Cal Worthington, the car dealer whose famous jingle "Go See Cal" stuck in the minds of a generation of local TV viewers, died at home on Sunday. He was 92.
Worthington was best known for his wild televised stunts, western cowboy persona and the dozens of wild animals he jokingly called "my dog Spot." This particular pitch man was an icon for many in Southern California.
Born Calvin Coolidge Worthington in rural Oklahoma, he landed his first job at just 13 years old. Later, he flew B-17s in World War 2. Worthington never went to college and he couldn't find steady work after the war — so while living in Texas, he started selling cars at an old gas station in Corpus Christi.
"I'd saved some money and I managed to lease an old gas station there," Worthington said in a 2010 interview with Long Beach's Grunion Gazette. "I had 500 bucks, that's all the money I had — and I'd borrowed 1,200. And every once in a while I'd sell a car for somebody, I'd just put it there with a "for sale" sign on it. And it's so funny — I'd just started selling cars!"
Worthington had found his calling. He went out west and opened his first dealership in Huntington Park in 1950, selling Hudsons. From there, Worthington built an automotive empire with up to 23 stores stretching across five states. It was an empire with a very catchy anthem.
"I first did it really slow, with a big drum roll," Worthington told NPR in 2009. "And then I got thinking — I got to speed this thing up!"
His "Go See Cal" advertising jingle, set to the melody of "If You're Happy and You Know It," caught on quickly and never really left the heads of those who heard it.
More than any car they might buy from him, Angelenos will remember Worthington for his bizarre commercials. Standing out like a bright neon light in the haze of late night TV, you'd find Cal: a manic, friendly Oklahoman wearing a 10-gallon hat, who would do anything in front of a camera to get you into a new car.
"And again, I'm Cal Worthington of Worthington Ford, and I got a whole bunch of goodies for you," one of his ads began. "I'm gonna give you a Brock-a-brella hat you can wear on your little head to keep the sun off of you. And I'm gonna give you an anti-siphon thing here; you poke this in the gas tank and nobody can swipe your gas. All I want you to do is just drop by and say hello."
Untroubled by concerns for his safety — or dignity — Worthington got up and close and personal with tigers, lions, bears, hippos, a killer whale... he even dangled from an airplane's wings once.
He was more than just a car salesman, of course. He was a part of an instantly recognizable breed of regional TV commercial personalities that's becoming more and more rare today — people like Larry from Sit 'n Sleep or Ernest from Cerritos Auto Square.
"It's hard not to remember Cal Worthington," said historian D. J. Waldie. "Growing up in Southern California, Cal Worthington's commercials punctuated late night television on most channels in Southern California for many years."
Waldie grew up in Lakewood just a few miles from Worthington Ford in Long Beach. He says wild pitch men weren't necessarily a new thing to television back then, but, "[Worthington] embodied so much about what was going in the culture of Southern California during his heyday. I mean, he was an Oklahoman, and he spoke with a twang of the border South. He wore flamboyant western style outfits, kind of looking like the band leader of a western swing band. And he used his wit and skill to parody the more sober advertisements of his competitors."
Worthington's advertisements kept his business running for decades.
Later in life, he'd shoot commercials for all of his dealerships from a custom built TV studio in his ranch in Orland — a small California town outside of Chico.
As NPR reported in 2009, Worthington was still shooting as many as four commercials a day well into his 80s.
Cal remained a pilot his whole life — he flew his Learjet from his home to Alaska less than two weeks ago. He spent his last moments at home watching Sunday football with his family.
Worthington leaves behind dozens of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, four dealerships and thousands of Californians who still aren't sure if they've seen his dog, Spot.
This story has been updated.