His fellow pitchmen give Billy Mays a proper sendoff

McKees Rocks native laid to rest


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After six sad men in khaki and blue slid the casket of William Mays II into the back of the hearse, Anthony Sullivan assembled a lineup, fetched William Mays III, and ordered all thumbs up for a last shout-out to the cameras.

"Hi -- Billy Mays here!"

Mourners applauded. Cameras whirred. The hearse departed for the cemetery and a nation of pitchmen, as unaccustomed to their own silence as that of the king they were returning to the Pennsylvania soil, loitered until the cameras died, too.

Then it was over: the final public appearance of Billy Mays, a son of McKees Rocks who coaxed and shouted and charmed his way from the Boardwalk of Atlantic City to the living rooms of insomniacs who picked-up-the-phone-right-now and made him both rich and iconic.

"He turned what he did into an art form. He turned the art of the pitch into a real art," said Mr. Sullivan, who partnered with Mr. Mays in promoting a cascade of dicers, mixers, cleaners, holders, wipers and menders. So vast was his store of sales lines, so abounding his confidence, that even in death Billy Mays is pitching.

"My dog woke me up at 3 in the morning. I turned on the TV and there was Billy, selling me saws," said Lynn McMahon, a family friend from the old days, as mourners gathered at St. Mary Church for a funeral Mass.

At the time of his death, friends said, Mr. Mays was on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream world of ads, to the 30-second spots of network television rather than the late-night infomercials parked in the time space where stations used to broadcast fuzz and static after shutting down for the night.

One deal was an agreement to do spots with fast-food giant Taco Bell. Earlier this year, he did a promotional ad, riffing on both his trademark khaki-and-blue wardrobe and signature thunderous mouth. At the time he died, Mr. Mays had just taped a series of spots for another wonder product, Mighty Tape.

Bill McAlister, president of Media Enterprises, maker of many of the products Mr. Mays hawked, attended yesterday's Mass.

"He made our business legitimate," Mr. McAlister said. After hearing of Mr. Mays' death, Media Enterprises pulled its commercials. They go back up in a week.

"The wishes of the family are to put it back on the air. That's what I'm going to do," Mr. McAlister said.

"God bless him; he had that voice," said Jerry Spanola, who was along Mr. Mays' side in the early years as they hawked Ginsu knives and cleaning utensils on the boardwalks and strip malls of New Jersey.

The voice, booming, slightly frantic, as penetrating as those wonder oils and all-purpose rust removers as-seen-on-TV, fell silent a week ago when Mr. Mays died in his sleep at his home in Tampa, Fla. He was 50.

"He totally shut down the business when it happened," said Mr. Spanola. "Pitchmen are always talking. The morning Billy died, he rendered that business speechless."

In death, he came home to the Ohio River town of McKees Rocks, a place of corner stores, working families, the occasional gaming parlor tucked behind the cover of a legitimate shop.

"So this is what he came from?" wondered Gregg Wolf, whose lighting company worked in "Pitchmen," the television show that told his story and that of partner, Mr. Sullivan.

The hardscrabble ethic of the town was, perhaps, captured by the Rev. Regis Ryan, who spoke of Mr. Mays and of his hometown, "this old mill town, the struggling community that continues to put its best face forward."

Fellow pitchmen, who gathered outside the church to await the arrival of the hearse, said Mr. Mays put his best face forward, never pausing, even when it seemed out of step.

Jeremy Parker, from Venice, Calif., remembered work at the shopping channel QVC, where trainees were shown a tape instructing them what not to do.

"They showed Billy Mays. They actually used that at QVC," Mr. Parker laughed.

Like many a virtuoso, Mr. Parker said, Billy Mays made new rules by breaking the old ones.

"If there was a Jimi Hendrix of the guitar, there was a Billy Mays of the pitchmen," he said.

But wait, there's more -- at least as Mr. Mays would tell it.

Like many an artist, Billy had a merrily larcenous side. Mr. Spanola told of the early days in Jersey, when pitchmen of all stripes were lined up in the corridors of the Ocean One Shopping Mall, selling their wares to shoppers as interested in their jokes and one-liners as their products.

Mr. Spanola and the older guys would try their lines out and shoppers invariably told them they'd heard the same funny riffs from the kid up the hall.

That would be Billy.

At the time, Mr. Mays was peddling the Wash-Matik, a cleaning tool that drew water from a bucket. To slow his momentum and send a message about pitch etiquette, one of the guys scolded Mr. Mays, then kicked over his bucket of water.

The next day, Mr. Mays resumed stealing their lines.

Again, the bucket was given a hefty boot.

Finally, as Mr. Mays continued to dominate the competition, Mr. Spanola was dispatched. He's a bear of a guy, gregarious, but the message was not to mess with the Jersey guys.

"He's standing there with a big smile," said Mr. Spanola. "He said, 'Look behind me.' He had twelve buckets lined up behind him."

That's when he got the name "Bucket Billy."

Something turned on a switch in Mr. Mays, friends said today as the hearse rolled up Chartiers Avenue.

"He was there -- he was a pitchman at heart. He was on, never off," said Mr. Wolf.

And his world kept going. A crew from Discovery Channel, the producers of "Pitchmen," rolled the camera and talked to his colleagues.

After each interview, the producer, Steve Jones, embraced the interviewee and wiped his eyes.

"He made everyone feel important," said John Cremeans, who retired as the primary host on Home Shopping Network, where he worked with Mr. Mays. So patented were Mr. Mays' lines that one night, on live TV, he started blurting out the end of each of his co-hosts's lines. A slightly thrown Mr. Mays looked over; both men grinned and burst into laughter.

"We sold everything out that hour," Mr. Cremeans said.

Yesterday, with the church mostly full, people lined up for Communion, sat through the sermon and hugged desperately during the sign of peace.

Many were the people who'd lived around Mr. Mays before he was in the big time -- people who will share private memories of Billy before he lived inside the magic box.

Pete Donegian, who knew Mr. Mays for 11 years, handed out "Pitchmen" decals and stickers of Billy Mays' face at the door of the church. Next week, Mr. Donegian said, Sullivan Productions will launch a Web site, wheresbillymays.com, where fans can post photographs of themselves in front of famous landmarks around the world, wearing a Billy Mays sticker.


Post-Gazette staff writer Martine Powers contributed to this report. Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at 412-263-1965 or droddy@post-gazette.com .


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