Pitch Perfect: How Billy Mays Conquered the Infomercial World

Standing on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1980s, Billy Mays did everything he could to drag despondent gamblers, tourists, and passersby over to investigate whatever it was he was selling. For years that was the Washamatik, a pump that could spray water from a bucket without the need for plumbing. (A convenient way to wash your car without needing to be near a faucet, Mays said.) Later it was the Ultimate Chopper, a dicing utensil that Mays demonstrated by making a bowl of salsa.

Mays was loud, energetic, and hyper. One of his favorite sales techniques, which he had learned from the older pitchmen on the Boardwalk—considered the pitching capital of the world—was to hold up an object and announce it sold for $29.99 in stores. Today, Mays said, it was priced at $15 so he could meet his sales quota. But if you were one of the first 10 people to buy, it was just $10.

“You,” he said, pointing to the nearest prospective customer. “You’re customer number one.”

Cornered, the customer would hand over the $10. It was nearly a form of hypnosis. Through years of practice, Mays would eventually coerce people into handing over not just $10 here or there, but hundreds of millions of dollars. Mays could sell anything—especially himself.

 

Most people recognize Mays, who died in 2009 at age 50 from suspected heart disease, as the boisterous salesman for cleaning products like Orange Glo and OxiClean, which Mays famously claimed was “powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you drink!” A stout man with a trademark uniform of a blue dress shirt, khakis, and an ink-black beard, he was a frequent presence in commercials and infomercials and on home shopping channels. “Hi, Billy Mays here!” he barked, as though he could be mistaken for anyone else.

Mays was born in the small town of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He attended West Virginia University, where he played football—he was a walk-on linebacker—but eventually tired of the classwork that went along with being an athlete, and dropped out after two years. After a stint working for his father’s hazardous waste trucking company, Mays ran into a high school friend in 1983 who was heading to Atlantic City to peddle Ginsu knives on the Boardwalk. Intrigued and lacking many job prospects, Mays asked his friend to wait while he packed a suitcase, as he wanted to tag along.

Mays and the other pitchmen were carnival barkers, hawking wares. Mays picked up tips from veterans and learned their peculiar trade lingo. The joint was your sales booth. Ballying the tip meant gathering a crowd. If you spent too much time describing an item and not inciting people to buy, you weren’t chilling them down.

Mays spent more than a decade pitching the Washamatik and Ultimate Chopper, traveling to home goods shows, county fairs, and other places to try his luck and hone his authoritative voice, which at one point he described as too nasally. At one show in Philadelphia, Mays began competing for the audience’s attention with a man named Max Appel, who was trying to garner interest in his Orange Glo wood-polishing liquid. Mays later recalled getting “annoyed” when Appel began drawing eyes away from his pitch. But when Appel’s microphone broke, Mays loaned him one of his. It was a generous act that came back to pay dividends.

In the late 1990s, when Appel wanted a TV pitchman for Orange Glo and OxiClean, another product of his, he called Mays (who was known on the pitch circuit as “Bucket Billy” for the Washamatik demonstration). While appearing on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), Mays moved 6000 bottles of Orange Glo in 11 minutes.

From there, the Mays brand of pitching took off. Mays—who was famous for doing endless retakes of taped segments to get it just right—was a pitching pro, and was always focused and prepared. He moved to Florida to be closer to HSN, in case they needed him to fill in at the last minute to meet a daily sales quota. He founded Billy Mays Promotions, a one-man operation that endorsed products he thought provided value to consumers. In addition to the Orange Glo line, Mays pushed Mighty Putty (for patching holes), the Awesome Auger (for digging into soil using a drill), the Handy Switch (a wireless light switch), and the Turbo Tiger floor sweeper. All of it was promoted with Mays’s singular delivery, which fell somewhere between a stage projection and a shout, and often ended in a rhyme. (Of the Simoniz Fix It scratch remover, Mays said that “The scratch has met its match!”)

 

Mays was not a product mercenary. He declined to endorse certain items—like bug zappers and lighted dog leashes—if he didn’t feel like he could get behind the product in a genuine way. Other items, like the Cargo Genie car trunk organizer, bombed. But Mays’s batting average was still so far above the norm that companies sought him out, often paying $20,000 to $30,000 for him upfront and then cutting him in on a commission taken from the revenue.

