Saturday, November 27, 2010

Happy birthday, Cal Worthington!


Shidler, OK was the birthplace of today’s individual in the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear birthday spotlight—a man born ninety years ago and whose name probably won’t ring any bells for the majority of people who read this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere…but if you’re from or live in or around Southern California you most certainly are acquainted with used car pitchman Calvin Coolidge Worthington…”and his dog Spot.”

Growing up in a family of nine children, Worthington put a halt to his schooling at the age of 12 and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps three years afterward.  He flew in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WW2, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service…but upon being discharged, found his lack of a formal education (he needed a college degree) stymied his plans to become a commercial pilot.  He invested $500 in a gas station by selling his car but that business turned out to be a complete bust—though he was able to recoup his investment upon selling the business.  After achieving some success selling used cars outside of a post office in Corpus Christi, TX he realized he had found his calling—and moved to Huntington Park, CA to establish his automobile empire.

Cal originally owned a Hudson dealership, and promoted the business by hosting Cal’s Corral, a three-hour live country music show on Saturdays and Sundays over KTLA-TV.  At that time, television shows were sponsored by just one individual or business, but that type of programming quickly grew out of fashion and Worthington put an end to Corral in 1972.  He then turned to advertising his dealership in a series of a minute-and-a-half commercials that saturated local television late-night programming (back in the good old days when they’d show movies all night long), and in the tradition of wacky California pitchmen (like the legendary Mad Man Muntz) produced a series of offbeat ads featuring the aforementioned Spot.  Spot, however, wasn’t a canine—depending on the commercial, he could be a whale, a lion, an elephant, a goose (he brought the bird on Johnny Carson’s show and the fowl ended up ruining Johnny’s suit), a tiger, a rhinoceros, a boa constrictor—the menagerie had no limits in Worthington’s imagination.  Accompanying the ads was an earwig of a jingle sang to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It:


I know what you’re saying—“Ivan, you’ve never been west of Texas…how can a geographically-challenged individual like yourself know about Cal Worthington?”  Cal is a true pop culture icon—he’s appeared in films like Save the Tiger, Into the Night (one of his commercials playing on a TV in the foreground) and Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! and TV shows like The Fall Guy; the Television Bureau of Advertising has called him “the best known car dealer pitchman in television history.”  So happy ninetieth to you, Mr. W…and the best of natal anniversaries to these good people as well:

Rosalind Ivan (1880-1959) – Stage, screen and television character actress whose vehicles include The Suspect, Scarlet Street, Three Strangers and Johnny Belinda

Ted Husing (1901-1962) – Radio and television sportscaster legend

J. Scott Smart (1902-1960) – Stage, screen, radio and television actor best known as radio detective Brad Runyon on The Fat Man; starred in a 1951 movie based on the program as well as appeared in 100 Men and a Girl and Rhythm Romance (Some Like It Hot)

Mona Washbourne (1903-1988) – English stage, screen and television character actress whose vehicles include The Winslow Boy, Cast a Dark Shadow, The Brides of Dracula, Billy Liar and My Fair Lady

Florence Lake (1904-1980) – Stage, screen and television actress remembered among film buffs for playing Mrs. Edgar Kennedy in many of the comedian’s R-K-O two-reel comedy shorts

Astrid Allwyn (1905-1978) – Stage and screen actress whose vehicles include Hands Across the Table, Charlie Chan’s Secret, Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Dudley Dickerson (1906-1968) – TDOY character actor fave best known for his appearances in Columbia’s two-reel comedy shorts—particularly a series of “scare” comedies in which he played sidekick to Hugh Herbert (Get Along Little Zombie, Tall, Dark and Gruesome)

L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) – Science fiction and fantasy author whose works include Lest Darkness Fall, The Glory That Was and the classic short story “A Gun for Dinosaur”

Whitney Ellsworth (1908-1980) – Producer of TV’s The Adventures of Superman

James Agee (1909-1955) – Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet held in high regard for his film criticism and for screenwriting efforts like The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter

Ralph Bell (1915-1998) – OTR, television and film actor-announcer best known for his roles on such radio shows as New World A’Coming, X-Minus One, Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator, Suspense and The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre

