The Atlantic City Boardwalk is filled with people offering something.
A chance to win a water gun game. A ride on a rolling chair. A glossy flyer for the Philly Pretzel Factory. Time shares. The man sweating inside the Irish Pub sandwich board ... well, he's just a walking advertisement, and he probably needs water.
What happened to Atlantic City's zest for the sale? This Boardwalk used to be breeding grounds for some of the world's best pitchmen, people such as the recently departed Ed McMahon and Billy Mays, people who made shoregoers believe and invest in wacky inventions.
TV infomercial legend Ron Popeil (the "Set it, and forget it!" guy) also cut his sales chops here, along with some people who went on to acting success - Robert Redford, Charles Bronson and Jack Klugman.
But Atlantic City's pitchman era is over now, gone like the diving horses and Heinz Pier, the one with the big "57" on top. The novelty wore away. Home shopping networks and TV infomercials grew in status, and suddenly the guy on the Boardwalk hawking kitchen products became less believable, less vital, less necessary.
As seen on TV!
Cris Morris' Ventnor office looks like a utility closet with nice furniture. Brooms and cleaning supplies spill onto the carpet. Turbie Twist and E-Z Steamer boxes collect dust. Eight different cheese graters - eight! - vie for shelf space.
The cheese grater obsession makes sense. Really. Cris Morris is the president of International Housewares Inc., a company that develops products for infomercials and trade shows, items such as cleaners and salsa makers ... and yes, cheese graters.
The piles of items are Cris Morris' market research, pet projects, successes, failures, and way of remembering. Where you see "As Seen on TV!" schlock or kitschy kitchen products, Cris Morris sees his family's legacy.
"The items being sold today are the same items my family was selling 50 years ago, and the demonstrations are exactly the same," he said.
The Morris story is the story of the Atlantic City pitchman, and to a large degree, pitchmen across the country. The history unravels through three items on a wooden shelf in Cris Morris' office: a glass knife, a metal vegetable slicer and a bobblehead doll. The items represent beginnings, success and legacy.
The glass knife
The glass knife is wrapped in bubble wrap, the kind you want to pop with your thumbs.
Cris Morris pulls the knife from his shelf, shucks the bubble wrap and the light from the window makes the glass glow amber.
Cris Morris' great-uncle, Nathan "Nat" Morris, began selling this knife in the 1930s, showcasing his wares at boardwalks and county fairs. America was stuck in the Great Depression. People wanted something to believe in, and Nat Morris made them believe in his glass knife.
Sure, people had been selling things for years, medicine men with magic formulas and snake oil. But this was the first time someone was selling kitchen gadgets.
Nat Morris pulled relatives into the business. His nephew, Seymour Popeil, joined the fold in 1937. Nat Morris taught Popeil how to attract an audience, how to demonstrate the powers of his product, and how to turn interest into sales.
"Seymour started by selling the glass knife," Cris Morris says. "Uncle Nat broke Seymour in."
In the early 1940s, Nat Morris started a company, N. K. Morris Manufacturing.
Popeil began a company of his own, Popeil Brothers, in 1947. An arms race developed between the Morrises and Popeils - an arms race to develop the greatest gadgets with the widest appeal for the biggest profits.
The metal vegetable slicer
Cris Morris picks up the Morris Metric Vegetable Slicer, and the box flaps collapse like wet paper. Another piece of masking tape right there, and the box begrudgingly hangs together.
Cris Morris removes the Morris Metric Vegetable Slicer from its sagging, tattered cardboard home, and here is the item his father and uncle sold on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
In the days after World War II, while Nat Morris stayed in Asbury Park to manufacture new products, his brother, Al, traveled to Atlantic City with his sons, Archie and Edward (nicknamed "Ruby"), to hawk the goods. Atlantic City presented the showmanship and carnival atmosphere needed to push wacky gadgets.
And the Morrises did just that, selling a bagel holder, fruit juice extractor and corer, shredder and slicer ... And the Morris Metric Vegetable Slicer.
Archie and Ruby Morris taught Ed McMahon, the eventual "Tonight Show" sidekick, how to sell the slicer. McMahon was a college student then, making $500 a week off beachgoers. McMahon discussed his pitch for a 1969 Time Magazine article.
"Folks, I'm gonna show you the Morris Metric Slicer. Two dollars is the price on the box, but forget the $2. I'm talking about $1, and I'm throwing in the onion slicer and the juice extractor."
It was the perfect pitch, containing demonstration, the mirage price-lowering and added value - "But wait ... there's more." Using those tactics and an army of pitchmen, the Morrises carved a foothold on the industry, crisscrossing the region, selling at fairs and unloading doohickeys from stands at Pennsylvania and the Boardwalk, and on St. James Place in Atlantic City.
The Popeils built their own empire in the Midwest. In the 1950s, the Morrises and Popeils both experimented with television to market their products. Nat Morris' son, Lester, filmed a spot for the Roto-Broil, a rotisserie.
Seymour Popeil's son, Ron, appeared in a television advertisement to demonstrate his father's Chop-O-Matic. The black-and-white clip shows baby-faced Ron Popeil, jet black hair, clad in coat and tie chopping potato pancakes and onions. Only $3.98, and "at no additional charge, a valuable recipe book containing 50 secret recipes by a world-famous chef."
