Schweig Engel: Dying for Deals
Explaining an old Schweig Engel television commercial is like describing an LSD bender, given that it involved (1) home furnishings, (2) extreme slapstick violence, and (3) absolutely no finance charges.
During the 1980s and '90s, Schweig Engel, a.k.a. "The King of Credit," self-produced ads of such hysteria and surrealism, they approached the avant-garde. While the goal never altered — they aimed to unload TVs, appliances, furniture and jewelry — their strategies varied wildly. Employees appearing in the spots sliced each other's heads off. One manager exploded. Another was gobbled up by a dinosaur. Another donned a giant turkey costume and got chased by a pilgrim wielding an ax. All three pranced in Santa Claus garb. It was impossible to not watch these things.
Schweig Engel shuttered its doors for good in 2004. But within a few years, the TV spots began to resurface on YouTube, warming the hearts of commenters who remembered them.
The videos also caught the attention of Nick Corirossi, a writer and director for Funny or Die, the popular website owned by Will Ferrell and AdamMcKay (creators of Anchorman and Talladega Nights).
One of Corirossi's friends from St. Louis recommended the YouTube videos. So he watched them.
"They were literally the funniest fucking commercials I'd ever seen," he says.
Now, Corirossi and his colleagues are arranging to fly members of team Schweig Engel to Los Angeles in January to write, shoot and star in ads for Funny or Die. "The whole thing is tentative," Corirossi says. "Will Ferrell knows nothing about any of this. But it's become a passion project for the staff here. We have to make it happen. I will make it happen."
Mike Stein was just a 28-year-old white kid with a squeaky voice when he left Florida in 1981 and arrived in St. Louis. His mission: manage the original Schweig Engel store at Delmar Boulevard and Kingshighway.
Stein's grandfather, Sam Singer, had been one of its first employees after it opened in 1919. He bought the store in 1938. It had begun as a photography shop, but by the time Stein showed up in the early '80s, the inventory had switched to TVs and appliances. The neighborhood had changed, too, from white and affluent and to primarily black and lower-middle class.
"We could have moved out to west county," Stein says. "But I didn't want to compete against big-box stores. And at that time, finance companies didn't want to lend to black people. That gave us a great opportunity."
Schweig Engel did charge high interest rates — sometimes, the highest allowed by state law. But they were not, they emphasized, a rent-to-own firm. They targeted customers who had bad credit but held good jobs. If those patrons made all their payments on time, they earned a rebate after the final payment. Meanwhile, their diligence was reported to the credit bureau.
In 1983 the company moved to Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue. Stein trained his attention on advertising. Print ads had flopped. Stein's conventional TV ads didn't jolt the masses, either. So Stein joined forces with his colleague, Warren Lewis, a man with an offensive lineman's build who'd worked his way up from company janitor to head of the furniture department.
Their first zany commercial: "Schweig Engel Vice," a crude takeoff of Miami Vice. Clad in a white blazer à la Don Johnson, Stein sucked on a cigarette and said, "We're gonna take these rental places out of action and give credit to you!" Then he and Lewis whipped out big assault weapons and fired off-screen at...no one in particular.
"It went off the charts," Stein recalls. "We had to pull the ad off the air. We were growing too fast."
A lanky and quick-witted salesman named John North came up with the next spot: A man visiting a rent-to-own shop has to rip off his own arm and leg to pay the high rates.
The trio even ventured outside the TV studio to shoot on location.
"We actually did one by the zoo in Tarzan suits," Lewis recalls. "We almost got poison ivy hiding in the trees. I actually had a loincloth on. It was wild."
The Schweig Engel boys were by no means the area's first wacky pitchmen. Others also left an indelible mark on the psyche of St. Louis couch potatoes. The first was Steve Mizerany and his roller-skating Decent Boys from the New Deal appliance store near the Bevo Mill.
