Billy Mays is laid to rest


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McKees Rocks buried Billy Mays today -- a native son who reigned as the black-bearded king of infomercials, proclaiming the wonders of lotions, potions, gadgets and gizmos to insomniacs who picked up the phone and made him rich.

"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 original pitchman state.

The voice -- booming, slightly frantic, as penetrating as those wonder oils and all-purpose rust removers available only on TV -- fell silent a week ago when his heart failed as he slept 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."

This morning Mr. Mays' body, clad in the signature blue button-down shirt and khaki trousers he made as recognizable as his voice and beard, lay in a bronze casket beneath the vaulted ceiling of St. Mary Church in McKees Rocks. It was in that river town, a place of corner stores, working families, the occasional gaming parlor tucked behind the cover of a legitimate shop, that Mr. Mays was raised.

"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, Anthony 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, a young pitchman from Venice, Calif., recalled working with Mr. Mays five years before he broke through on television. They were working a county fair in San Diego. Mr. Mays, his belly large in those days, would lean over the microphone at the start of the day and splutter into his microphone like a motorcycle engine -- the soundtrack to each opening day of hawking wares.

"Billy could eat and eat and eat and then eat some more," said Mr. Parker who recalled his record of downing ten spicy tuna rolls in one sitting.

In later years, he thinned down. He also rose on TV, where his booming voice sometimes caused co-workers to tell him to not speak so loudly into the microphone, only to be told he wasn't wearing one.

When Mr. Parker moved to the shopping channel QVC, 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 stripe 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 Washmatic, 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's 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.

Today, with the church mostly full -- a few of the guys from the trade hadn't been inside one for a while -- people lined up for communion, sat through the sermon, 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.

One of those locals was Lynn McMahon, who runs her own marketing firm and was cousins with Mr. Mays' first wife.

She marveled at the degree to which the kid from the Rocks became the soundtrack of the television age.

"My dog woke me up at 3 in the morning," she said. "I turned don the TV and there was Billy, selling me saws."


Dennis B. Roddy can be reached a droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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