The Abyssinian guinea pig is out of the act now, and so is the boa constrictor. But for a few brief shining moments over the Christmas holidays, Billy Kleess and his crew gave Washington a glimpse of the good old days when extended families of free spirits roamed the land pitching foot balm and hair formula, mops and slicer-dicers, vitamins and herb tea on small-town street corners, at state fairs and, most of all, on the boardwalk.
Kleess brought his Asbury Park act to five area Kitchen Bazaar stores in order to pitch his favorite gadget, the Varco ("grinds nuts coarse or fine for your cakes and cookies . . .") mincer. His main team for this trip included his wife Mikel Anne, associate Walter Hoffeld and Hoffeld's wife, Jody.
They worked one to a store, from platforms designed so that the pitchman is elevated above the crowd, and his hands, which swoop and dive over the garlic, the horseradish, the parsley and the ginger root, are his most prominent feature.
Make no mistake about it, the mincer does work. And the spiel -- a few minutes of stand-up poetry about mincing, chopping and grinding -- was toned up a bit in deference to Kitchen Bazaar's yuppier customers.
But despite these bits of fine tuning, the act is still closer to medicine-show entertainment than it is to the simple, crass business of exchanging money for goods. "Our business is much nicer than sales," Kleess points out sweetly. "People give us their money; we don't ask for it." What Kleess does for a living bears no resemblance to either street vendor or department store clerk. In Kleess's business, "The people buy a story, a spiel. Eighty percent of it is the spiel."
Billy Kleess, it should be said, is authentic. A twinkle-eyed Irishman who rolls from side to side when he laughs, he learned to pitch at the feet of the masters. He can tell you about all the great ones, the guys who made fortunes even during the Depression, pitching medicine at state fairs and herb teas at tobacco auctions. They started out on the boardwalk and ended up on television, where late-night viewers guffawed as the Veg-O-Matic made shreds of cabbage heads and then bought the gadget by the millions.
"The whole thing with the pitch business," says Kleess, "is who broke you in." He was broken in on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J., by one of the originals, Nat Morris, the legendary uncle of the even more legendary Samuel J. Popeil. Popeil developed and pitched such classics as the Veg-O-Matic, the Dial-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman, first in stores and later on television.
"The best pitchmen in the country trained on the boardwalk in Atlantic City or Asbury Park," says Kleess. Some pitchmen, including Kleess, moved off the boardwalk eventually, but Nat Morris never left. "A gypsy told him never to leave town or he'd die," says Kleess. "So he stayed."
"You can observe another pitchman and it's there for you to learn," says Kleess. "You steal from one another." Some of the older pitchmen were especially proficient at stealing one another's spiel; Kleess tells the story of the younger pitchman being interviewed by a California newspaper reporter for a feature story on pitchmen. Out of courtesy he invited an older pitchman to come along to the interview. The older pitchman, of course, pitched himself sufficiently that the story ended up being about him.
"When I first came into the business ("in 1812," Mikel interjects) lots of the old medicine pitchmen were still around. They worked with boa constrictors and Abyssinian guinea pigs. They'd sell $5 or $10 bags of medicine and take in $500 or $1,000 in an hour. I used to run into this one guy and I'd tell him, 'I recognize your snake but I don't remember you too well.' He's selling Wear-Ever cookware in Chicago now."
The boardwalk was a tough place to learn. "Lose your crowd on the boardwalk and it took you half an hour to get it back," says Kleess. And a pitchman without a crowd is like a beetle stranded on its back. He has to just stand there, mute, until someone appears. Pitchmen, therefore, tend to talk about crowds as if they were one single human being, as in "the crowd is turning."
"Buyers come in clumps," explains Mikel, and "so do deadbeats." If the crowd turns from "solid" to deadbeat, you might as well hang it up. And if the crowd should disappear, you have to build it up again. This, Kleess is happy to explain, is called "rolling the tip." If you can get one person in front of you and keep him there, and then persuade a few people to come up behind him, you've managed to trap the people in front so they can't leave.
Of course the product you're pitching has to be worth the effort. "We never sell junk," says Kleess. "We sell bastard items -- stuff that won't sell unless it's demonstrated. Anything that's demonstrated has to be unique. With the mincer, the blades go to the bottom and the cup lifts out for cleaning." He's on a roll now and starts "kibitzin' around." He points to an imaginary mincer. "Not one in 500 people can do that with a knife," he says. "You can take anything from your plate you don't like and feed it to the baby . . ."
