Enter Madman Muntz, who was so young when he began selling cars back in Illinois that his mother had to sign sales papers.
Dressed in red BVDs and a Napoleonic hat, he would scream: "I want to give them away, but Mrs. Muntz won't let me. SHE'S CRAZY!"
It was the shout heard 'round the Southland, the beginning of a circus of the cars that would feature dealers hanging from airplanes, smashing Chevys with sledgehammers and sharing late-night screen time with dogs, elephants, alligators and whales. These brazen wheeler-dealers became a wacky part of the Southern California landscape from the early 1940s to the late '80s, offering up audacious performances to a town that appreciated pluck and stagecraft. After all, even Brando couldn't chew scenery like Cal Worthington's live gorilla.
Now, of course, the business of selling cars is all button-down, "Mr. This and Ms. That," and "Can I get you a cup of espresso with your lease agreement?" But in their time, guys like Madman Muntz owned the airwaves.
"I had a little trouble getting here," Bob Hope told a nationwide radio audience after being pushed onstage in an old Model T. "Madman Muntz chased me for three blocks!"
Muntz and Shore — the Madman and the adman — saturated the market with their ads. "There were 9,000 dealers out here then and they were all the same," remembers Shore, now 89. "I told Muntz that I wanted to do something different, and he said, 'Go ahead.' "
"I had an animator at Warner [Bros. Studios] draw up the little Napoleon figure," Shore says. "Then Muntz put on the costume. He lived it up. It really transformed him."
"I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale," Muntz would scream to potential customers. "It's more fun that way!" At Shore's urging, he posted billboards everywhere, and at one time ran up to 170 radio spots a day, by some accounts.
The gregarious dealer would do nearly anything to get noticed. During the McCarthy era, Muntz once asked an advisor, "Do you think I'd make the front pages if I joined the Communist Party?"
"He'd sell $72 million worth of cars and keep $1 million," remembers his son, James Muntz, now a computer engineer in Florida. "That's how much he'd discount."
In his heyday, Muntz's lots became stops on celebrity bus tours. At one USC vs. UCLA game, pranksters spelled out M-U-N-T-Z in a card stunt.
Muntz collected several fortunes and even more careers before his death in 1987. He coined the term "TV" when skywriters ran out of gas before finishing their ads for his television sets — and he later named his daughter TeeVee. He developed one of the earliest sports cars, the beautiful Muntz Jet and, as one of the first major players in car stereos, he invented the four-track tape, predecessor to the eight-track. And he married eight times (perhaps Muntz should've invented the prenup as well).
But it was for those preposterous auto ads that the Madman is best remembered.
"Earl Muntz worked hard, lived large and always stayed two campfires ahead," says filmmaker Dan Bunker who, with his wife, Judy ver Mehr, produced a documentary on him. "What set Muntz apart was his chutzpah . He took chances, risked failure and reaped the rewards."
Certainly, there were plenty of rewards to go around. The era featured other dealer stars as well, including Worthington and Ralph Williams, who would also become rich and ubiquitous celebrities to a customer base that worshiped cars and showbiz.
The roster of such hucksters included Walter Wellman, "the Smiling Irishman"; and Tony Holzer, known for a brief time as "Hog Wild Tony Holzer, a Bundle of Bedlam in Beverly Hills." At one point, he worked across the street from Muntz and, wearing a robe and halo, took on the tag "Honest John."
Most memorable of all, of course, was Worthington, whose stunts atop elephants and airplanes made him the main event in this high-stakes show.