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Subject: Archive: Earl "Madman" Muntz, June 21, 1987

Car salesman
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Date Posted: Friday, June 21, 04:44:06pm

Earl Muntz, 'Madman' of Zany Ads, Dies

Times Staff Writer

June 21, 1987

Earl (Madman) Muntz, a former used-car dealer whose wacky advertisements launched a tradition of zaniness on late-night automobile commercials, died Saturday at 73.

Muntz died in Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage after a lengthy bout with lung cancer.

At different times, the high school dropout from Elgin, Ill., sold televisions, car stereos, "motor mansions," and even aluminum houses. But it was his stint as a Los Angeles car salesman during World War II that caught the fancy of the public and the nation's top comedians.

Faced with stiff competition from hundreds of other car lots in Southern California, Muntz searched for a way to break out of the pack. In calculated publicity onslaughts, Muntz made his media debut as a crazed salesman wearing red long johns and a Napoleonic hat.

Soon the airwaves and billboards were carrying Muntz's ubiquitous message: "I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale. It's more fun that way!" And he complained to car customers, "I want to give them away, but Mrs. Muntz won't let me. She's crazy!"

He was a smash.

"When radio was a national pastime, Bob Hope and Jack Benny used his name in their punch lines," recalled Tod Faulkner, Muntz's longtime publicist. "Just saying his name guaranteed laughs."

In 1946, a tour bus company ranked 'Madman' Muntz as the seventh most popular tourist attraction in Southern California, just behind the La Brea Tar Pits. And Muntz probably will be remembered as the only car dealer to have his name spelled out by a marching band at the Rose Bowl.

After cars came televisions. The entrepreneur began manufacturing Muntz televisions when the industry was in its infancy in the late 1940s. Muntz launched a new commercial blitzkrieg with his battle cry, "Stop staring at your radio!" As an enticement, Muntz mailed knobs to potential customers along with a note that read, "Call and we'll show up with the rest of the set."

Successful Manufacturing

In the process, Muntz became one of the largest manufacturers of televisions in the nation.

Mike Shore, an ambitious young advertising executive, dreamed up Muntz's shtick. Reminiscing about his old friend on Saturday, the now-retired ad man said the used-car salesmen who now prowl late-night TV just aren't as clever. Cal Worthington and Ralph (Hi Friends!) Williams, he said, employ the "steamroller approach" in hawking cars.

Muntz's successors, Shore said, merely stand on car lots to "say a lot of things" about the weekend sale and "pound fenders."

During his day, nothing apparently was too outrageous to Muntz in his frenetic quest to make a buck. When Americans were being investigated for possible communist ties during the McCarthy era, Muntz asked an adviser, "Do you think I'd make the front pages if I joined the Communist Party?"

'Dream House' Flops

Not all of Muntz's endeavors, however, turned to gold. He concocted the idea for the Muntz "dream houses," which were stamped out of aluminum in 10 hours. He only sold 11. He also bombed in the rental motor home business. Customers stuck with broken-down vehicles were calling from places like Yellowstone National Park asking for rides back to Los Angeles.

And after being unimpressed during a test drive, Muntz rejected an opportunity to become the American distributor for a little-known German car, the Volkswagen.

In 1955, he found himself involuntarily in bankruptcy court when the bottom dropped out of his black-and-white television empire. He blamed his troubles on a recession and the advent of color television.

But in the early 1960s, Muntz, who was married and divorced seven times, bounced back with borrowed money to become a pioneer in the car stereo market.

Until his death, Muntz still owned two stores selling stereos, cellular phones and other electronic products in Van Nuys and Palm Springs. In his later years, Muntz had begun assembling a museum to honor himself.

Muntz leaves a son, James, and a daughter, Tina.

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