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Puget Sound Radio  /  General Radio News  /  Pitch-o-matic and the Voice that started it
Posted by: TheSalmonKing, October 9, 2006, 8:08pm
October 7th, 2006                

The Slice-O-Matic came with a bonus pizza cutting wheel.

"How many times has this happened to you?"

Probably not many since the early 1980s. But once upon a time ...

The Fishin' Magician. The Veg-O-Matic. The Slice-O-Matic. The Patty Stacker. The Record Selector. The Miracle Brush.

"As seen on TV!"

Back in the tacky 1970s, you could not turn on a television set without being bombarded by loud, low-budget K-tel ads for the latest in cheap, plastic "labour-saving" devices, or, even more successfully, the latest thematic compilation of 25 original hits by 25 original artists, available on vinyl, eight-track or cassette.

"Order yours now!"

And we did, in the millions, from all over the world — little suspecting, even here, that K-tel was Canadian.

This shocking historical oversight has now been addressed, in a warm, funny and inescapably nostalgic hour-long documentary, As Seen on TV! The K-tel Story, airing tonight at 7 on CTV.

"It was a whole new kind of mass marketing," marvels comedian Dave Thomas, who narrates the K-tel saga. "Everybody thought then — I know I did — that this stuff was coming out of the States. Because, you know, who else would have the balls to hawk us so relentlessly than an American?

"It just goes to show you how sneaky Canadians are. You never really know when you're getting sold a bill of goods from a Canadian, you know? We're just a little bit slipperier and sneakier."

"But wait! There's more ..."

Thomas was the natural choice to narrate The K-tel Story — and not just because of the parodies he performed on SCTV as the fast-talking Harvey K-tel (also featured in the doc, as is his pal Danny Aykroyd's classic "Super Bass-O-Matic '76" sketch from Saturday Night Live).

"I was a copywriter in advertising before I was in SCTV," Thomas reveals. "So it fell on me to do the commercial parodies, because of my background. We were all in the business of parodying television, and those K-tel spots were part of the culture of television in the '70s. Everyone noticed the K-tel ads back then, because it was something that nobody else was doing."

At least, what nobody else was doing then. Flip through the channels now and the legacy of K-tel is everywhere, particularly late at night.

"It was really the beginning of the infomercial," offers Thomas, "you know, short-form, product demonstration on camera, that high-speed announcer ... that was the other thing that attracted me, that wall of copy they crammed in there and how they had to hire the guy who could talk the fastest (announcer Bob Washington) just to get all the words in.

"It was really invasive, just relentless and irritating. And that's another form of advertising, to irritate people. Like using a mnemonic device, something that you just repeat over and over and over: `Call 1-800-Bad-Hair Now! Call 1-800-Bad-Hair Now!' They just keep saying that until you're like, `Okay! F--k off! I get it! 1-800-Bad-Hair!' "

And yet somehow, we just couldn't resist. We bought ... and bought and bought and bought — gizmos and gadgets and doodads and tchotchkes, all of which would eventually, after years of gathering dust in some closet, provide the basic staples of every lawn sale in North America on the planet for the next several decades.

"They were like novelty items," Thomas suggests. "I mean, it was like going into a joke store or something. And they weren't real expensive — that was the other part. It was really low risk. And at a time when people were just starting to use their credit cards, it was like, `Hey, I can do this over the phone in just four easy payments. How can I lose?'

"I saw the marketing aspect of it, and it fascinated me. It was free enterprise at its absolute best."

As well as K-tel founder Phil Kives did, hawking branded household gadgets — and that was very well, indeed, with identically aggressive homegrown campaigns successfully launched in 34 countries — the Winnipeg-based mega-marketer reached a whole other level when he accidentally backed into the recycled record business.

"Twenty-five original hits, recorded by the original artists!"

Here is where Cam Bennett picks up the saga. Bennett is the writer and director of The K-tel Story, a self-professed "labour of love."