Robert Youngson (1917-1974) – Academy Award-winning filmmaker best known for his cinematic compilations celebrating silent film comedy including Days of Thrills and Laughter and 30 Years of Fun

“Buffalo” Bob Smith (1917-1998) – Beloved human host of the classic TV show Howdy Doody

Dick Hogan (1917-1995) – Actor-singer whose films include Action in the North Atlantic, So Proudly We Hail!, Blaze of Noon and Rope

Stephen Elliott (1918-2005) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Three Hours to Kill, The Hospital, Death Wish, Cutter’s Way and Arthur

Buster Merryfield (1920-1999) – British television comic actor best remembered as Uncle Albert on the series Only Fools and Horses

Ernie Wise (1925-1999) – Longtime partner of comedian Eric Morecambe in films, television and radio

Michael Tolan (1925-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include The Enforcer, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Hour of the Gun and TV’s The Bold Ones: The Senator

Marshall Thompson (1925-1992) – Stage, screen and television actor best remembered here at TDOY as Dr. Marsh Tracy on the TV series Daktari

Jack Mathis (1931-2005) – Film historian and author whose 1975 Valley of the Cliffhangers, a history of the Republic Studio serials, is a highly sought after collector’s item today

Les Blank (1935-     ) – Documentary filmmaker whose oeuvre includes Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe, Burden of Dreams and In Heaven There is No Beer?

Stewart Moss (1937-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include In Harm’s Way, Zigzag, Fuzz, Doctor Death, Seeker of Souls and The Bat People

Rodney Bewes (1938-     ) – English stage, screen and television comic actor best known for his Britcoms such as The Likely Lads, Dear Mom … Love Albert and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

Buzz Cason (1939-     ) – Singer-songwriter and record producer

Bruce Lee (1940-1973) – Legendary martial arts actor and cult icon whose vehicles include Marlowe, Fists of Fury, Enter the Dragon and TV’s The Green Hornet

John Alderson (1940-     ) – Britcom icon who has appeared in such shows as Please Sir!, My Wife Next Door, No, Honestly, Wodehouse Playhouse and Father’s Day; husband of actress Pauline Collins, with whom he appeared on Upstairs, Downstairs and Thomas and Sarah

Eddie Rabbitt (1941-1998) – Country music singer-songwriter great


Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) – Legendary rock ‘n’ roll singer-guitarist

Barbara Anderson (1945-     ) – Emmy Award-winning actress best known as Officer Eve Whitfield on the TV series Ironside

Gerrit Graham (1949-     ) – TDOY character actor fave whose vehicles include Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Phantom of the Paradise, Demon Seed, Used Cars and This Boy’s Life

Kathryn Bigelow (1951-     ) – Academy Award-winning motion picture director whose oeuvre includes Near Dark, Blue Steel, Strange Days and The Hurt Locker

Curtis Armstrong (1953-     ) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead…, One Crazy Summer and TV’s Moonlighting

Kimmy Robertson (1954-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress who does quite a bit of voice-over work but I always remember her as the ditzy secretary Lucy on Twin Peaks

Bill Nye (1955-     ) – Science Guy

Callie Khouri (1957-     ) – Academy Award-winning motion picture director-screenwriter whose oeuvre includes Thelma & Louise, Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad Money

Steve Oedekerk (1961-     ) – Motion picture and television writer-director-producer-actor whose oeuvre includes Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Nothing to Lose and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist

Fisher Stevens (1963-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor whose vehicles include The Flamingo Kid, Short Circuit, Reversal of Fortune, Four Days in September and TV’s Early Edition

Robin Givens (1964-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress best known as Darlene Merriman on TV’s Head of the Class…and for being married to psychotic boxer Mike Tyson at one time


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6 comments:

Jeff Overturf said...

I know what you're saying about the pop culture impact of Cal outside of southern Cal. I've lived here since 1986 and Cal has not been a major force on TV in all that time (though he still does commercials), I was MUCH more aware of Cal back in Montana through the 1970's and early 1980's. I can only imagine it was from all the "Cal Worthington and his dog Spot" references by Carson and other TV comedians.

I wish I'd been around for his 3 hour music show though.

Scott said...

