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Spot's Co-Star

His 'dog' retired, but Cal Worthington has family, business and that darn jingle

June 03, 2002|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Cal Worthington's dog Spot ever writes a tell-all biography about his famous master, here are some tidbits he might include:

* During the 1970s energy crunch, Cal sold motorized pogo sticks.

* His children range in age from 18 months to 55 years. And Cal, 81, is hoping to have another with wife No. 3.

* When one of Worthington's trademark cowboy hats is auctioned for charity, the bids are higher if people think Spot relieved himself on it.

* Cal dislikes the car business, which is why he also operates 10 ranches, including a 1.2-million-acre spread in Nevada.

* If Cal's wife offers to saute some mushrooms for you, be very afraid.

*

On a rain-drenched Monday, Calvin Coolidge Worthington is wheeling and dealing from a ramshackle old bunkhouse in the middle of an almond farm. "Here's a dandy Toyota Tercel for $7,950," he chirps, reading from cue cards. "And, boy, here's a beautiful Nissan Sentra for $6,950."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 299 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal Worthington--In Monday's Southern California Living section, words were dropped from a sentence near the end of a story about Cal Worthington. It should have read: And in 1995, when he briefly owned the struggling Claremont Auto Center, General Motors turned down his bid for dealerships, saying he had weak customer service ratings at other GM lots.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal Worthington--A June 2 Southern California Living section article about Cal Worthington gave the impression that auto dealer Ralph Williams appeared in TV ads with a German shepherd named Storm. The person in the ads was Williams' associate Chick Lambert.

In the old days, Worthington would pilot his Learjet to the various cities in his empire--Houston, Phoenix, Seattle--and tape TV ads on location. Now, he stands in front of a green wall at his Northern California ranch and lets a computer superimpose his 6-foot-4 image into an Alaska snowstorm for his Anchorage dealership or a sunset for his Long Beach or Carlsbad lots. Spot, who was officially retired in the late 1980s, is seen only in vintage clips that are spliced between shots of gleaming Dodges and Fords.

Worthington started scaling back a few years ago, selling off dealerships and taping ads from home. But he hasn't exactly slowed down.

His 42-year-old wife, Bonnie, insists she can hardly keep up with him. "You have to ride motorcycles, play tennis, travel at the drop of a hat. At the PX Ranch in Nevada [which was once owned by Bing Crosby], Cal still rides with the ranchers all day in blistering heat . . . and when they're branding cattle, he's right out there, dragging calves to the fire."

More recently, Worthington made his first foray into politics as a spokesman against California Assembly Bill 1058, which seeks to curb global warming by limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from cars. Noting that carbon dioxide is the same gas that humans expel while breathing, he jokes that bureaucrats might try to outlaw exhaling next. His appearance in a blitz of ads sponsored by the California Motor Car Dealers Assn. has helped to derail the bill.

Worthington's previous environmental record consists of selling motorized pogo sticks and pedal-powered cars that "get 10 miles to the hamburger" during the energy crisis. He also offered kits to convert gasoline engines to propane.

Such gimmicks have helped make him a Southern California icon--or nuisance, depending on your tolerance for his 26-stanza "Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal" jingle, which he penned and sang in the early 1970s and still uses.

Other stunts include hanging upside down from an airplane wing ("I will stand upon my head to beat all deals"), riding a hippo through Watts and promising to eat a bug if customers found cheaper prices.

Of course, his signature gimmick is the "dog Spot" ad, which featured practically every varmint except a dog. The original commercial, in 1971, was a spoof of two competitors, Ralph Williams and Fletcher Jones. Williams had taken to the airwaves with a German shepherd named Storm, and Jones appeared on TV cuddling puppies from the pound.

"I decided I'd mimic them," Worthington recalls. So he borrowed a gorilla, chained it to a car bumper and let the cameras roll. With the ape snarling in the background, Worthington began his folksy spiel: "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." Then, in a jab at Williams, he added, "I can outsell that dealer in the Valley. And, what's more, my dog can whip his dog."

The commercial was a hit. Worthington followed it with a menagerie of other Spots, including a tiger, camel, elephant, alligator, frog, penguin, anteater, porcupine, bear, lizard (blown up so it appeared to be the size of a dinosaur) and Shamu the killer whale, which Cal rode bareback at Sea World.

"Those animals really made me famous," he says. Dolly Madison enlisted Worthington to do a TV commercial for its doughnuts. And Johnny Carson had Cal and a goose on "The Tonight Show." When the bird soiled Worthington's white Western suit, Carson quipped, "Be glad it wasn't that elephant sitting on your lap."

Worthington put car-dealership advertising on the map, says Gary Belis, spokesman for the Television Bureau of Advertising, which tracks spending on TV commercials. "He is probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history."

But he learned by watching the masters. Earl "Madman" Muntz dressed up in a Napoleon hat and red long johns while telling L.A. viewers, "I wanna give 'em away, but my wife won't let me. She's crazy." And Tony Holzer, a used car dealer who went by the moniker Honest John, wore a white robe and halo in his ads.

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