Never mind that, at age 40, he is perhaps a shade too young to truly appreciate K-tel in its heyday.

"My parents had the Patty Stacker, okay?" Bennett protests. "My sister had the music. And then I had the music ...

"I grew up in rural Manitoba, in the sticks. But I had this one friend whose mom was single, and she was kind of hipper than the other mothers. She had the Record Selector, and the 8-Track Selector, and she had all these albums ... so if my sister didn't have it, you know, his mom did."

Pop Explosion. Disco Hits. Goofy Greats. Soul Motion. Jukebox Rock ...

"No one told me it was kitschy. It wasn't kitschy at the time. Really, for your record-buying value, you couldn't top K-tel Records. So if you could muster up four bucks or six bucks — when they went up to seven bucks you started thinking twice about it — but you know, for five bucks you got 24 or 26 songs."

It hardly mattered that they were pressed on sub-standard vinyl and often trimmed for length, so what you were getting was really only an echo of the original track.

It was cheap, and it was something we'd seen on TV.

"People were less sophisticated at that time," suggests Bennett. "I mean, some people still had black-and-white televisions ... most had colour, but we were still making that transition. Many people didn't have remote controls. And it was prior to the advent of cable television, so there were maybe three channels, and good luck finding one that didn't run K-tel commercials.

"They were everywhere, so you were immersed in it. They beat you into submission. You couldn't escape.

"And that was the beauty of it, I think. Eventually, they'd just wear you down."

"Order yours NOW ... "

Bob Washington was the original voice of the K-Tel commercials.

Voice of an era
In conversation, it's hard to associate this warm, friendly, soft-spoken voice with the booming, bombastic, in-your-face hard sell of the K-tel commercials back in their prime.

But later, when Bob Washington graciously agrees to record a a K-tel style "commercial" to post on the Star's website, there is no mistaking it — this is the real deal, the genuine article, the often-imitated, never-duplicated original.

"I'm just a little guy from Wadena, Sask.," the retired broadcaster demurs, quickly adding, before he can be accused of undue modesty: "I taught (fellow Wadenite) Pamela Wallin everything she knows."

Washington is well aware of his place in pop-culture history. "Well, (the commercials) were quite a thing at the time," he concedes. "They caused quite a stir in advertising, I think. Apparently, there was actually a course at UCLA that used the K-tel commercials as examples. It was an advertising class, and they used to feature these as an example of hard-sell advertising.

"At least that's what I'm led to believe. I don't know for sure."

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in which case Washington's greatest admirers would be Dave Thomas and Dan Aykroyd — both of whom are featured in The K-tel Story in clips of their infamous K-tel impressions.

"We're the only guys that did it, because we're the only guys that could talk that fast," says Thomas, who also narrates the doc. "Danny was always faster ... although he's slowed down a lot since then.

"When I was doing The Dave Thomas Show on CBS, I got Danny to come on with me, and the two of us had this sort of fast-talk run-off, with this thing that was, like, a bug-zapper for the windshield of your car. So we had to rattle off at incredibly high speed the genuses of a bunch of insects. It was a real tongue twister, and really complicated, and really fun to do."

No less a personage than the late Johnny Carson did a knock-off K-tel spiel as part of his repertoire.

"I'm quite flattered, actually," Washington acknowledges. "To be imitated by anyone, especially on SCTV and those guys, and Johnny Carson ... it really is quite flattering to be recognized that way."

Washington now fills his days with volunteer work and grandchildren, having moved to Vancouver to be closer to his kids.

Who are — or at least were — the least impressed by their famous father's vocal notoriety.

"When they were younger, about 7 and 9, we were able to take them on a trip to Hawaii. And when we got to our room at the Holiday Inn, the kids of course immediately turned on the TV. And the first thing that came on was a K-tel commercial.

"And my son said, `Oh Dad, you're not here too, are you?'"

Rob Salem
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