Thursday, April 13, 2006

For the people of Chicago

Everything you want to know about the Empire Carpet guy.


Blogger ben said...

From the Chicagoist comments section: the story behind "THAT OLD CAR IS WORTH MONEY", Victory Auto Wreckers ad:

He's been getting cash for that car for 24 yrs.; Bob Zajdel is the longest-running TV star you've never known

Chicago Sun-Times
February 14, 2005 Monday
by Tom McNamee

You're up in the middle of the night watching an "Andy Griffith" rerun -- the one where Barney joins the choir -- when a most excellent Chicago commercial comes on.

This skinny guy with long blond hair, circa Judas Priest, steps up to an old green beater and tries to open the driver's door. It falls right off.

"That old car may be worth money!"

That's what the announcer says and, sitting there in the dark in your underwear, that's what you say along with him because you know every word.

"Call Victory Auto Wreckers at 630-860-2000 for a quote!"

The skinny guy jumps back when the door falls off. He jiggles his arms, and you notice his huge leather watchband, circa Styx.

"Victory will tow it away no matter what condition the car is in!"

The skinny guy hands over the car's title to another guy, who gives the skinny guy two $20 bills and a third bill you can't read. You hope it's another $20 because you can see the skinny guy could use it.

Then a Victory tow truck drags the beater away and "Andy Griffith" comes back on, and you find out -- if you can believe this -- that Barney can't really sing.

But you're still thinking about that commercial. Just how old is it, anyway? And whatever happened to the skinny guy?

Time for some serious investigative reporting.

'I had to jump'

After an exhaustive morning of legwork that consisted of two quick phone calls, here's the scoop:

The Victory Auto commercial has been running on local TV stations nonstop since 1981, sometimes as often as 25 times a week. It may well be the longest-running unchanged commercial in Chicago TV history.

And the skinny guy is Bob Zajdel of Elmwood Park. He is 45, drives a truck for a living and says he wasn't acting when he jumped back from that falling door.

"That was me just getting away," he says. "I was supposed to give a little fake jump, but when the door came down like a shear, I had to jump or I would have got hit. It could have really cut me."

Zajdel was a driver for Victory Auto in 1981 when the company's owner, Ken Weisner, asked him if he wanted to be in a commercial.

"We went out there one morning and shot it, and I went back to work," he says. "I was on the clock, so I didn't get paid anything extra. I was stupid enough to sign a waiver. They gave it to me about two minutes before the shooting."

Not that Zajdel is complaining. A deal's a deal, and he likes the folks at Victory. They give him a discount on auto parts.

"I just figured this thing would run like six months," he says. "I didn't think I'd be on for years."

Or decades.

The commercial made Zajdel a minor celebrity. Very minor. People in bars bought him drinks. They asked to touch his watchband.

"I've always been a fan of the ultra-wide watchband and the mullet -- or perhaps in those days it was called a gypsy shag," says WCKG radio host Steve Dahl, a connoisseur of cheesy commercials. "But in the last decade or so, I've really become fixated on the door that just falls off. That is pure genius."

But over the years, as styles have changed, Zajdel's style has not -- not on the commercial -- and there are days when he feels he's living in a time warp.

"People find out I'm that guy, and they still kid me," he says. "What's with that weird hairdo? What's with the watchband? But that was the style."

Does this mean Zajdel in real life has moved on?

"I'm built the same, but the hair's shorter. You wouldn't recognize me."

I am glad to hear this. Everybody in Chicago should be glad to hear this. But Zajdel's telling me this on the phone, and I need to see for myself. So I drive out to Elk Grove Village, where he works, and check him out.

I shake hands with a middle-age, skinny guy who's looking much better -- more squared away.

Or, as Harry Caray used to say about ballplayers and nobody raised an eyebrow: "Well now, folks, that's a fine looking fella there."

'Why change it?'

I ask Kyle Weisner, Ken's son and the manager at Victory, if maybe it's time to retire the skinny guy spot.

"Why change it?" he replies. "It's effective. We get calls."

But, I say, Bob looks like a roadie for a hair band, circa Journey.

"At this point, it actually works in our favor not to change," he says. "As soon as you see that grainy shot with Bob standing there with his long hair and his wristband, you know what it is. You might be annoyed, but you know."

To be precisely accurate, the ad has been altered once, by two words. When the price of scrap steel dropped, the announcer went from saying "That old car is worth money!" to "That old car may be worth money!"

For years, the commercial ran only on WGN-TV. Now, in the non-cable world, it also runs on channels 32, 44, 48 and 50. But to catch it, you usually have to sit through a bunch of other 30-second spots pitching hope to the lost and the broke.

You get your bankruptcy lawyer. Your high-risk auto insurance agent. Your personal injury lawyer. Your trade school offering an "exciting new career" in massage therapy or interior decorating.

And only then, thoroughly swimming in new possibilities, do you get the skinny guy with the falling door.

But what I really want to know is this: How large is that third bill the skinny guy gets, the one you can't see?

"Well, that's the big mystery, isn't it?" says Kyle. "No one will ever know. My father won't even tell me what that last bill was."

Whatever it was, I think Victory should give it -- and a lot more -- to Zajdel. For real. He's the star of a commercial that's been pulling in business for 24 years.

Time to cut him a check.

It's Valentine's Day.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent .. Superb .. I will bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally I'm satisfied to search out numerous useful information here in the post about Auto Wreckers, thank you for sharing. . . . .

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent .. Superb .. I will bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally I'm satisfied to search out numerous useful information here in the post about Auto Wreckers, thank you for sharing. . . . .

Anonymous aryastark said...

Well, I'm not sure about local auto wreckers but I sure have a junker or two that's destined for "greatness"! Thanks for the fun blog - keep it up!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That guy was soooo hot back then...

Good to know he's still got his sexy on.


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