LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who grew up in Southern California after World War II can sing along to the Cal Worthington banjo jingles that infected late-night TV advertising.
But there was more to Worthington than the hippo-riding, bear-rasslin' Ford dealer whose zany commercials punctuated midnight monster movies. Long before the rise of megadealers, Worthington's folksy charm helped to spawn an auto retailing empire and pervaded his dealings with customers and employees.
Worthington, who died Sept. 8 at the age of 92, at one point owned 32 dealerships along the West Coast. He claimed that his stores sold more than 1 million automobiles during his lifetime.
But Worthington fell into auto retailing almost by accident and admitted that he never was much of a car guy.
Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born in 1920 in Bly, Okla., a town that no longer appears on maps. As a young pilot in World War II, he flew B-17 bombers on 29 missions, but he came home not knowing what to do next. After moving from Texas in 1950 and a couple of failed business gambits, he bought a Hudson dealership near downtown Los Angeles. He traded up to a Ford store in 1964.
To promote the business, Worthington bought TV time for country music shows that he produced and emceed at his dealerships. Among the rising stars who appeared on his show were Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Roger Miller. But when production costs got too high, he turned his attention to TV advertising.
The genre of ads that made Worthington famous actually started out as a spoof of 1950s commercials by rival Ford dealer Ralph Williams that featured Williams and his German shepherd, Storm. In the Worthington version, it was a gorilla that he called his "dog, Spot."
So began a running gag that over decades of ads would show Worthington in his trademark Stetson hat, with tigers, ostriches, elephants, even a killer whale posing as Spot.
"It was ad lib all the way," Worthington said in a 2009 interview. "I blundered onto the idea. I did it as a joke. I didn't intend for it to keep going on. But people went crazy about it."
Worthington's wacky promotions, backed by the refrain "Go See Cal" sung to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It," led the Television Bureau of Advertising to cite him as "probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history."
"People don't come in for $95 down. That's got nothing to do with it," Worthington said. "It's like politics. It doesn't matter what you say, it's the way you say it. Is it believable or not? Do I like you or not?"
Worthington had a friendly rivalry with Bert Boeckmann, whose big-volume Galpin Ford store was 40 miles north on the San Diego Freeway.
Boeckmann described the "Go See Cal" commercials as "the most unusual advertising I'd ever seen. It was a great way to communicate to the customers and it really got their attention. He could pull customers in from further away than I could."
Later in his career, Worthington got into hot water with California regulators for overstating claims he made in his ads, which forced him to tone down some of his rhetoric.