out hope that the next new freeway would finally solve the traffic congestion problems. New York had more than its share of tacky local ads when I was growing up, but they were rarely tacky local car ads, because cars never were as central to what the area was (on the other hand, Los Angeles never had Tom Carvel and Fudgy the Whale pitches, or Jerry and his Long Island-to-the-core JGE commercials, so each major market has it's own historical local TV celeb whose ads were low class, but memorable).

H Johnson said...

He was a part of the culture in Southern California. And with a town full of people fighting for that status, it was quite an accomplishment. I was too young to buy a car from him in those days but I sure enjoyed those commercials. And he wasn't just posing, he actually talked about the current deals of the day while wrestling with those creatures. One of a kind for sure. I didn't know I missed him until your tribute here, but I guess I do.

J. Allison said...

Thanks for this, Ken. I certainly remember Cal's commercials from my SoCal childhood. I did not know he was a decorated B-17 pilot until I read his obit in the Times (you can find it here http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/la-me-ln-showman-car-salesman-cal-worthington-dies-at-92-20130909,0,7311785.story)

cshel said...

The minute I heard Cal Worthington died, my stream of consciousness was - how sad, but he must have been 120 years old by now, I bet Ken does a nice tribute for him on his blog tomorrow. : ) : (

Breadbaker said...

Mike Barer, you beat me to it. But he wasn't in Federal Way. He was in Federal Way, the only way, open til midnight every day. As far as I knew at the time, that was the entire name of the town.

tb said...

"Bring the wife so we can dicker??!!?!" What?

Cap'n Bob said...

He wasn't as prevalent in the Bay Area when I moved there in 1969. We had Ralph Williams, and later on Jay Brown of Spartan Dodge, who hosted all night movies. Not that he was up all night, mind you. To this day I can remember, "Hey, night people! Come to 4590 Stevens Creek Boulevard! We're right on the corner and right on the price! I think all of these guys got busted at some point for their sleazy business practices.

One night Jay decided to have a live, all-night sales event with free hot dogs and soda. The only attendees were drunks and punks. Someone beaned him with a weenie about 2 a.m. and that was the last time he ever tried that.

Thumper said...

He was a NorCal legend, too, at least in the 70s when I was a teenager...I kind of miss those commercials.

Gordon said...

Chick Lambert did his commercials for Brand Motors -- a Ford dealership.

(My dad was business manager of the place for a few years.)

I got to meet Chick and Storm (at least once). I was generally terrified of dogs -- especially big ones -- and Storm was enormous. He could lounge on a car and make it disappear. But he was very gentle. At some point he passed away and was replaced by Storm II -- a much smaller German Shepherd....

For whatever that was worth!

Tom Parker said...

I had the opportunity to shoot an interview Cal in the early 80's - He was very accommodating and fun to talk with.

The thing that struck me most that day was when we handed him a standard release to sign, out came the reading glasses and he actually read every single line of boilerplate before putting his signature on it. I have never seen anyone do that before or since.

A shrewd businessman.

Anonymous said...

Many fond memories of Cal. When I worked at channel 9, Cal's ad agency, run by Len Robin, would drive into the lot late, every Fri afternoon and call the traffic manager, who would bring him the week end logs. Len would then buy every unsold spot left. At KCOP, where they shot a lot his commercials, the crew threatened to walk off the set if they let the tiger out it's cage. They did the spot at the dealership.

D. McEwan said...

Cal also had dealerships, and TV ads, all over Alaska. He was a pilot (His WWII decorations were for flying bombing missions over Berlin), and flew his own interstate commute between California and Alaska.

But I've lived in So Cal for over 6 decades, and I've never known ANYONE who bought a car from Cal. SOMEONE bought cars from him. His success is undeniable, but who?

I posed this same question on my Facebook page yesterday. So far no one will cop to having bought a car from Cal. One woman I've known since 1964 said when her husband returned from Vietnam, they went to Cal to buy a car and were treated so rudely by his salesmen that they left and bought elsewhere.

benson said...

@Pam aka sisterzip. I remember a electronic store spokesperson guy in St. Louis and the one spot was "Quick, somebody call me a doctor. You're a doctor!) Early 80's.

The "bring your wife in and we'll dicker" ended up being syndicated in the 70's to car dealers, as in college we had Rudd Ford who promised the same thing to the people of southern Illinois.

Brook Durham said...

FYI, Zemeckis and Gale claim Cal as the inspiration for "Used Cars."

RCP said...

Maybe I'm easy, but this had me guffawing - especially when Cal tries to saddle an orca and is being chewed on by a tiger.

I can't remember anyone comparable in the Washington, D.C. area, though 40 years have failed to wipe the jingle, "You Always Get Your Way at Ourisman Chevrolet!" from my mind.