Ron Popeil, selling stuff on TV? Hmm. Interesting concept.
Into the family business
The Morris family's Atlantic City impact ran through the 1960s and early 1970s.
While Ruby Morris moved away to start a gadget company of his own, his brother, Archie, stayed on the Atlantic City Boardwalk running a jam auction, a place where people bought a bag filled with cheap goods, and that purchase would give them access to an auction room where they could bid on items.
Two decades of pitching and jam auctions turned Archie Morris into a Boardwalk legend.
"He could sell an empty paper bag for $20," says Cris Morris' sister, Stacey Morris.
But Archie Morris suffered a stroke in the 1970s, and the family's Atlantic City presence faded away. Casinos came to town, and people were more focused on table games than kitchen gadgets.
As all this was going on, Ruby Morris' son, Cris, pursued a different career path. He worked as a music engineer, serving as recording assistant for Fleetwood Mac's iconic "Rumours" album. His name is on the record label. He appears in three pictures in the album's photo collage.
He's the guy without a beard.
Seven years later, he would be working with a guy now famous for a beard.
Cris Morris joined the family business in 1983. Ocean One Mall was opening in Atlantic City, and Ruby Morris saw it as a forum to sell his cleaning and kitchen products. Pitchmen inhabited kiosks on the mall's second floor, but Ruby Morris didn't want to move back to A.C., so he asked his son to oversee things for a little while. A little while turned into 25 years.
Ruby and Cris Morris became business partners, and they worked together until Ruby Morris' death in 2003. The elder Morris' ashes sit in a box on his son's office shelf behind the tattered slicer box.
"I thought that he'd like to be close to the action," Cris Morris said.
The bobblehead doll
Cris Morris taps the bobblehead's ceramic head, and his friend's face shakes.
The nodding figure depicts pitchman Billy Mays with a container of OxiClean in his hand. Thumbs up. Beard. You almost expect the bobblehead to decimate your eardrums: "Hi, Billy Mays here..."
In life and death and 12-inch height, Mays represents the legacy of Atlantic City's pitchman past, the last great hawker to come from the resort.
The summer Ocean One Mall opened, 1983, a friend of Mays' was traveling to A.C. to sell Ginsu knives. He asked Mays to come along, so Mays, then a poor twentysomething from western Pennsylvania, packed his suitcase.
Mays' first product was the Wash-Matik, a car-washing device with a tube and brush. He used buckets in his demonstration, so the established pitchmen called him "Bucket Billy."
Besides giving him the nickname, the pitchmen taught "Bucket Billy" how to talk to customers and gesture with his hands, lessons he carried to home shopping networks and late-night infomercials.
Days before he died of an apparent heart attack at age 50, Mays discussed his Boardwalk training on "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien."
"(My hands) are my weapons," Mays said. "This is how I was taught on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Twenty-seven years ago I started there, and I was taught by some of the best pitchmen you will ever know."
Those pitchmen survived for a few years at Ocean One Mall, but the novelty wore away and mall business died in winter. By the end of the 1980s the pitchmen were no more in Atlantic City, relegated to trade shows.
Enter the infomercial
The end of A.C.'s pitchman era coincides with the rise in direct response television (DRTV) and home shopping.
In 1984, FCC deregulation allowed companies to air half-hour commercials to sell their products, and the modern infomercial was born. The Home Shopping Network entered national households in 1985, and QVC followed a year later.
And Mays was there to capitalize, making the transition more forcefully and ubiquitously than any pitchman since Ron Popeil. Mays' resume includes Awesome Auger, Orange Glo, Hercules Hooks ... The SQV Ultimate Ladder, Petsy pet brush, Mighty Mendit ...
Mays' most famous TV commercial was OxiClean. He poured the detergent into a fishbowl filled with red or blue ink, and OxiClean dissolved the ink. Like everything else in this business, the demonstration wasn't new or revolutionary, but it captured America's attention.
"We were doing the same demonstration years ago for a product called DiDi Seven," Morris said. "Billy re-used the demonstration on TV for OxiClean."
Mays and Morris worked together from 1983 to 1995 and remained friends. Morris was featured on last week's episode of Mays' Discovery Channel reality show, "Pitchmen."
But instead of celebrating last week, Morris was in McKees Rocks, Pa., paying his final respects.
At a viewing attended by thousands, Morris approached the casket, and there was his friend Billy Mays. And Mays was laying there, the booming voice quieted, and all Morris wanted to say: "Billy, wake up. It's time to go to work."
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They sold on the Boardwalk
"Tonight Show" sidekick and "Star Search" host ... rapped in a FreeCreditReport.com commercial
Loud, popular pitchman known for his blue shirt and 1970s beard ... not to be confused with Willie Mays, a famous baseball player
The godfather of the infomercial ... won Ig Nobel Prize in 1993 for consumer engineering ... mimicked on "Saturday Night Live"
Played the sloppy roommate in the 1970s sitcom "The Odd Couple" ... formerly married to "Match Game" panelist Brett Somers
Tough guy actor from movies such as "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Great Escape" ... while deceased, his scowl still intimidates
Starred in movies "All the President's Men" and "The Natural" ... Screen tested, but was deemed too stable to star in "The Graduate"