Allen Dance considers his Gaithersburg basement to be the home version of a stadium luxury box. He's got a 52-inch television hooked up to surround sound speakers, a refrigerator stocked with micro brews and---most important of all---six cushy recliners, two of which are tricked out with heat, massage and their own six-pack-sized refrigerators.
"I'd say it's even better than a luxury box," says Dance's friend, Chip Holcher, who is currently splayed out in one of the roomy chairs. "They don't have seats this nice in the boxes."
"That's right," says Dance as he soaks up the shiatsu-like pulses being delivered by one of the massage recliners. "If Daniel Snyder put these chairs in his sky suites, he'd sell every one of them."
So far, Dance hasn't considered selling personal seat licenses for his recliners. On Sunday afternoons, when a gang of friends and neighbors bounds down his basement steps to watch football, it's first-come, first-served. The lone ground rule is that the two massage chairs are reserved for Dance and his wife, Robin.
"I call those the king and queen chairs," he says.
Tonight, Dance and a group of pals are kicked back to watch a little college basketball. Nevertheless, their conversation always seems to come back around to pro football. Mike Acuna and Peter Hudson, both of whom are Redskins fans, sit beside one another, bemoaning the Redskins' playoff loss to the Buccaneers. Their only consolation seems to be that Dance's favorite team, the Dolphins, was beaten like a rug by the Jaguars on the same day. They remind Dance of this, and Dance reminds them of a certain bungled field goal attempt. In the end, everybody laughs at the shared insults. They're far too comfortable to climb out of their recliners and fight.
"You can't beat these chairs," says Ted Reuss, a Steelers fan who is mostly avoiding the trash talk. "This is about the most comfortable place you can be to watch a game."
Considering the price of Super Bowl tickets and the game's propensity for being a lop-sided snoozer, it's hard to argue that these cushy, nap-friendly thrones won't be the perfect roosts come 6 o'clock Sunday evening, when the Titans and Rams square off.
"The only thing missing on these chairs is a built-in urinal and a microwave oven for hot pretzels," Hudson says.
"If you added that, you'd never have to get up," Dance says.
Recliner vs. Love Seat
Not everyone thinks as highly of the recliner as Dance and Hudson. In fact, the recliner in its truest form (hulking and puffy and sheathed in an eye-scalding color combination) has long been ridiculed for its very un-sleek and un-sexy appearance. In terms of style, it is to furniture what the mullet is to haircuts. People snicker and call it ugly. And yet the comfy giant has withstood all of the slings and arrows.
These days, the chair is even rocking and reclining its way through an upswing in popularity. With companies like La-Z-Boy, Action-Lane, Barcalounger and Catnapper stocking furniture showrooms, sales of recliners reached $3.3 billion in 1998, up 12 percent from the previous year, according to Furniture/Today, a trade publication.
And it's not just retirees reaching for those wooden levers. Baby boomers like Dance, 37, are parking the chairs in their basements and media rooms, while college students rummage around for less-expensive or second-hand models that they can squeeze into small apartments. If you need further proof of the recliner's popularity, just visit the ESPN Zone in Baltimore, where sports fans salivate over a coveted spot in the Throne Zone, a phalanx of nine humongous recliners facing a wall of television monitors.
"We manufacture and ship in excess of 1 million recliners per year," says Doug Waggoner, merchandise manager for Tupelo, Mississippi-based Action-Lane, which is No. 2 in recliner sales behind La-Z-Boy.
Most recliners are priced in the $400-$700 range. For around a grand, you can park your duff in a model tricked out with heat, massage, speakerphone, modem outlet and a six-pack-sized refrigerator. At La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries in Fairfax, manager Charles Greth estimates they sell 15 to 20 "loaded" chairs per month. Many of the buyers spend the bulk of their weekends watching hour upon hour of sports. "If you're a really big fan, you can even order the chair in your favorite team's colors," Greth says.
Dance, whose basement is a shrine to the Miami Dolphins, decided to buy three recliners in orange and three in teal (the closest he could find to aqua). The chairs are parked in front of the big-screen TV. When Dance sets his cardboard replica of Dan Marino behind them, it looks like Marino is standing in a pocket of La-Z-Boys.
"I saw the truck pull up to his house," says Hudson, who lives next door, "and then I saw these guys laboring to pull these huge things out of it. They just kept coming and coming. Then I saw the colors, and I said, 'The neighborhood has gone to hell.'"
Even Dance's wife, Robin, laughs about the recliners' somewhat beastly appearance.
"We were thinking of getting love seats," she says. "Then, I saw the recliners and thought they might be funny if they were contained to the basement."
The unrefined appearance of the recliner is responsible, to a degree, for its currently cool status says Tim Burke, a professor of cultural history at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. That's not to say the chairs qualify as kitsch. Even people who hate the way they look have a hard time knocking their comfort.
"It strikes me that the continuing appeal of the recliner and a lot of other findings in our past pop culture comes from our present generation digging around in a previous generation's stuff and finding cool things," Burke says. "There's a certain amount of irony, but also a certain amount of respect. The martini and cigars came back in part because they were cool, but also because they were a good idea to begin with. It's the same with the recliner."