Uncle Leonard, a diminutive salesman in a skipper's cap, buddied up to Cardinals players to hawk electronics from his north St. Louis shop. The folks at Home Furniture in Collinsville, Illinois, dressed up in a gorilla suit and promised customers "no monkey business" at their store.
Stein and his colleagues weren't even the first to take advantage of the green screen, either. The Slyman Brothers used the technology in the early 1970s to superimpose themselves sitting atop the Arch and waving down at viewers. Becky "Queen of Carpet" and Wanda "Princess of Tile" used the green screen to float above downtown on an enchanted rug.
But it was Schweig Engel who took the green screen and ran with it like ADHD kids in a Pixy Stix factory. In one ad, Mr. T (John North) grew enraged that Lewis and Stein didn't have any Schweig Engel jewelry. So he tossed them three stories up against a brick wall. In the spot called "Jurassic Credit," Lewis and Stein rode bareback on dinosaurs (which, inexplicably, they kept petting).
Some of the spoofs drew the ire of the spoofees. Columbia Pictures insisted they stop running "Credit Busters" (modeled on Ghostbusters). And Chuck Berry's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter when they released an ad called "Credit B. Goode."
The big advantage of low-budget commercials, Stein says, was that they offered a lot of bang for your buck. Most were produced at the KPLR (Channel 11) studio and ran during The Three Stooges, Saturday movies and late-night TV.
KPLR sweetened the deal by producing them for free.
"We might've spent five- or six-thousand dollars to produce them," says Henry Elbert, the network's ad executive who handled the Schweig Engel account. "But they might've spent thirty thousand a year to have the ads run."
They weren't risk-free, Elbert concedes.
"A lot of times people won't shop at your store because your commercials are so stupid," explains Elbert, who played Pinnochio in one spot. "But people will remember you. And the bottom line is, when you're trying to sell something, you never know when somebody's going to buy. So when they are going to buy, you want that top-of-the-mind awareness."
And the big takeaway from each and every Schweig Engel episode was that anybody could secure some kind of credit. To back up this guarantee, they swore that any customer denied credit was formally invited to: punch them in the nose; pop off their heads; blast them with pies; run over them with a free Mercedes-Benz; pull the credit manger out to the parking lot to run him over; obtain a free mountain bike and run over Mike Stein. (There was a distinct emphasis on vehicular assault.)
Stein estimates he personally approved a half-million credit applications in a fifteen-year span. He denies that any serious assaults took place.
Jim Winkle, a former producer for KPLR, has an altogether different theory for the success of not only Schweig Engel, but Mizerany, "Becky, Queen of Carpet" and all businesses trafficking in goofball pitches: It was a subtle decoy.
"I always thought they wanted to give people the impression that they're dumb so that people would come in and try to take advantage 'em on the price," Winkle says. "They thought that would get people in the store. What's that phrase? They were crazy, crazy like foxes."
By the mid-'90s, Schweig Engel had ballooned from 11 employees in one store to 65 employees in three locations.
"The community took care of us," Lewis remembers. "Mike took the bars off the windows at our Natural Bridge location. That said a lot for north city. And we only had one break-in."
The love spilled outside of the retail space. "I couldn't go to the airport without someone recognizing me," John North recalls. "It got to the point that people thought we were celebrities."
The national affiliate stations considered Schweig Engel's rise newsy. During an interview with ABC Stein said, "If a person got up and went to the restroom," he said, "or went to get a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich during my ad, I think I'd die."
On KSDK (Channel 5), Art Holliday asked the boys whether they took it as a compliment that Riverfront Times referred to their spots in a 1991 article as "the most absurd on television" and "deranged."
"Oh yes," Stein replied. "We shoot for being the worst commercial in St. Louis."
In the 1990s, Schweig Engel began buying ad space on cable in the city, says Jeff McCann, formerly an advertising salesman at TCI.
"There wasn't a lot on cable yet," McCann says. "But Mike bought into it. He knew how to get his name out there."
McCann adds that it wasn't just the ads that created a buzz.
