NEW YORK -- Jerry Carroll, known to millions of New Yorkers as the fast-talking, eyeball-popping, arm-flailing pitchman for Crazy Eddie, likes to recall the day the discount consumer electronics chain opened a new outlet on the edge of Wall Street's business district. Hundreds of stockbrokers and investors had been invited to the 5 p.m. catered affair. But when founder Eddie Antar arrived, he found a staff scurrying about in confusion. "The place was a shambles," Carroll said. "Eddie was wearing this black exercise suit that he wore everywhere, and he had dirt smears on his face. But at a quarter to five, he just does this Patton-like speech and he's got them cheering. At 5:02 they open the doors, and you never knew the chaos that went before." If Antar managed to fool the investment community on that hectic fall day in 1985, it was just a glimpse of what was to come. A hard-driving Syrian Jew with a genius for salesmanship, Eddie Antar was a darling of Wall Street. He was the high school dropout who took a single stereo store on Brooklyn's Kings Highway, built it into a thriving chain with Carroll's unforgettable slogan -- "Our prices are insa-a-ne" -- then took it all public in a $20 million public stock offering. With fresh capital in hand, Crazy Eddie's would soon boast 43 stores from Connecticut to Philadelphia. No one had the slightest idea that Antar was about to take a dizzying plunge from the pinnacle of New York retailing. The disintegration of Antar's empire came with lightning speed. There was the bitter divorce from his wife, Debbie, after she confronted him with his girlfriend on a Manhattan street. And there was the unrelenting family warfare that would see Antar push his father and two brothers out of the company they helped build. And the bizarre spectacle of Antar dumping $70 million of the stock he had personally promoted, then trying to buy it back at a fraction of the price. And the proxy fight that would end Antar's control of the company. And a torrent of lawsuits and countersuits. And the criminal investigation by the Justice Department. And the civil probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sources say has authorized the filing of civil charges against six former company officials. Last month, the mountain of unpaid bills grew so large that the troubled chain was forced into the arms of the federal bankruptcy court, seeking protection from creditors. The company's stock, which had once reached $25 a share, is now worth about 25 cents. An investors' lawsuit has accused Antar, 41, of "what may be the largest securities fraud in history." In a word, the rise and fall of Crazy Eddie -- and no headline writer in New York could resist it -- was insane. Few reporters have ever actually seen the reclusive, bearded Eddie Antar. Even photographs of the man are hard to come by. Any portrait must be pieced together from those who have dealt with him. "Eddie Antar is like a Sephardic Howard Hughes," says Howard Sirota, an attorney for shareholders and investors trying to recoup losses they estimate at $200 million. "He's here, then he disappears, then he's back again. I tried to take his deposition, but he invoked the Fifth Amendment." "He's very secretive and very eccentric," agrees Joseph Mezrahi, an attorney who did real estate work for Antar. "I must have been his lawyer for 10 years and I saw him three times." A former employee recalls that "Eddie was subject to strange moods. He'd visit a store and have you tear up a whole room of merchandise. He yelled at people. In the beginning, Eddie fired people on the spot." The Antar clan is a product of the tight-knit Sephardic Jewish community that has flourished in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. There's Eddie's merchant father, Sam Antar, son of a Syrian immigrant, who would become the chain's executive vice president; Mitchell Antar, Eddie's brother, who began selling stereos for Eddie at age 14 and later became his chief operating officer; and Allen Antar, another brother, who became director of corporate sales. Other family members include Eddie's cousin, Solomon E. Antar, who became general counsel, and Eddie's uncle, Sam E. Antar, who later shared the duties of president. Eddie's sister, Ellen, and her husband, Ben Kuzser, were put in charge of the record and tape departments in each store. The relatives have not always gotten along. "It was a volatile family to begin with," Carroll said. "They did very hard business. They did aggressive, stand-up-and-scream business." Eddie Antar's retail career began in 1969, after he had dropped out of high school and opened the small Kings Highway store, Sights and Sounds, with his father and a cousin. Sights and Sounds failed within a year, but Antar was more determined than ever to be his own boss. He opened another store -- this one called Crazy Eddie -- where he began the policy known as Nail 'em at the Door: Antar would stand guard at the door, demanding to know why departing customers hadn't bought anything. Antar offered brand-name equipment at discount prices, advertising heavily on local radio. One night he heard Carroll, then a high-energy disc jockey called "Doctor Jerry," read his Crazy Eddie script in rapid-fire style. Antar was so impressed with the rendition that he made Carroll the centerpiece of a TV campaign that hit the screens in 1976. The ads were a huge success, mocked by cartoons in the New Yorker and parodied by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live." In