Jack Stephan dies at 96; plumbing company was known for ‘Adee do!’ ads
Who knows what danger lurks in your plumbing? If you grew up in Southern California after 1965 and watched any of the major TV channels, it’s likely you know the answer:
Those words were drilled into pop-culture posterity by a series of campy commercials that played day and night for decades thanks to Jack Stephan, a flamboyant entrepreneur with a flair for marketing who founded two of the region’s most heavily advertised plumbing companies.
“He was the Cal Worthington of plumbing,” Jack Stephan Jr. said of his father, who died of natural causes Saturday at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He was 96.
The elder Stephan, who founded Jack Stephan Plumbing & Heating in 1946 and Adee Plumbing & Heating in 1949, did not appear in the commercials, but his characteristic zestfulness permeated them.
He began advertising on television in 1965, starting with a spot that featured a Tiny Tim imitator strumming a ukulele in a bathtub. His next ad involved a frog that proclaims Stephan the “Prince of Flushing.”
Neither of those spots took hold like the ones he concocted a short while later.
The first memorable ad played off the famous opening lines of a 1930s radio show, “The Shadow”: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
Stephan’s version starred a hammy announcer played by Wally Sherwin. “Plumbing and heating problems? Who fixes them like new?” Sherwin asks in one of the long-running spots. Or: “Clogged sewers and drains? Who cleans it through and through?”
The answer “Adee do!” became so ingrained in the public’s mind, Stephan later said, that people thought “Do” was part of the company’s name. According to his son, he settled on the name Adee in part so he could have the first plumber listing in the phone book.
After the success of that ad, Stephan searched for an equally unforgettable gimmick for his other company.
Sherwin, a veteran of Los Angeles radio, came up with the idea of a play on the Stephan name. “Plumbing and heating problems? Your man is Jack Stephanski,” he says. In other versions, he pronounces the name Stephanovich and Stephanino. An actor playing the plumber would then interject, “It’s Jack Stephan!”
“That one stuck,” Jack Jr. said in an interview this week.
It stuck so well that two decades later, in 1989, Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg called the ad “The Commercial That Won’t Die,” adding that “You’d have to drive a stake through its heart” to kill it.
“It’s amazing how well the mispronouncing has worked,” Stephan told a plumbing industry magazine in 2005. “We plug away with our jingle every month because our philosophy is that the smallest drop of water will eventually wear away the biggest stone.”
The son of an inventor and a nurse, Stephan was born in Chicago on Nov. 17, 1917, but moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 3. After graduating from Gardena High School in 1938, he attended USC on a football scholarship. He left school in 1941 because of a sports injury and found work as a plumber in a Long Beach shipyard.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he started his own plumbing business on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. He knocked on doors to drum up business, but the first years were so difficult, he considered becoming a police officer instead.
But after taking out an ad in the yellow pages, business picked up so much he dropped his plans to join law enforcement. He eventually built a fleet of 50 trucks between the two companies, which are now run by Jack Jr. and another son, Russell.
Divorced twice, Stephan is survived by his third wife, Barbara, to whom he was married for 45 years. Besides his sons, his other survivors include two daughters, Charlene Glass and Donna Purzycki; 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
In keeping with his attention-grabbing advertising style, Stephan drove Rolls-Royces and maintained a flashy wardrobe, including mega-carat diamonds and suits in his favorite color, red.
“He was a constant promoter,” Barbara Stephan said this week.
He embraced that ethic literally to the end. The name plate he chose for his crypt at Inglewood Park Cemetery reads in extra-large letters: “IT’S JACK STEPHAN!!!”
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