"When you walked into Schweig Engel you'd see all those guys," says McCann. There was Mike, there was John, there was Warren. They were that accessible. And I think that's why they did so well as long as they did."
The Schweig Engel party ended in 2004. Stein says the business was still profitable, but the partners were ready to move on. The original building is now, ironically, a National Rent-to-Own.
Stein became manager of Alro Heating & Cooling in St. Ann. John North moved to DeBary, Florida, where he now runs two separate businesses (one manages credit-card fees for other companies). Warren Lewis works for Value City Furniture but, while vice president at Schweig Engel, took great pride in having risen from maintenance man to the first company officer from outside the family. (He was also one of the very first black furniture buyers in the United States.)
Stein says he and North are planning on flying out to LA in early 2012 to make the Funny or Die commercials. He's kicking around an Iron Man spoof. Meanwhile, Nick Corirossi is salivating.
"Look at all the stuff they did with green screen," he says. "Can you imagine what they'd do with the new technology, when they have the run of things?"
Slyman Brothers: Try Us, You'll Like Us
Bob Slyman Jr. says hardly a day goes by without a customer walking into one of his family's appliance stores and asking about the company's television ads from the 1970s and '80s.
The commercial that launched them all first appeared on St. Louis airwaves in 1972 and featured Slyman's father, Bob, and uncle Harry Slyman superimposed as if they were sitting atop the Gateway Arch.
"Thanks for making us tops in town," the brothers announced before ending the spot with the company's tagline: "Try us, you'll like us."
Slyman Jr. says his father and uncle came up with the idea for that first commercial themselves, and it didn't take long for the ad to pay off — big time.
"They opened the business in 1965, the year the Arch was completed, so it was a natural tie-in," he says. "Within a year or so of running those spots business increased 20 to 30 percent."
So successful were the commercials that the brothers nearly did away completely with all other forms of advertising. Over the years they'd create dozens more commercials, filming the first few in the studios at Channel 5. Later they'd move production to the company's stores. Perhaps the most memorable commercial — besides the spot on top of the Arch — was the ad featuring their mother.
"They wanted to emphasize that we are a family business, so the spot showed my dad and uncle loading a truck with appliances and then banging on the side of the trailer and yelling, 'OK, Mom, take it away.'"
Truth be told, though, mom Slyman never actually appeared in the advertisement. The camera cut away from the cab as the vehicle pulled off the lot.
"Years later we wanted to do a similar commercial — only this time it would be her grandkids telling her to 'take it away,'" says Slyman Jr. "But she wouldn't do it. She was too embarrassed."
Now in its third generation, Slyman Brothers is still making its own commercials featuring Bob Jr., his brother and sister — Jon and Darlene — and their children.
"I don't know if it's a St. Louis thing or what, but people do seem pretty surprised when they come into the store and see that we're actually here — just like in the commercials," says Slyman Jr. "Once in a while they even ask for autographs." — Chad Garrison
Steve Mizerany: "Godfather" of Slap-Schtick
Before Schweig Engel was the King of Credit, Steve Mizerany was the undisputed King of Crazy. "Don't be confused!" he exhorted St. Louisans during the 1970s and '80s, roller-skating through the New Deal store — a TV and appliance outfit owned by him and his childhood friend, Joe Farhatt, located at "4719 Gravois, next to the Bevo Mill!"
He called his salesmen "The Decent Boys." Some associates had nicknames such as "Jelly Roll" and "The Moose." But it was Mizerany — the son of Lebanese immigrants in St. Raymond's parish — who courted the spotlight with his crown, suspenders and loud polyester suits. (He later donated the roller skates to the Missouri History Museum).
He also took to the radio waves. After leaving the New Deal store in 1989, Mizerany did some radio spots for Warehouse of Waterbeds, owned by a pair of nieces. "If you ain't sleepin' on water," he said, "you otter!"
Former Post-Dispatch columnist Elaine Viets once wrote that Mizerany's voice squeaked and squealed "like a pig in a packing plant."