the overcrowded New York market, where even the guy selling hot pretzels is always undersold by someone around the corner, Crazy Eddie had captured that elusive commodity, name recognition. "All the top name brands, 15 to 60 percent off!" Jerry Carroll would shout at the camera. One poll found that Carroll was more recognizable than the city's other great pitchman, Ed Koch. Antar reveled in his success. On many a day his limousine would swing by Carroll's West Side brownstone and the two would head for Peter Luger's or the River Cafe. "It was the high life in New York," Carroll said. Moving out from his base, Antar opened new stores in New Jersey and out on Long Island. But there were hints of erratic judgment. In 1983, Antar had the company lend $1 million to a Caribbean medical school that, within months, was shut down after a federal lawsuit. He also made a curious investment in a Utah oil partnership. A more important turning point came on New Year's Eve 1983. Debbie Antar, the quiet Brooklyn schoolteacher whom he married in 1969, had become suspicious about her husband's social life and decided to track him down at one of his Manhattan haunts. She took with her Eddie's brother Mitchell, Eddie's sister Ellen, and their spouses. "Eddie was caught red-handed with another woman in a limousine," Antar's brother-in-law, Ben Kuzser, recalled later in a court affidavit. "A violent fight ensued between Eddie and his wife." Soon afterward, Kuzser said, he and Mitchell Antar were summoned to Eddie's Coney Island Avenue office. "Eddie was visibly distraught, raving and ranting, and blamed Mitchell and me for breaking up his marriage, claiming we should not have permitted our wives to accompany his wife to New York City on that fateful night. At that meeting, Eddie vowed he would someday get even with Mitchell and me." Two weeks later, Kuzser said, Antar demanded an option to acquire his record and tape outlets, Benel Distributors, that had been operating in Crazy Eddie stores under an oral agreement. Kuzser refused, and the dispute began to fester. Eddie's father, Sam, who openly sympathized with his daughter-in-law, suffered a heart attack days after the New Year's Eve confrontation. Debbie Antar began divorce proceedings that would bring her $35,000 a year in alimony and $2,000 a week in child support for the couple's five daughters. Antar would remarry a year after the divorce was finalized. In the meantime, though, Antar had decided to take the 13-store chain public. Carroll says he warned Antar that this was a mistake for such a private person. But Antar, he recalls, "was very high on the fact that the company was going to be huge." As preparations for a 2-million share offering began in the summer of 1984, some Wall Street brokers grew nervous. The books were in poor shape and replete with cozy arrangements such as interest-free loans to insiders, according to an account in Crain's New York Business. Questions were also raised about why relatives were drawing large salaries for duties that were, at best, ambiguous. But Eddie Antar aggressively courted the investment world, squiring key analysts around town. His timing was fortuitous. The consumer electronics business, fueled by VCRs, answering machines and other gadgets, was exploding. And the market for new stock offerings was hotter than it had ever been. New figures showed Crazy Eddie's net income jumping by more than 300 percent. The stock rose from an initial $8 to more than $20 a share. "The guy was a good salesman in convincing the Street," said Donald Trott, a Dean Witter Reynolds analyst. "He also had good numbers, which may not have been accurate." But success only exacerbated family tensions. "When they went public, Eddie Antar did not give his brothers one single share," said a family friend who is not sympathetic to Antar. "His brothers had worked for him for years for minimal salary, day and night, seven days and week." The stock offering financed an expansion that tripled the number of stores, even as competing chains like The Wiz and Newmark & Lewis were chasing the same customers. Many Crazy Eddie stores suffered from inventory shortages and personnel problems. "Crazy Eddie had an ill-founded reputation for selling cheap," said a former store manager who asked that his name not be used. The company might advertise Sony, Pioneer and other top receivers, he said, "but whenever you came in, you'd get switched to Kenwood." By early 1986, reported sales reached $260 million, while the payroll grew to 1,500 employees. New Jersey offered an $8 million, low-interest loan to move corporate headquarters to Edison, N.J. Eddie Antar himself was now drawing $500,000 in salary. In November 1986, Eddie Antar did something that confounded everyone around him -- he sold off a huge chunk of his stock. Antar had already sold $50 million worth of his holdings since 1984, and now he unloaded 1.5 million shares for another $20 million, just a few weeks before a new report showing terrible Christmas sales. The full extent of the bad news was contained in the company's fourth-quarter report, out in early 1987, showing that profits had dropped 90 percent. Crazy Eddie stock plunged on the news, and more than a dozen shareholders filed suit, charging Antar with insider trading and inflating profit figures. Antar, whose attorneys declined to comment, denied any wrongdoing in court papers. "A lot of institutional investors felt they had been misled," Trott said. "Some felt they