Pitchmen make their fortunes by importing or developing a product with exclusive rights to its sale. They sell direct to the public, Kleess says, eliminating the middleman and simplifying the sales transaction. In the case of the mincers, Kleess imports them directly from France and pitches them all over the country. The stores where he pitches get a percentage. "But once the mincer is on shelves all over the country, our business is over. Then we have to find another apple to polish."
The stories are legion of pitchmen in their sixties and seventies making fortunes. One such legend, says Kleess, is "now legally blind, making probably $300,000 a year selling a mixer . . . until he got the spiel down that you could make whipped cream out of skimmed milk with it, it didn't sell well. He was left over from the Charles Antell Formula Number 9 days." (In all honesty, it is possible to whip skimmed milk; even the big Madison Avenue ad agencies are on to that fact.) "Saturday Night Live" has a field day with a take-off on such a mixer, at which all old pitchmen probably laugh in conspiracy.
Kleess used to pitch the mincer to "set a tip" for a much more expensive proposition, the $400 Bosch ("It's a mixer, it's a blender, it's a bread maker, it's a food processor. It slices, it shreds, it liquefies . . ."), a machine that by all accounts is magnificent but available mainly through direct sales. The lead-in to that spiel is "Anybody here make bread?" One of the Kleesses' fondest memories is the five-day period in Oahu in which they sold 110 Bosches.
Although there may be "kibitzin' around" to fit the crowd and the locale, Kleess says "the spiel is always canned." It's always rhythmic and snappy because enthusiasm sells. The pitchman always talks in phrases instead of whole sentences. "I talk in phrases even when I'm not pitching, I've been pitching so long," he says.
And then, the spiel is canned because when you're dog-tired after the eighth hour of pitching at some state fair or other, you don't have to think. The pitchman has to be in control of the crowd; it's easy to let one loudmouth take over, and then all is lost.
Kleess, his crew and his spiel wound up at Kitchen Bazaar because Sherm Shapiro, a co-owner of the stores, has a nostalgic streak. "I was born in New Haven, Connecticut," says Shapiro, "and when I was young we used to have guys on the street selling gadgets. They stood on one street corner, in a little area that was roped off. I can still see it." When Shapiro saw Kleess pitching at one of the gigantic housewares shows Shapiro attends, he decided to take a flier and ask Kleess to try out his spiel in Washington.
Any worries Shapiro and others at Kitchen Bazaar may have had about whether the pitchman tradition would play with the kind of upscale clientele after which every retailer lusts, undoubtedly vanished when Kleess rolled up in his tasteful dove-gray Cadillac. Kleess, in fine navy suit and gleaming white shirt, wouldn't look out of place on Savile Row.
Image is important, and the Kleesses argue nicely about whether "Bill" or "Billy" is the more suitable appellation. Billy thinks "Billy" is just fine, but Mikel prefers "Bill" because it sounds more dignified."
At any rate, Kleess proved that you can pitch to sophisticated, polite audiences. "The thing that gets me," says Shapiro, "is that he had different personalities and took a different approach" depending on the type of crowd he had before him at the moment. He does it so well that Shapiro plans to have him back the week before Mother's Day.
Different pitchmen have different styles, too. Mikel tends to make friends with her crowds, Billy says. "People love Mikel, like she has a following," he says. Hoffeld is described by Billy as "a naturalist. Walter goes out and eats all the nuts in the field and stuff." After eight months of living in a teepee in Wyoming to test their survival skills, the Hoffelds met the Kleesses, became their proteges and eventually ended up living with them for almost a year.
And the Varco mincers, which, after all, were the object of all this effort? Kleess sold all he had in a few days, then went home to upstate New York a week early. "We've had the item for three or four years," says Shapiro. "It was just another item."
After the pitching is over, the Kleesses go home to their four acres in upstate New York, where they live quietly -- too quietly, they are beginning to think -- with a dog, four cats and a mynah bird. "We work hard to play, to have time off," says Mikel. "Sometimes we work 10 hours a day for 14 days straight but then we're off for a few weeks. We're buying free time."
They are thinking of moving to New Mexico "because we want something warm besides comforters," says Mikel. They say the boredom of the pastoral countryside has made them fat.
There are only about 30 pitchmen left in the United States, and the breed is dying fast. The legendary Popeil died last summer, and business slowed down for the Kleesses after Billy's cancer operation six years ago. He recovered, but fighting the disease took a lot of energy that otherwise would have been spent pitching.
"Bill's just a little guy," Mikel whispers confidentially, "who rose to $3 million a year for a couple of years. He has vision. I looked at that mincer and I said 'enh.' Bill looked at it and said 'wow.' "