02 February 2009


Thanks to Youtube (and this page in particular), I’ve come across a lot of stuff I haven’t thought about in years. Much of it is junk—perhaps some proof that we are more apt to remember the good, significant, relevant things television subjected us to decades ago. Social historians (and pop culture geeks like me) must be having an orgasm because all of the, um, archival footage now available to us for free.

Of course, Youtube can’t take all the credit. Sometimes, a simple phrase can conjure up a flood of long-suppressed memories. While watching the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship dog show over the weekend, the words, “That’s right, Bob!” did this to me. They were spoken repeatedly to the show’s host, Bob Goen, by various dog handlers and trainers, and the phrase triggered something that had left my consciousness twenty years ago.

If you’ve ever watched Milwaukee television, you know Colder’s, a local furniture and appliance store. Much like Bernie and Phyl’s or Bob’s Discount Furniture in New England, they’ve advertised incessantly for as long as I can remember. In the ‘80s, they had a spokesperson named (surprise, surprise) Bob who was an unexceptionally dorky, bespectacled middle-aged Midwesterner. Their cheaply-made commercials were mostly bland and forgettable, irritating only because it seemed like they aired every five minutes.

Which brings us to “That’s right, Bob!”, a series of radio and TV ads. The premise: Bob does his usual spiel, hawking whatever living room set or refrigerator was on sale that week, only he phrases it in the form of a question, not as Alex Trebek but as if he was Pat Sajak shooting the shit with Vanna White.

Of course, Colder's couldn't hire the real Vanna at height of her Wheel of Fortune fame, so they improvised. A typical exchange would go something like this:

Bob: “Vanna White, isn’t it true that the 1988 Fridgidaire deluxe model with automatic icemaker and patented sta-kleen vinyl handle can be yours at Colder’s this week with no payments down and no interest until 1990?”

“Vanna”: “That’s right, Bob!”

Two or three more questions would follow and "Vanna" always gave the same three-word response. I first heard the radio version, where the voice of "Vanna" was mousy, rapid and obviously fake, as if a man was saying it. By itself, that would have been mildly amusing (and to most kids my age it was).

Unfortunately, they just had to make a TV version where "Vanna" is a life size cardboard cutout of Ms. White. The exchange played out like the radio ad, only Bob communicated with "Vanna" as a ventriloquist would with his dummy—and with little effort to not show his lips moving as he mouthed the ad's infamous catch phrase. He even chuckles at the end, as if to say, "Gosh darnit, can you believe how dorky I am?"


Eventually, the radio ads were amended to make Vanna's voice sound a little less fake. "That's right, Bob!" became throatier, more feminine, and a little saucier. That did not keep my friends and I from saying it to each other in a chipmunk cadence, though.

Here's a few other old Milwaukee commercials I'd kill to see on Youtube again:

Gordon's Furniture: Not too strong of a competitor to Colder's, this smaller business had to make do with freeze frame stills of their merchandise and voiceover copy. But the ads always ended with eerie, disembodied voices saying "Gordon's" in triplicate before being topped off with an unnerving musical cue that sounded like it was straight out of an old science fiction flick without really meaning to.

Tadych: Another furniture store, even tinier than Gordon's, and only a few blocks away from my house. In addition to promoting fine Amish handiwork (again accompanied by still shots of "Amish" carpenters at work... I always yelled at the screen, "Oh, they're not really Amish—those beards are taped on!"), they had a chintzy felt toad with someone's hand up its back, belching out the store's name as if it was "Ribbit!", closing out with a big BOOI-NNNG! on the soundtrack as it pounced toward the camera for its close-up.

And bonus points for anything with the polka-like theme for Ernie von Schledorn's auto dealership (which always ended with Ernie croaking, "Who do you know vants to buy a car?" like a benevolent German priest) or the totally groovy circa-1970 jingle for Mike Crivello's Wonderful World of Cameras, whose original recording was still in use not too long ago!