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Originally published Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Familiar faces of local TV pitchmen

They were the television pitchmen who became local household names through their stunts and by simply appearing a little loopy. But they were crazy like foxes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Vern Fonk commercial

Geln Grant commercial

Gary Andal at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe

Jack Roberts Appliance commercials

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They were the television pitchmen who became local household names through their stunts and by simply appearing a little loopy. But they were crazy like foxes.

Every regional market seemed to have its version, often for car dealerships, but also for appliance stores and insurance firms. The 1970s was their heyday, but they can still be seen on the airwaves today.

With their commercials often airing late at night, they caught the attention of consumers. The pitchmen did pretty well, too, although some eventually ended up in financial trouble.

But what a ride!

In the Seattle area, Gerry Andal and four others stood out:

Dick Balch

He's now 80, living in Tacoma, and once again selling cars — "high-end cars," he says, not really going too much into detail.

"You write about me and the devils come out of the woodwork, girls claiming paternity, whatever," Balch says.

From 1969 to 1980, Balch ran Federal Way Chevrolet. He appeared in TV commercials in his Fu Manchu mustache, grinning and cackling, and taking a sledgehammer to bash a brand-new car.

He'd cry out: "If you can't trust your car dealer, who can you trust?"

A July 31, 1972, Time magazine story told how in the first half of that year, Balch managed to sell 1,586 cars, grossing $4.5 million.

He reached folk-hero status locally, living the playboy life in his bachelor's mansion, driving around in a customized van.

Though older now, the trademark laugh is still there. And those who were around for his commercials still instantly recognize him, Balch says.

"They turn around, say, 'Oh, my God!' Everybody remembers me as a legend, despite the liquor, sex, drugs and drug and rock 'n' roll," he says.

But by 1980, Balch had laid off his 60 employees and gone out of business. He spent a number of years in Hawaii.

He's now married to Melissa Balch, about three decades his junior.

"Oh, she came to the house for one of the parties in 1978 or 1979," remembers Balch.

Of the 1970s, he says, "It was fun. The car business then was a kick in the pants."

Jack Roberts

He wore outlandish clothes, maybe farmer's overalls, and screamed: "I won't be undersold!"

Then his wife, Linda, threw a cream pie on his face.

Opening his first appliance store in Lynnwood in 1973, Roberts eventually owned five of them, selling off the final three in 2000.

The ad agency he used said it was heavily influenced by Dick Balch, and said that Roberts stared at his cue cards and sometimes would put his "arms out and wave them in no relation to what he was saying."

But it worked.

Unlike Balch, Roberts was described as reserved and churchgoing off camera.

He died April 10, 2002, at age 64, after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Glen Grant

He nicknamed himself "Low Profit Glen," and in one of his TV spots for Glen Grant Chevrolet in Burien he put on a Superman costume because he had "super" deals.

He'd come up with such spiffy slogans as, "Have I got a deal for you!" all delivered with a very unpracticed, wooden style.

He opened that dealership in 1975 and later expanded to Parkland, Pierce County. Grant passed them on to his sons, who later sold them.

Grant wore geeky, horn-rimmed glasses on purpose, he said, "to stand out a little more."

He said that in his 30-second commercials, the first six seconds were the gimmicky parts that showed Grant in a costume or walking on the ceiling or on water.

"The rest of the message was about automobiles," he said.

Grant remembered in a March 4, 1982, Seattle Times story that the TV spots made him an instant celebrity.

"Now it's embarrassing to go anywhere. Basketball games, football games, on airplanes, even walking down the street," he said at the time.

He died May 29, 1992, at age 80, of heart disease.

Vern Fonk

Fonk was of a later generation of TV pitchmen, and, unlike Balch, Roberts or Grant, he never starred in his sometimes crude commercials that began in the early 1990s.

But he was credited as coming up with the idea of the funny ads and was described as loving off-color jokes.

The commercials actually feature Rob Thielke, a part-time actor and director of marketing for the insurance company whose TV persona was quite hyper, to say the least.

In the cheesy spots, they spoofed Star Wars with "May be the Fonk be with you"; the "Sopranos" television series with "Don't get caught without protection," and focused on a customer's prominent pimple with, "You don't want to know."

The commercials currently airing are typical of the Vern Fonk genre.

As Thielke explains, "I am depicting a middle-aged white guy trying to be cool doing a commercial. It's called 'Vern Fonk Rap.' "

The firm explained that its customers are high-risk drivers in their early-20s, and "humor appeals to them."

The company was acquired by Confie Seguros in 2010, but retained the Vern Fonk name because of the firm's reputation. A decade and a half earlier, Fonk had sold the company to his daughter, Rene Mulvaney, who ran it with her husband, Kevin Mulvaney.

Fonk died on May 22, 2006, at age 75, of bacterial blood infection.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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