Mays was aware of his outsized persona; he distributed 300 containers of OxiClean at his own wedding and broke into a pitch while on the dance floor. “Life’s a pitch and then you buy” was his tongue-in-cheek motto. So was “The best things in life are free ... and $19.95.”

Shortly before his passing in 2009, Mays was busier than ever. Pitchmen, a reality show that followed Mays and fellow salesman Anthony Sullivan as they scouted for and endorsed products, was already on the air. Mays also had plans for a radio show. Following his death, many of his commercials continued airing. The reason was simple: Even in death, Mays engendered more product loyalty than any pitchman alive.

At his funeral service, pallbearers paid tribute to Mays in the most appropriate way they knew how—by donning his familiar outfit of a blue shirt and khakis.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

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Good Gnews: Remembering The Great Space Coaster

Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
YouTube

Tubby Baxter. Gary Gnu. Goriddle Gorilla. Speed Reader. For people of a certain age, these names probably tug on distant memories of a television series that blended live-action, puppetry, and animation. It was The Great Space Coaster, and it aired daily in syndication from 1981 to 1986. Earning both a Daytime Emmy and a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming, The Great Space Coaster fell somewhere in between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—a series for kids who wanted a little more edge to their puppet performances.

Unlike most classic kid’s shows, fans have had a hard time locating footage of The Great Space Coaster. Even after five seasons and 250 episodes, no collections are available on home video. So what happened?

Get On Board

The Great Space Coaster was created by Kermit Love, who worked closely with Jim Henson on Sesame Street and created Big Bird, and Jim Martin, a master puppeteer who also collaborated with Henson. Produced by Sunbow Productions and sponsored by the Kellogg Company and toy manufacturer Hasbro, The Great Space Coaster took the same approach as Sesame Street of being educational entertainment. In fact, many of the puppeteers and writers were veterans of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Producers met with educators to determine subjects and content that could result in a positive cognitive or personal development goal for the audience, which was intended to be children from ages 6 to 11. There would be music, comedy, and cartoons, but all of it would be working toward a lesson on everything from claustrophobia to the hazards of being a litterbug.

The premise involved three teens—Danny (Chris Gifford), Roy (Ray Stephens), and Francine (Emily Bindiger)—who hitch a ride on a space vehicle piloted by a clown named Tubby Baxter. The crew would head for an asteroid populated by a variety of characters like Goriddle Gorilla (Kevin Clash). Roy carried a monitor that played La Linea, an animated segment from Italian creator Osvaldo Cavandoli that featured a figure at odds with his animator. The kids—all of whom looked a fair bit older than their purported teens—also sang in segments with original or cover songs.

The most memorable segment might have been the newscast with Gary Gnu, a stuffy puppet broadcaster who delivered the day’s top stories with his catchphrase: “No gnews is good gnews!” Aside from Gnu, there was Speed Reader (Ken Myles), a super-fast sprinter and reader who reviewed the books he breezed through. Often, the show would also have guest stars, including Mark Hamill, boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Henry Winkler.

All of it had a slightly irreverent tone, with humor that was more biting than most other kid’s programming of the era. The circus that Tubby Baxter ran away from was run by a character named M.T. Promises. Gnu had subversive takes on his news stories. Other characters weren’t always as well-intentioned as the residents of Sesame Street.

Off We Go

The Great Space Coaster was popular among viewers and critics. In 1982, it won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Graphic Design and a Peabody Award in 1983. But after the show ceased production in 1986, it failed to have a second life in reruns or on video. Only one VHS tape, The Great Space Coaster Supershow, was ever released in the 1980s. And while fan sites like TheGreatSpaceCoaster.TV surfaced, it was difficult to compile a complete library of the series.

In 2012, Tanslin Media, which had acquired the rights to the show, explained why. Owing to the musical interludes, re-licensing songs would be prohibitively expensive—potentially far more than the company would make selling the program. Worse, the original episodes, which were recorded on 1-inch or 2-inch reel tapes, were in the process of degrading.

That same year, Jim Martin mounted an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to begin salvaging episodes and digitizing them for preservation. That work has continued over the years, with Tanslin releasing episodes and clips online that don’t require expensive licensing agreements and fans uploading episodes from their original VHS recordings to YouTube.

There’s been no further word on digitizing efforts for the complete series, though Tanslin has reported that a future home video release isn’t out of the question. If that materializes, it’s likely Gary Gnu will be first to deliver the news.