Cal Worthington – sometimes all it takes is a jingle

ImageA wonderful obituary in today’s NYTimes of Cal Worthington, a car dealer and salesman who for decades bombarded California with his madcap television commercials. 

Like so many great salesmen, he was born dirt poor. Selling was his route out, and he embraced it with all his heart:

In relentless campaigns that treated television viewers to as many as 100 commercials a day, Mr. Worthington proclaimed the virtues of the latest gem on the lot while, for example, strapped to the wing of a soaring biplane or standing on his head on the hood of a car — a visible demonstration of his motto, “I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal.”


In the background, a chorus of male voices and frantic banjo pickers sang a jingle to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” each of its many verses ending with the tag line: “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.”

The madness only escalated. When a rival dealer began using a pet dog in his television advertisements in the early 1970s, Mr. Worthington rustled up a gorilla and told the audience: “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.”


Spot reappeared as a hippo, an iguana and a snake, but never a dog. In other Spot spots, which ran until the 1980s, Mr. Worthington rode Shamu the killer whale at an aquatic theme park while waving his cowboy hat, chauffeured a tiger in a golf cart and sat astride an elephant. All the while, the Cal chorus belted out the promise of fabulous deals:


If you need a better car, go see Cal.
For the best deal by far, go see Cal.
If you want your payments low, if you want to save some dough,
Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.


The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington’s ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as Woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands. He was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” where Johnny Carson performed ad parodies. He appeared as himself in the 1973 Jack Lemmon film “Save the Tiger” and was the model for the car salesman played by Ted Danson in the 1993 film “Made in America.” He even infiltrated Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”

Amazingly, he never owned a car, preferring to borrow them off his own lots. The obituary ends with this: 

“I never much liked the car business,” Mr. Worthington said in 2007. “I just kind of got trapped in it after the war. I didn’t have the skills to do anything else. I just wanted to fly.”


A couple of his ads:

An interview with him:


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