As a child of Southern California, I well remember Cal's televised antics (in fact, I seriously considered buying my first car from Worthington Ford in Long Beach). But Cal had Dealerships all throughout the west, from as far north as Alaska to as far south and east as Texas, so a lot of folks saw those commercials.

The "my dog spot" thing started as a parody of Chick Lambert's commercials for Ralph Williams Ford in Encino, in which Chick would introduce "my dog Storm," a bored-looking German Shepherd usually seen lounging on the hood of some marked-down sedan. The bit ran long enough that by the early 70s Chick was introducing us to "Storm the Second."

I have a vague but persistent recollection of Cal riding a rhinoceros bareback between the rows of cars on his lot, and being a bit worried for his safety. It wouldn't surprise me if we wound up carrying around an aquarium with a Portuguese Man O' War stuffed into it before he eventually retired.

Pat Morrison, of the LA Times and NPR interviewed Cal back in the 90s, wondering why he'd stopped doing commercials, even though he was still in phenomenal shape for a man his age. He said he couldn't talk fast enough to finish his spiel in one minute. He was used to the 90 second format (when I was a kid staying up late to watch monster movies, Cal would often be the primary, or only sponsor, and his commercials would sometimes run 2-3 minutes).

MST3K fans will remember Ted Husing as the narrator of the infamous short Catching Trouble (Episode 315 Teenage Caveman), in which "modern day Tarzan" Ross Allen (in real life, the proprietor of a Florida reptile farm) goes into the Everglades to beat up some animals and drag them back to his shabby wildlife penitentiary. Ted's tone was so weirdly gleeful about all the onscreen mayhem and abuse that Joel and the Bots pause during the short to apologize for showing it, and later get revenge in a host segment where Ross is treed like a raccoon by PETA.

Scott said...

As a child of Southern California, I well remember Cal's televised antics (in fact, I seriously considered buying my first car from Worthington Ford in Long Beach). But Cal had Dealerships all throughout the west, from as far north as Alaska to as far south and east as Texas, so a lot of folks saw those commercials.

The "my dog spot" thing started as a parody of Chick Lambert's commercials for Ralph Williams Ford in Encino, in which Chick would introduce "my dog Storm," a bored-looking German Shepherd usually seen lounging on the hood of some marked-down sedan. The bit ran long enough that by the early 70s Chick was introducing us to "Storm the Second."

I have a vague but persistent recollection of Cal riding a rhinoceros bareback between the rows of cars on his lot, and being a bit worried for his safety. It wouldn't surprise me if we wound up carrying around an aquarium with a Portuguese Man O' War stuffed into it before he eventually retired.

Pat Morrison, of the LA Times and NPR interviewed Cal back in the 90s, wondering why he'd stopped doing commercials, even though he was still in phenomenal shape for a man his age. He said he couldn't talk fast enough to finish his spiel in one minute. He was used to the 90 second format (when I was a kid staying up late to watch monster movies, Cal would often be the primary, or only sponsor, and his commercials would sometimes run 2-3 minutes).

Scott said...

MST3K fans will remember Ted Husing as the narrator of the infamous short Catching Trouble (Episode 315 Teenage Caveman), in which "modern day Tarzan" Ross Allen (in real life, the proprietor of a Florida reptile farm) goes into the Everglades to beat up some animals and drag them back to his shabby wildlife penitentiary.

Ted's tone was so weirdly gleeful about all the onscreen mayhem and abuse that Joel and the Bots pause during the short to apologize for showing it, and later get revenge in a host segment where Ross is treed like a raccoon by PETA.

M. Bouffant said...

Cal introduced Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen at the Troubadour in, if memory serves, December 1973.

He's still doing commercials here, but the rise of the infomercial & corresponding decline in late late movie shows means we don't see him as often as we used to.

And while the commercials were fun, I'll note that one friend who was looking for a car & went to see Cal said it was all crummy cars & bad deals. So you never know.

Laura said...

I live just a few miles from Worthington Ford in Long Beach (I'm just over the Orange County border)...I can't tell you how many times I sat through late-night movies filled with commercials for Cal and his dog Spot...in a way it's nice memories, but thank goodness for DVDs and TCM!

Best wishes,
Laura