Long Lives the King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there were truth in advertising, Al Greenwood would be known as the Bedspread Philosopher-King.

In the time it takes to make up a bed, the man can rail against the perils of big business devouring the little guy. He can rant against the appalling absence of humanity in the modern world. And don't get him started on interior decorators.

"Whatever they buy, they are never happy with it," Greenwood said. "They spend more time with us than any other customer and then they want a discount on top of it. . . . They are the bane of my existence."

But Greenwood, who sold shoes for $1.99 on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles during the Hoover administration, knows something about business and marketing. He knows that nobody would buy a bedspread from a philosopher. So, he's been content for the last two decades to be the plain ol' Bedspread King.

In a commercial world clogged with royalty, it might be easy to confuse Greenwood with any number of pretenders to the throne. There are kings of beepers, beers, big screens and burgers. And those are just the Bs.

But a little comparison shopping shows that Greenwood's tinny crown shines a touch brighter. At 91, Greenwood is among the last of the old-time pitchmen, a maverick who has stood defiantly above the bed covers as thousands of other merchants peddling similar wares dived underneath them.

He's heir to a line of pitchmen who are low budget and high energy. To a line that wouldn't trade 2 cents for a demographics chart or a focus-group report. He's from a tradition of tireless salesmen whose secret to success and happiness has been to sell what they know and love best--themselves.

"Al's style is a throwback to the 'carnivalesque' sales approach, which was prominent around the Civil War and up through the 1920s," said Mary Wolfinbarger, a professor of marketing at Cal State Long Beach. "Its appeal is its vividness. It cuts through the clutter of ordinary advertising."

Greenwood puts it this way: "I think of myself as somewhere between P.T. Barnum and Neiman Marcus."

His flair for showmanship has helped earn him a good, but not spectacular, living. He estimates that he's sold hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, bedspreads during his reign. His two stores--one in Long Beach, another in South Gate--make money, but they also are "swimming upstream" against the stiff competition of department stores and chains such as Strouds and Bed, Bath & Beyond, Greenwood said. (Like many private business owners, Greenwood won't discuss his earnings.)

It's clear, though, that Greenwood didn't become a monarch expecting to earn a king's ransom. Well, rich wouldn't be bad, but being king of his own castle was far more important.

"When I was growing up, I stood in awe of society," Greenwood said. "I complied with society's rules. But now that I'm older, I say, 'Screw 'em.' I say and do what I want."

One look at his advertising proves that. For years in newspaper ads, the king satirized current events in a way that would have made most advertising executives overthrow his monarchy.

Years ago, after a rash of gang shootings, Greenwood joked that everyone should buy a bulletproof bedspread from him. (He received inquiries from Northern Ireland and a writer from "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" after that one.)

In another, he went after the vast untapped market of unmarried couples who were living together.

"You don't know how the relationship is going to turn out, and you don't want to spend a lot of cash," the ad began.

No less startling are his famed late-night kitschy TV ads that run on cable stations in Long Beach. The spots show Greenwood dressed in his regal gowns, often with one or more of his five grandchildren.

"Normally, I hate kids in commercials," Greenwood said. "If I thought any of them were getting a big head about it, I'd can them right away."

Many commercials feature no grandkids, however, and with good reason. One such commercial displayed a dark screen with a woman's voice saying, "Oh, king size." Then, the lights come up, showing the diminutive Greenwood in bed with a woman. "Yeah, that's right. We're having a sale on king-size bedspreads."

Not everyone appreciates the royal sense of humor. He has a file 2 inches thick of hate mail.

"I hope you die soon, you old man," states one.

"See you in hell," declares another unsigned correspondence.

Greenwood typically responds to such letters and phone calls with a simple: "I'm sorry, but that's your opinion."

His Humor Generally Gets Positive Results

More often than not, though, his humor inspires customer loyalty. One recent morning Louis and Marion Leatherwood drove from their Pasadena home to Long Beach to check out the store's bedspreads, which range in price from $14.95 to $400. The couple ended up making a purchase.

"I used to live in Long Beach, and I've always loved his commercials," said Marion, 51.

"And you don't get to see royalty every day," added Louis, 56, with two bedspreads and fitted sheets in his arms. "What can I say? He sold us. That's why he's the king."

Greenwood isn't surprised by the devotion. He's come to expect it. That's why he has a stack of 8-by-10 glossy photos in his back office ready to be autographed for his adoring fans.

"I tell you, I'm like a cult hero to some of my customers," Greenwood said. "It's crazy. It's like a Michael Jackson deal."

In fairness to the masked entertainer, the crowned merchant hasn't quite achieved that kind of lasting fame--yet. But Greenwood has had a few minutes here and there.

