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Folksy Flair Pushes Denim Wear : TV Actor Brings a Down-Home Touch to Jeans

April 29, 1985|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

A man dressed in blue overalls entered a Minneapolis store carrying his Chihuahua, Buddy, and a camera. He approached George Lindsey, also dressed in overalls, and asked whether he could take a picture of the actor, well known for his role as Goober in the long-running "Andy Griffith Show" and "Mayberry RFD" television series.

After taking the photos, the man hurried out to have his film developed. "I can't wait for Buddy to see the pictures," he told Lindsey.

It's all in a day's work for Lindsey, who has been trooping around the country for more than two years to promote overalls for Liberty Trousers of Birmingham, Ala. As Liberty's national spokesman, Lindsey appears in all company advertisements, which include life-size cutouts and his picture on every label inserted in a pocket of Liberty overalls.

Thanks in part to Lindsey, Liberty is one of the small, independent jeans makers that have managed to successfully ride out the decline in denim wear.

Mitchell Ives, vice president of the privately held company, says Liberty's sales have increased 40% since Lindsey was signed as a spokesman. The company has annual sales of $20 million to $25 million, according to President Milton Jacobson.

Basic blue overalls have been a Liberty staple since the company was founded in 1912. When the five-pocket-jeans fad began waning in the late 1970s, Liberty expanded from basic blue denim into different fabrics and prints for children and adults.

The idea, says Jacobson, is for Liberty to grab a market share from other makers of overalls, such as Oshkosh B'Gosh, Key Industries, Big Ben and Big Smith. Liberty also produces work clothes and recently introduced an apparel line for hunters.

When Lindsey makes store appearances, hundreds of people turn out. In some towns, his visits become major store events, complete with drawings for prizes. When Liberty had a promotion offering rebate checks personally signed by Lindsey, the company dispatched 2,000 to 3,000 checks. But 300 checks, worth a total of about $1,100, have never been cashed.

When Ives set out to persuade Sears, Roebuck & Co. to feature Liberty products in its catalogue, he found that he couldn't get in to see Sears buyers in Chicago until he brought Lindsey along last year. "I started making my presentation, and Mr. Lindsey said, 'Sit down, Mitchell,' " Ives recalled. "He started telling the buyers that he is seen by about 40 million people a week and said, 'Those people are your market. To have my picture in your catalogue would be a bonus to Sears and your consumer.' "

"By golly, they spent the next five minutes figuring out how they could shuffle the page" to include Lindsey in the Sears summer work clothes catalogue, Ives said.

Lindsey appeared in Liberty overalls for the first time in the Sears general catalogue this spring. Ives said that catalogue sales of Liberty's blue denim overalls were 230% above original estimates and that sales for its camouflage overalls were 400% over projections. Sales so far through the Sears catalogue are estimated at $500,000, Ives said. "I was shocked mainly because the camouflage season is not until fall."

Lindsey is particularly popular in the rural South and Midwest. He has appeared on television for the past 21 years, first as Goober from 1964 to 1971 and since then as a regular on "Hee Haw," now in syndication.

Although Lindsey won't supply many details about his contract with Liberty, he says he is paid a fee, plus a percentage of sales of overalls and of Liberty's newly expanded line of hunting apparel.

In person, Lindsey is folksy and down-home but with a flash of show business. He makes personal appearances wearing basic blue overalls, but the gold coin ring on his left pinkie and a large, diamond-studded ring on the other hand are difficult to miss.

The actor attributes his appeal to the fact that he can relate to those folks who wear overalls. Lindsey, who grew up in Jasper, 40 miles from Liberty's Birmingham headquarters, says: "I wore them all my life as a kid. My granddaddy had a big farm in Alabama. I actually drove mules and slopped hogs."

Lindsey and his family have made their home for 20 years on a two-acre "ranchette" in Tarzana.

In May, Lindsey will begin a tour of 20 to 25 stores. "When it's cold, you can't get anyone to come and see you," he explained.

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