"He was always kind of like that," recalls Jim Winkle, a KPLR producer at the time, who shot some of Mizerany's spots. "But he would get to a new level when the camera was rolling. When it was all done, he might sit down and talk quieter, because his voice was tired from screaming and chasing a monkey around the room."
He also displayed a philanthropic streak. It was Mizerany who put together the Annual St. Louis Police Relief Celebrity Ballgame during the 1970s. Raised funds went to families of officers killed in the line of duty.
A month after his death last April, 14th Ward alderwoman Carol Howard honored him before a full board meeting as "one of the pioneers of TV commercials."
"He was just a character," said Howard, "and a very kind and wonderful businessman." — Nicholas Phillips
Uncle Leonard Lewis: Heavyweight Vendor
I'm the only guy around that can give a girl 50 inches," Uncle Leonard Lewis told Riverfront Times in 1991. "Of TV that is — don't get excited."
Lewis spent much of his 43-year career at Leonard's TV at 6800 Natural Bridge Road in Pine Lawn. When he wasn't selling televisions, he was appearing on them in his trademark Greek fishing cap, alongside athletic greats such as Muhammed Ali, Vince Coleman and Brett Hull (all of whom dwarfed the short businessman).
"That's right, folks," he said in one spot, sidling up to Cardinals pitcher John Tudor. "Come on down to Leonard's TV, and I'll give you a major-league deal on a Panasonic camcorder! It's got auto-focus, remote-control, power zoom, audio dub, omni search, and instant playback, and best of all [pumping fist], the Uncle Leonard big discount!"
"Now that's what I call a fast pitch," Tudor said.
At his peak, Lewis owned six stores. He once offered a sweet deal on a new TV for any kind of trade-in — even "your old mother-in-law."
Some didn't quite get his schtick. When he joked on JC Corcoran's morning show that people should invest in color air conditioners, Lewis later got a dozen calls from folks pressing for more details.
By the time he retired in 1992, he'd notched on his belt 43 years in the business. He'd even garnered a Sons of the Desert Celebrity of the Year honor for being "the person who best fosters the spirit of Laurel and Hardy in what they say or do." But even in his twilight years, before his death at age 91 in 2002, he couldn't resist the lure of the silver screen: He appeared in commercials for a local Wendy's franchise.
Yet as much as he loved attention, he could also be modest. When KDNL (Channel 30) ran a segment on his life in the late '90s, they mentioned three different people down on their luck who'd received unsolicited checks from Lewis.
"Uncle Leonard never told us about these good deeds," the reporter said. "We found them all in local newspapers." — Nicholas Phillips
Home Furniture: No Monkey Business
When the Fredman family decided in the late 1970s that it was time to advertise their Collinsville-based Home Furniture on television, S. Fredman, then a twentysomething-year-old store manager, knew that the television spots had to stand out from the competition.
"My mother always had this expression that she'd tolerate 'no monkey business,' and I thought that could make for a clever commercial," he says. "Initially, I wanted to get a real monkey that I could chase around the store, but my wife said it would probably bite me."
The solution? Fredman drove to south St. Louis and rented himself a gorilla's suit. Over the next twenty years that same gorilla outfit would appear in dozens of ads for Home Furniture. Each ad was more or less the same. Fredman would interview a business professional from the community about their occupation.
"Say it was a journalist," explains the 68-year-old Fredman. "I'd ask: 'If someone plagiarizes your work, would that make you mad?' He or she would answer, 'Well, no. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' Then I'd ask a similar question or two until finally asking: 'What if someone you know bought home furnishing and paid delivery fees, finance charges and other 'monkey business' expenses? Would that that make you mad?' At that point the person would say, 'Yes, that would make me mad!' And the monkey would appear on the scene and would get physically hit by the sap who's being interviewed, and we'd end with the tagline: 'At Home furniture there is no monkey business!'"