No doubt, television programs have helped perpetuate the recliner's legend. On "Frasier," the fastidious shrink played by Kelsey Grammer must endure the eyesore that is his father's ratty but much-loved recliner. Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry on "Friends" once found their new recliners to be so comfortable that they spent an entire episode parked in them. And on "Home Improvement" and "The Simpsons," Tim Allen and Homer Simpson devised similar plans for reclining chairs that included built-in toilets, thus solving the problem of ever having to get up.
Fat Boy or Wing Back?
In many instances, the purchase of a recliner requires lengthy negotiations and eventual compromise--and that's just between the people who are planning to take the chair home. The Aesthetics vs. Style debate is probably the most common obstacle on the road to recliner ownership. In most cases, the conflict begins like this: The man wants the fat boy with massage and speakerphone. The woman says, "No way is that thing going in the same room as my grandmother's Queen Anne chair."
Manufacturers have tried to quash the style snag by creating smaller recliners that hide their true identity. Many furniture companies now offer what are referred to in the business as "compromise recliners." Wing backs, high legs and custom upholstery are just some of the features available on these chairs. IKEA even sells an art deco style recliner.
At the Lane Group showroom in the Washington Design Center, manager Jayson Pail sells wing back and transitional-style recliners by Pearson that retail for $2,000-plus (not including upholstery). He says that husbands often use the upscale models as bartering tools, telling their wives that if they'll only let them buy a recliner, then the wife can choose the rest of the furniture.
"Baby boomers, as they age, want them just as their parents wanted them," Pail says. "So, the manufacturers have finally addressed the style issue."
Of course, looks aren't everything. And that's why the uptown models have yet to nudge the juiced up super chairs into retirement. Even professional athletes, who could afford any chair they want, have taken to landing the widebodies in their media rooms. Shaquille O'Neal owns a couple of Action-Lane Comfort King recliners, maybe for when he wants to show "Kazaam" to a date. And the Redskins' Dana Stubblefield obviously doesn't believe in a four-man front. Otherwise, he wouldn't have bought seven La-Z-Boys for his own entertainment room.
Touchdown, St. Louis The look on Steve St. Louis's face is one of pure bliss. Engulfed in an ocean of cushy fabric, he's working the control pad on La-Z-Boy's top-of-the-line Oasis recliner. He's got the heater cranked up and the 10-motor massager thumping away. And just in case he works up a thirst, there's a six-pack of sodas stashed in the on-board fridge.
"Now this would be a good chair for watching the Super Bowl," he says. "I feel like I'm on the field. I could set it up to give me a big pulse when a guy gets hit."
St. Louis doesn't own the $899 Oasis, at least not yet. He is only taking a test ride at La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries in Fairfax. Wearing classic recliner attire---sweats and sneakers, of course---the 37-year-old father of two is here to pick out an easy chair for his own "downstairs lair," a room already stocked with a 56-inch television and 200-watt stereo speakers.
"My father never had a recliner," he says. "My mom is real fashion-conscious, and my wife isn't too keen on it either. But dad's putting his foot down on this one. Dad needs his quiet and comfort."
Dad will also be bringing his wife back to the store to get final approval on whatever recliner he chooses.
"Yeah, she still has to give the okay," he says sheepishly. "I mean, after all, when you think of a man's chair, or something that women hate, you think of a recliner."
It's doubtful a group of women ever sat around in recliners longing for built-in plumbing. That's because women, by and large, are not big fans of the thrones. Robin Dance might be one of the most understanding women a recliner-lover could ever meet, but even she says that her husband's herd of La-Z-Boys better stay in the basement.
One recliner manufacturer says that women actually do enjoy sitting in these chairs that they so often scorn. The problem, says Kevin Wixted, director of marketing for La-Z-Boy, is that many women just won't admit this to be true. To the dismay of the executive and many other men, the day might never come when young couples list his-and-hers recliners on their bridal registries.
Which brings us back to the plight of Steve St. Louis. Like Dance, he's got the basement, the big-screen TV and the mega-watt speakers. Now all he needs to complete his sports-viewing sanctuary is the reclining chair. But will his wife give the okay?
"She tried to talk me into a chair that didn't recline," he says after taking her back to the store. "But she settled for a beige-leather recliner with heat and massage."
Unfortunately, the chair won't be delivered until the week after the Super Bowl.
Tips on Choosing a Recliner
If you're planning to buy a recliner, make sure it's a good one. After all, you're going to be spending a lot of time in it. Here are some things to look for, according to Charles Greth of La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries in Fairfax.
Size and Shape: First of all, you don't want to buy a chair that's too small. Sit down, lean your head back and see if it supports your neck. Next, recline the chair and check for overall comfort. Pay attention to the armrests and leg support. They should be comfortable as well.
Front-Rail Construction: Nobody likes to sit in a wobbly chair. Front-rail construction keeps this from happening. Ask the salesperson which models have it.
Cushioning: Look for foam cushioning, as opposed to fiber fill. Foam is more supportive and longer-lasting.
Lumbar Support: Make sure the back and seat don't separate from each other. If they do, you'll lose lower-back support.
Fabric Protection: All companies offer some type of fabric protection. Nevertheless, keep an open mind about leather. It's more expensive but outlasts fabric.
Warranty: A well-made chair should come with a lifetime warranty on its most important parts, which are the frame and mechanism.
CAPTION: Steve St. Louis takes a souped up recliner out on a "test drive" at La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries in Fairfax.