Obituary: Cal Worthington / West Coast car dealer had incessant jingle

Nov. 27, 1920 - Sept. 8, 2013

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Cal Worthington, a car dealer whose off-the-wall commercials, first broadcast in the 1950s, bombarded California television viewers for more than half a century and made him a cultural legend, died Sunday at his ranch in Orland, Calif. He was 92. His death was confirmed by his family.

Mr. Worthington sold a lot of cars -- more than a million of them, by his count -- and at his peak in the 1960s ran an empire of 29 dealerships from San Diego, Calif., to Anchorage, Alaska. But it was the way he sold them that made him a byword for creative hard-sell salesmanship in the great American tradition.

Stuck with a dud location when he bought his first dealership, Mr. Worthington decided that the only way to attract customers was to hit the airwaves hard with radio and television commercials that stood out from the pack. This turned out to be his ticket to fame and fortune.

In relentless campaigns that treated television viewers to as many as 100 commercials a day, Mr. Worthington proclaimed the virtues of the latest gem on the lot while, for example, strapped to the wing of a soaring biplane or standing on his head on the hood of a car -- a visible demonstration of his motto, "I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal."

In the background, a chorus of male voices and frantic banjo pickers sang a jingle to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It," each of its many verses ending with the tag line: "Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal."

The madness only escalated. When a rival dealer began using a pet dog in his television advertisements in the early 1970s, Mr. Worthington rustled up a gorilla and told the audience: "Howdy, I'm Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot. I found this little fella down at the pound and he's so full of love."

Spot reappeared as a hippo, an iguana and a snake, but never a dog. All the while, the Cal chorus belted out the promise of fabulous deals.

The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington's ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands. He was a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show," where Johnny Carson performed parodies of his commercials.

Mr. Worthington appeared as himself in the 1973 Jack Lemmon film "Save the Tiger" and was the model for the car salesman played by Ted Danson in the 1993 film "Made in America." He even infiltrated Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice."

Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born on Nov. 27, 1920, in Bly, Okla., a tiny town that no longer exists. He was one of nine children living in a house with no plumbing.

His father moved the family to Kilgore, Texas, where there was work in the oil fields. Cal dropped out of school at 13 and, after working as a water boy on a road crew, signed on with the Civilian Conservation Corps, blazing trails in what would become Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Keen on becoming a pilot, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and flew B-17 Flying Fortresses on 29 bombing missions over Germany in World War II. He left the military with the rank of captain, a Distinguished Flying Cross and hopes of becoming a commercial pilot, but lack of a college degree disqualified him.

Instead, he bought a gasoline station in Corpus Christi, where his family had moved. The gas station did not prosper, but he sold used cars on the side and, after getting rid of the station, established his first dealership.

In 1948, he bid on a load of welding rods being sold off as war surplus in Hawaii, sold his car dealership to pay for them and drove out to Los Angeles to take delivery. A longshoreman's strike stranded the rods, and by the time they were unloaded they were so water-damaged that it took Mr. Worthington two years to sell them off.

Improvising, he bought a Hudson dealership on Slauson Avenue in Huntington Park for $2,600 from Earl Muntz, also known as Madman, who pioneered the kind of lunatic hard-sell commercials on radio that Mr. Worthington would perfect on television.

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