Immediately after the first ad hit the airwaves (featuring Fredman's nephew in the monkey suit), business at Home Furniture increased 25 percent. "People were even asking for out autographs," recalls Fredman.
Not everyone found the commercials amusing.
"One bit we did was with an insurance agent asking him if he'd be angry if someone bought a million-dollar policy and then jumped off the Gateway Arch to collect," says Fredman. "That same spot had been running for months, maybe years, when a person in a parachute actually hit the Arch and fell to his death. We got a call from someone accusing us of making light of the tragedy. We pulled the ad."
Fredman says that he aimed at perfection in those first commercials, demanding that they shoot dozens of takes. "Eventually, we'd do two or three takes, and it was done," he says.
More important than perfection was that the commercial had a "schtick" — something that Fredman says fellow advertiser Steve Mizerany, who'd roller-skate through his south St. Louis appliance store in his television ads, had in spades.
"I used to teach a business administration course at St. Louis Community College, and I'd invite Mizerany in to talk to the students," says Fredman. "He was the godfather of interesting commercials."
Until earlier this year, Home Furniture was still running on cable television some of the same commercials it filmed in the early 1990s. Fredman says the store — in business since 1935 — wasn't seeing as great a return on investment as it used to from the ads. Still, he doesn't know why more local retailers don't have a little more fun with their commercials.
"Unless you're a funeral home, I think you can make some jokes."— Chad Garrison
Becky, Queen of Carpet: Flies Over the Competition
No matter how high you may have been while watching TV in the 1990s, you weren't higher than Becky "Queen of Carpet" Rothman and Wanda "Princess of Tile" Kilzer. You did not glide above the Arch on a magic carpet. (Get it? No? You're still high.)
Becky and Wanda owned that marketing airspace. They sometimes invited copilots: Cardinals pitcher Greg Mathews. Steve & D.C., morning-show DJs. Diane "Mother" MacKenzie from KIX 104 FM. Even Steve Mizerany, who called them "Decent Girls."
But it was they and they alone who promised "rich man's carpeting at working man's prices."
As business buzzed, the spots got crazier. In 1992, Becky leaped from the Arch and landed safely on the magic carpet. Two years later, she jumped and missed, plummeted to the ground, then simpered into the camera, her crown crooked, birds tweeting in the background (which always means brain injury).
By the early aughts, Wanda "Princess of Tile" Kilzer had left the company. She died last February.
Wanda's departure didn't mean that Becky flew solo. In 2001 Rothman touted her stain-resistant carpet by soaring along with her large dog (she was, at the time, a devoted breeder of Doberman pinschers).
"Everybody loves their pets, but they can ruin your carpet!" she says as the spot opens to brassy military music. The dog yawns.
After Rothman had gastrointestinal surgery in 2003, she lost 185 pounds. She began to appear more sprightly in her ads. In fact, the spots took some Schweig Engel-esque turns. In one, she was struck by lightning. In a more recent commercial, she says, "I've got so many things on sale, my head's going to explode." And then it does.
Other local advertisers took notice. In 2004 adult novelty store Very Intimate Playthings ran a parody of Rothman's ads with porn star Ron Jeremy dressed in drag and floating on a carpet above the Gateway Arch. The Queen of Carpet was not amused.
That year Riverfront Times wrote how Rothman called KTVI, demanding that VIP's ads be pulled. Apparently, she wasn't happy with us reporting that story, either. She was unwilling to call us back last week about her brilliant ads of the '80s and '90s and 2000s. We'll leave the space below for her to chime in, should she wish.
Mark Earls, who has produced Becky's commercials since the 1980s, tells RFT that her sales numbers exploded the more outlandish her ads became.
"It's hard to call it a 'regular' commercial when it's someone wearing a crown and flying on a carpet," jokes Earls, who's also worked with car dealer Jim Trenary and InstaCredit Automart. "But when we do the more regular commercials, she doesn't get as many phone calls as when she does something crazy. When we do those crazy things, her phone rings. That stuff works."— Nicholas Phillips