had been bagged by this guy. There was a lot of resentment." By this time, Antar was already retreating from his empire. Shortly after his stock sales were completed, he resigned his position as president and chief executive of Crazy Eddie, retaining the title of chairman. Then he dropped out of sight. Rumors circulated that he was ill. Soon afterward, Debbie Antar hired Manhattan's most flamboyant divorce lawyer, Raoul Lionel Felder, and moved to reopen her divorce settlement. Debbie complained that she had been deprived of proper legal representation because her original divorce work had been handled by Solomon Antar, Eddie's cousin and general counsel of Crazy Eddie. Antar quickly called Kuzser, his brother-in-law, and began "threatening to create serious trouble for me and other members of his family if his ex-wife continued to pursue challenging the divorce," Kuzser said in his affidavit. In April 1987, a private detective hired by Felder served Antar with legal papers at a bar mitzvah at the Waldorf-Astoria. The following day, according to the affidavit, Antar demanded that his brother, Mitchell, resign as company president. Father Sam Antar, brother Allen Antar, and Debbie's mother, bookeeper Lillian Rosen, were fired. Ben and Ellen Kuzser's record outlets were terminated, forcing them to file for bankruptcy protection. A month later, Mitchell Antar resigned. His lawyer, Marvin Gersten, says Mitchell quit rather than sign an SEC filing that he believed was misleading. Meanwhile, a strange takeover battle ensued. Antar teamed up with prominent Canadian financier Marc Belzberg, an Orthodox Jew, and tried to buy back the company's stock for $7 a share -- half the price he received when he had sold his own stock. Elias Zinn, a Houston electronics supplier who considered Crazy Eddie "a gold mine," bought a large stake and launched his own bid for the firm, joining with Victor Palmieri, a Park Avenue turnaround specialist who had rescued such companies as Penn Central and Baldwin-United. Just before the showdown, six top officers of the company (including three Antars) voted themselves "golden parachutes" -- five-year employment contracts for as much as $160,000 a year that had to be honored by any new owner unless they were convicted of crimes. In the proxy battle that followed, Eddie's brother, Mitchell, and father, Sam, sided with Zinn and Palmieri, who prevailed in November 1987. Once in control, the new management fired most of the remaining Antar relatives, then closed all stores for a one-day inventory. What they discovered, they claim, is that $65 million in "phantom" merchandise was missing. The new owners filed suit, accusing the Antar management of falsifying profits and shredding an enormous mass of records to cover it up. Nevertheless, Zinn boldly predicted that he would revive the company. He boosted compensation for salesmen, limited store hours and did away with aggressive selling techniques. But the downward spiral continued, fueled by credit and inventory problems and a slumping, oversaturated electronics market. In February of this year, Zinn resigned. In March, a new president, Peter A. Martosella Jr., shut down 17 stores. Last month, five creditors went to bankruptcy court to push the chain into liquidation. A Philadelphia bank cut off Crazy Eddie's $21 million line of credit, forcing the company to file its own Chapter 11 petition. Since then, company officials have refused to be interviewed. Dozens of Manhattan lawyers are now sifting through the legal wreckage. There is the shareholders' suit, the golden parachute suit, the divorce litigation and the bankruptcy proceeding. And the circle keeps widening. The shareholders' class-action suit, for example, also names two of Crazy Eddie's former brokerage firms, Oppenheimer & Co. and Bear, Stearns & Co., along with its former auditor, Peat Marwick Main & Co. All have denied wrongdoing. "Eddie is like a Works Project Administration for lawyers," said Sirota, the shareholders' attorney. Milton R. Ackman, one of several lawyers who has represented Antar, withdrew from the case after complaining that his client "has refused to furnish me with a current telephone number or address" and "has not paid outstanding fees to the firm." Debbie Antar's suit is proceeding in a Brooklyn courtroom. Sam Antar, 67, who remains close to Debbie, was recently deposed by his son's lawyers. "Eddie just sat there scowling, glaring at his father," said one person who was present. Still other lawyers are battling over the golden parachute payments. "These are people who had done a truly disastrous job," said Crazy Eddie attorney James Janowitz. Jerry Carroll's bug-eyed visage flickers simultaneously from 16 TV monitors in the window of the Crazy Eddie store on East 57th Street, then dissolves into static. Inside, the store is stocked with everything from phones to faxes, coffeemakers to computers. But in a place where customers were once "nailed at the door," three salesmen now chat amiably while a few browsers drift in and out. The real Carroll sits slumped in a chair in his high-tech living room, reflecting on how the company he personified could fall so far so fast. "I had no clue at all," he said. "I mean, wow." Carroll expects the company will launch one more ad campaign next month. But he speaks wistfully about the old days, sometimes slipping into the past tense. "It's sad," he said. "Crazy Eddie had a mystique, a magic. It was very New York." $RAY; Invalid basket name FI/WIRE