Several years ago, the TV show "Sisters" wove one of the king's TV commercials into its plot. Around the same time, he became an unofficial commentator for radio station KROQ-FM (106.7).

Upon the firing of former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for her comments about masturbation, the king shared his insights with his radio audience: "I told them that if the government finds out masturbation is enjoyable, we'll probably be charged an entertainment tax."

About 10 years ago, writers for David Letterman called and said they wanted to put Greenwood on the show. But like the kings of old, duty came first.

Greenwood was having a big sale and just couldn't fly to New York in the middle of it as Letterman's people wanted. When the sale was over, he got in touch with the show, but it apparently was too late.

"I have a love-hate relationship with Letterman now," he said.

Given that his regal persona is so closely linked to his stores, it's surprising to learn that Greenwood was almost the man who wouldn't be king. When Greenwood was starting his bedspread business in the early 1980s, he assigned an artist to draw him as the cowboy hat-wearing "Bedspread Man."

"I needed a gimmick, and that's all I could think of," he remembered.

Perhaps glimpsing Greenwood's inner prince, the artist returned with a drawing that had a crown, not a cowboy hat, upon his subject's head. At first, Greenwood was mad about the mix-up but then figured, "Why not?"

"I was totally embarrassed," said Greenwood when he finally donned his regal garments. "I'm a meat-and-potatoes guy. What did I know about being a king? Then I thought, 'Stop being such a schmuck. Be the king, it'll be good for business.' "

So in his early 70s, Greenwood had reinvented his business identity once again. It's something he'd been doing his whole life.

Over the decades, he'd been a sign painter, a shoe salesman, a chaplain's assistant during World War II, a door-to-door housewares salesman and a rug salesman.

"What I learned quickly in merchandising was that if I wanted to sell anything, I wanted the product in front of me so I could generate some enthusiasm," said Greenwood, standing in his Long Beach store, which is wall-to-wall bedspreads.

The Big Guys Are Cause for Concern

For a merchant who survived, but was scarred by, the Great Depression, Greenwood is more troubled by the business world's latest direction. The chain stores that oftentimes are more efficient and less expensive than the fast-disappearing mom-and-pop stores have come at a hefty price, Greenwood contends.

"The tide these days is big, big, big. Mega-firms buying everything up and running everything," said Greenwood, who is at one of his stores every day. "Meantime, the human beings are ground up into nothing.

"We march to the beat of a different drummer around here," he added. "We do a lot by gut feeling. There's no motors, no wheels, no computers running things. Just people."

His disdain, too, for today's over-planned, over-strategized and over-intellectualized world of business flared earlier this year when he received a booklet from a think-tank titled "Where Profits Come From."

The king quickly turned his pen into a sword, writing: "Even a drooling dummy should know where profits come from. If profits have to be justified with equations, flow charts and illustrations, there is something radically wrong."

He signed the missive "Loads of love for a happy new year, Grandpa Al."

His grandson, Jesse Brackenbury, an economic forecaster in New York, has his grandfather on his firm's mailing list. The booklet went out automatically and was intended as a broad analysis of the overall economy, not of an individual business, Brackenbury explained.

"Grandpa has a real knack for cutting through the nonsense and getting to the essence of things," said the 23-year-old. "Though I'm not sure he did that in this case."

Another royal annoyance is the inane marketing ploys of big companies that try to trick the consumer into overpaying. A good example in the bedspread business are duvets, Greenwood said.

"It's just a fancy name for a blanket cover so they can get a little more money," he said. "We have them, but for a good price."

It's not just the climate of big business that maddens the king, occasionally it's his own subjects. The customer may not always be right in the realm of the Bedspread King.

One customer returned her bedspread for what she thought was a perfectly understandable reason: It clashed with the shrubbery outside her bedroom window.

"I still can't believe that one," said Greenwood, who nevertheless granted an exchange of the shrub-clashing covering.

He can't remember whether he got mad at the woman, but, apparently, he's been loudly irritated with others.

"My daughter tells me I have to stop yelling at the customers," said Greenwood, whose son-in-law helps him run the business. "But sometimes they make me crazy."

Even posters that decorate his Long Beach store attest to his majesty's testiness. One sign near the cash register proclaims: "Hey, lady, this ain't no museum here! Now buy something."

Like many potentates, the king doesn't always obey his own edicts to buy, buy, buy. He lives his life by his own rules now.

On his own bed at home he has a plain blue bedspread. It's the same one he's had for six years. Maybe, seven. He's not sure.

"It serves its purpose," he said. "I don't really need another one."

But when asked how often others should buy a bedspread, he says with a wry smile: "Why, every day, of course."

Sometimes, it's good to be king.

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