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Long Lives the King

At Age 91, Long Beach Bedspread King Al Greenwood Reigns Over His Empire With a Low Budget, High Kitsch and Plenty of Old-Fashioned Verve

September 09, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there were truth in advertising, Al Greenwood would be known as the Bedspread Philosopher-King.

In the time it takes to make up a bed, the man can rail against the perils of big business devouring the little guy. He can rant against the appalling absence of humanity in the modern world. And don't get him started on interior decorators.

"Whatever they buy, they are never happy with it," Greenwood said. "They spend more time with us than any other customer and then they want a discount on top of it. . . . They are the bane of my existence."

But Greenwood, who sold shoes for $1.99 on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles during the Hoover administration, knows something about business and marketing. He knows that nobody would buy a bedspread from a philosopher. So, he's been content for the last two decades to be the plain ol' Bedspread King.

In a commercial world clogged with royalty, it might be easy to confuse Greenwood with any number of pretenders to the throne. There are kings of beepers, beers, big screens and burgers. And those are just the Bs.

But a little comparison shopping shows that Greenwood's tinny crown shines a touch brighter. At 91, Greenwood is among the last of the old-time pitchmen, a maverick who has stood defiantly above the bed covers as thousands of other merchants peddling similar wares dived underneath them.

He's heir to a line of pitchmen who are low budget and high energy. To a line that wouldn't trade 2 cents for a demographics chart or a focus-group report. He's from a tradition of tireless salesmen whose secret to success and happiness has been to sell what they know and love best--themselves.

"Al's style is a throwback to the 'carnivalesque' sales approach, which was prominent around the Civil War and up through the 1920s," said Mary Wolfinbarger, a professor of marketing at Cal State Long Beach. "Its appeal is its vividness. It cuts through the clutter of ordinary advertising."

Greenwood puts it this way: "I think of myself as somewhere between P.T. Barnum and Neiman Marcus."

His flair for showmanship has helped earn him a good, but not spectacular, living. He estimates that he's sold hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, bedspreads during his reign. His two stores--one in Long Beach, another in South Gate--make money, but they also are "swimming upstream" against the stiff competition of department stores and chains such as Strouds and Bed, Bath & Beyond, Greenwood said. (Like many private business owners, Greenwood won't discuss his earnings.)

It's clear, though, that Greenwood didn't become a monarch expecting to earn a king's ransom. Well, rich wouldn't be bad, but being king of his own castle was far more important.

"When I was growing up, I stood in awe of society," Greenwood said. "I complied with society's rules. But now that I'm older, I say, 'Screw 'em.' I say and do what I want."

One look at his advertising proves that. For years in newspaper ads, the king satirized current events in a way that would have made most advertising executives overthrow his monarchy.

Years ago, after a rash of gang shootings, Greenwood joked that everyone should buy a bulletproof bedspread from him. (He received inquiries from Northern Ireland and a writer from "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" after that one.)

In another, he went after the vast untapped market of unmarried couples who were living together.

"You don't know how the relationship is going to turn out, and you don't want to spend a lot of cash," the ad began.

No less startling are his famed late-night kitschy TV ads that run on cable stations in Long Beach. The spots show Greenwood dressed in his regal gowns, often with one or more of his five grandchildren.

"Normally, I hate kids in commercials," Greenwood said. "If I thought any of them were getting a big head about it, I'd can them right away."

Many commercials feature no grandkids, however, and with good reason. One such commercial displayed a dark screen with a woman's voice saying, "Oh, king size." Then, the lights come up, showing the diminutive Greenwood in bed with a woman. "Yeah, that's right. We're having a sale on king-size bedspreads."

Not everyone appreciates the royal sense of humor. He has a file 2 inches thick of hate mail.

"I hope you die soon, you old man," states one.

"See you in hell," declares another unsigned correspondence.

Greenwood typically responds to such letters and phone calls with a simple: "I'm sorry, but that's your opinion."

His Humor Generally Gets Positive Results

More often than not, though, his humor inspires customer loyalty. One recent morning Louis and Marion Leatherwood drove from their Pasadena home to Long Beach to check out the store's bedspreads, which range in price from $14.95 to $400. The couple ended up making a purchase.

"I used to live in Long Beach, and I've always loved his commercials," said Marion, 51.

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