Interesting Angelenos

Cal Worthington, SoCal TV ad icon was 92


Cal Worthington might arguably have been the most recognized Southern California car dealer from his decades on television pitching his Worthington Ford dealership. Worthington "and his dog Spot" — which could have been an elephant or tiger or hippo &dmash; sold cars here starting in 1950 in Huntington Park. More recently he has been based in Long Beach, with a dealership in Anchorage and a large almond ranch, the Big W, near Orland in the Sacramento Valley, where he died on Sunday while watching football. At one time there were Worthington dealers in several states — and as he said, he was willing to stand on his head to sell you a car.

From the LA Times:

Described as a cross between Dale Carnegie and Slim Pickens, Worthington was best known for his wacky television pitches that had him wrestling with a tiger, flying upside down on an airplane wing or riding a killer whale. His sales antics with his “Dog Spot” drove a career that took him from a three-car lot on a patch of Texas dirt to a multi-make dealership empire that grossed billions of dollars and stretched from Southern California to Alaska....

Worthington's enduring mark on regional television wasn't made until 1971, when he began running his famous “Dog Spot” commercials. The ads were inspired by two competitors, Ralph Williams and Fletcher Jones, who both ran television ads featuring dogs. In particular, Jones was shown cuddling puppies and promised he'd give customers a dog from the pound.

“I decided I'd mimic them,” Worthington told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. So he borrowed a gorilla, chained it to a car bumper and let the cameras roll. With the ape snarling in the background, Worthington said: “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.”

Worthington and his ilk were important to the success of early TV, as prime local advertisers. He followed in the footsteps of Los Angeles promoters such as Mad Man Muntz, who pitched that he sold cars (and other products) at such low prices that people thought he was crazy. From the New York Times in 2007:

Mr. Worthington became an early believer in the power of television advertising. Rather than buy ad spots, he produced entire programs. Every Saturday and Sunday night, he was host of a three-hour variety show broadcast live on a Los Angeles station from Cal’s Corral at his dealership. The show featured a who’s who of country music stars, including Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Roger Miller. The rising cost of television time eventually forced Mr. Worthington to focus on shorter ads in which he praised specific cars on his lot while wearing a 10-gallon hat and a garish western suit from Nudie Cohn, the rodeo tailor.

This is the most viewed Cal Worthington clip on YouTube:

Here's another classic clip of commercials with Worthington and Spot that Mark Lacter notes has the hallmarks of today's infomercials. His success was made possible by the joining of three factors, says Mark: SoCal's mania for the automobile, a huckster's comforting schtick, and the efforts by local TV stations to monetize their non-network offerings, especially in off hours.

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Interesting Angelenos stories on LA Observed:
Jonathan Gold, LA's preeminent food writer, has died at 57
Hockney stops at LACMA for a new exhibition
Eli Broad retiring from public life 'right now'
Cardinal Mahony still walks the walk on refugees and migrants
Friends with books: Two men of Mars
Scully, Abdul-Jabbar, Gehry and more to get White House honor
Josh Kun, 4 other Angelenos win MacArthur grants
Stanley Sheinbaum, 96, LA liberal leader