Pat Reeder said...

The comparison above to Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan is quite appropriate. Growing up in Texas, I knew Cal Worthington as the car salesman extraordinaire from Johnny Carson's jokes, but I had no idea he did stunts like this. I'm amazed he lived to 92, or even 32.

Here in Dallas, the only current famous TV pitchmen we have are ambulance-chasing lawyers. Brian Loncar is pretty in-your-face, but nobody compares to Jim Adler, "The Texas Hammer!!" He spends his spots railing at the top of his lungs about the big trucking companies and insurance companies that try to screw the little guy, but he HAMMERS them for all you deserve!! Two female friends of mine wrote and perform a "Greater Tuna"-style sketch show about characters in a small Texas town. In one scene, a little old lady is writing her Christmas newsletter about her family's disastrous year, and she deadpans the good news that her son has obtained the best legal representation: "Jim Adler...the Texas Hammer." It gets a huge laugh that I suspect is totally Dallas-centric.

B.B. Callow said...

CBC's "As It Happens" is doing a story on Cal this evening. I think one of their researchers must read your blog, Ken. :-)

VP81955 said...

Philadelphia's equivalent of Cal Worthington was Krass Brothers, a clothing store on South Street that labeled itself the "Store of the Stars" with an array of bizarre spots you usually saw on late-night movies on one of the UHF stations in the '80s. Here's more about the store, plus a link to an '88 spot: http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/krass.html

Dean Minderman said...

I've got one more to add to Pam aka sisterzip's list of zany St. Louis TV pitchmen - the guys who did the spots for Schweig-Engel Furniture in the 1980s.
Somewhat like Cal Worthington, they had a basic schtick that kept evolving - in this case, it was like a little troupe of three or four guys, doing ultra-low-budget spots that parodied Jurassic Park, Miami Vice, Ghostbusters, Peewee Herman, and other pop culture staples of the time. A bunch of their spots survive on YouTube...

XJill said...

D. Mc Ewan, fwiw I graduated from Long Beach State and my roommate as a grad present literally walked to Worthington and bought a car. Did no research or anything. I was shocked that anyone could do just that (walk onto a lot and buy a car with no advance planning) but he did it. So there's one deal done.

David said...

Cal wasn't Canadian? As a kid in Vancouver we saw his ads all the time (because we watched the Seattle channels). When we were looking for a car I couldn't understand why my parents didn't 'go see Cal,

Brian Phillips said...

Phillip B., "Ralph Spoilsport" was more of a patch on Ralph Williams who was another late night car dealer pitchman.

D. McEwan said...

Ok, Xjill's roommate's girl-friend bought a car from Cal. Surely in an audience this large, there must be a second one, perhaps someone who isn't two-degrees of seperation removed? (In one of his Dame Edna stage shows, Barry Humphries would refer to "a sad woman" who had written to her: "This woman had no friends, only friends of friends.")

Diane L. said...

I grew up watching those commercials like a lot of people on here. And when I was a kid the jingle did not sound like, "Go See Cal", it sounded like Pussycow! Pussycow! Pussycow!It's not just me it's listed in urban dictionary and it is hilarious. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Pussy%20Cow

Mike said...

@D. McEwan: Ask them to scan the receipt and post it online. In case they bought from Kenyan Cal.

Cap'n Bob said...

Didn't Cal also threaten to eat a bug?

XJill said...

I never said anything about a girlfriend, it was my roommate. One degree of separation.

D. McEwan said...

My mistake. Somehow, I misread it. Old eyes.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

He would say in the 70s "There's over three million people in the Los Angeles basin, all I want is ONE chance and each and every one of them". Actually, he was pretty ruthless back in those days about his practices handling customers. But, those were the 70s!

Jeremy said...

We didnt buy a car from Cal, but we rented a ford aerostar van back in 1993 for a cross country trip.

Bonnie Worthington said...

I love Cal and so does my son. You see, I am his 3rd wife.

I was just missing him this evening and every once in a while, like to find things on the internet about him. Most of the comments here are mostly true. Some are very funny. I enjoyed Ken's tribute.

What I want to say to anyone reading this, is that there may never be a finer man. He was an upstanding citizen, had very "white-hat" business practices, and truly loved people, his family and his friends. He was dirt poor as a child, cared so much for his mother and brothers and sisters, that he ALWAYS gave every cent he ever made growing up as a young boy and young man, to his mother to help provide for them. He never stopped providing for his family. Cal would always say, his greatest accomplishments are his children and his family.

He was my best friend during our 16 years together. I am very lucky to have had him in my life. We love you "Honey-Pie."