The Local Chicago Commercial Hall of Fame
If you grew up in Chicago, there were certain things you couldn’t avoid no matter how hard you tried. As soon as you turned on the Cubs game or The Bozo Show, there they were: the Empire guy, the Victory Auto Wreckers dude, Eagle Man. For better or worse, they’re part of you now. So we thought instead of fighting it, we’d embrace our nostalgic past and revisit the very best classic Chicago TV commercials that make up our Hall of Fame class.
First aired around: 1977
They ran about 50 billion ads in Chicago, but all I remember is the nerdy guy with the glasses and that catchy jingle FROM HELL! Jesus F. Christ on a Kaiser bun. If we never have to hear “588-2300-EMPIRE” sang again way too cheerfully, consider it a blessing on all of our damaged souls.
Fun fact: The Empire Man’s name was Lynn Hauldren, an ad copywriter who was working on the Empire account but couldn’t find a suitable actor to play the part so he played it himself. And boy did he ever play that role. While sadly he died in 2011 at age 89, he lives on in animated versions of the commercials today... while bobbleheads made in his likeness live on forever.
Victory Auto Wreckers
First aired around: 1985
Did you know “that old car might be worth money"? If you grew up in Chicago, you knew it better than your third-grade multiplication tables thanks to the relentless crush of the forever stuck-in-time Victory Auto Wreckers commercials. The highlight of the commercial hits right at the start when the car door falls off as soon as the poor sap tries to open his rusted out piece of junk. Despite its grainy ‘70s look and feel, the ad wasn’t first aired until 1985 and for some reason remained on the air with limited changes for 30 years.
Fun fact: The dude in the commercial is Bob Zajdel, who worked for Victory at the time but was never paid extra for appearing in the commercial despite his now local legend status. Maybe he should sell his famous retro watch on eBay, something he actually joked about doing in an interview with the Tribune.
First aired around: 1993
While not quite as famous as Empire or Victory Auto Wreckers, Eagle Man easily takes the prize for the most bizarre commercial on the list. Two big-haired women are just driving down the street, then Eagle Man for no reason attacks their car, dents the roof, and lays a massive egg (despite being clearly male) after declaring “I’ve got something for you!” in the creepiest voice imaginable, after which a baby eagle hatches clutching a rate sheet as the ladies proclaim: “Oh, look at those low rates!” So yeah, I guess that’s an ad.
Fun fact: Mocked by Letterman and considered one of the worst commercials of all time, Mancow loved the commercial so much he starred in a remake featuring Eagle Woman, who drops eggs from the sky bearing (naturally) Eagle’s low rates.
First aired around: 1991
When you hear someone from Chicago declare, “ladies, let’s have a party,” they are no doubt referring to this ridiculous commercial from the ‘90s featuring Scottie Pippen slam dunking a sub after declaring that the massive sandwich (stacked vertically so it’s almost as tall as the 6’8’’ Pippen) “is one six-footer I can’t handle.” Did Pip go on to have a party with Kim and Cheryl from the Luvabulls (whose names for some reason appear on screen)? You’re goddamn right he did.
Fun fact: Mr. Sub apparently wanted to hire Jordan for the commercial, but His Airness was unavailable due to his commitment with McDonald’s. Thus, MJ was on set when the commercial was shot at the Berto Center in Deerfield but never appears on screen.
First aired around: Mid-‘70s
How can I tell you that Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet was located “in Elmhurst, at York and Roosevelt Roads”? Because it’s “WHERE YOU ALWAYS SAVE MORE MONEY.” As much as I hate to admit that repetitive advertising works, in this case the relentless barrage of two nerds in suits clutching wads of cash at the end is all the proof you need.
Fun fact: Having since been demolished, the dealership (which had no direct access from Roosevelt, liars!) was once the No. 1 Chevy dealer in the country. We’re assuming $1 million a year in advertising might have had something to do with it. If their ads are any indication, it certainly wasn’t their personalities.
Moo & Oink
First aired around: ‘80s
No, you are not hallucinating. You are in fact watching dancing pigs and cows bust sick moves in a “rap video” for a South Side grocery chain (which closed in 2011). The payoff is weirdly long “Moooooo and Oink!” at the end. Nice, totally nailed the landing fellas.
Fun fact: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler once sang the Moo & Oink song on SNL’s “Weekend Update” in 2005 to prove they were real White Sox fans.
First aired around: 1982
Would you buy a waterbed from a creepy guy sporting a ‘70s mustache and cheap suit? Yes, yes you would. Because it’s the Peppers Waterbeds guy, whose store was made famous by the short jingle at the end that merely sings the company’s name. Yet decades later, I still remember it clear as day. Maybe Radiohead will cover it at Lollapalooza. Maybe not.
Where are they now: Once a top 100 furniture store with sales of $21.6 million in 1983, Peppers closed all remaining stores in 2003. But their aging beds remain, most likely at a college campus near you.
Cub Fan Bud Man
First aired around: ‘80s
I got to hand it to Budweiser: Watching a smiling Harry Caray dancing awkwardly in a black suit and a top hat, playing air guitar, performing old man karate kicks and peeping models in ‘80s Cubs jackets and tight shorts is enough to make me almost want to buy one of their crappy beers. Almost.
Fun fact: While Harry drank 115,924 beers in his lifetime (including at games), when he started slowing down towards the end of his career he would pretend to drink Bud at games so as to not offend his No. 1 sugar daddy. He drank non-alcoholic beer instead.
‘85 Bears Coke
First aired around: 1985
Thanks to the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and the cast of characters who made up what is no doubt the greatest football team ever assembled (fact!), the ’85 Bears were kings of the universe and every corporation wanted a piece of them. While Ditka has shilled for more companies than we can count (including a rust proofing company), the one we remember best is a Blues Brothers spoof when Jim McMahon orders one coke at a diner while William Perry orders a case. This was when Coke ads featured actual Bears, not that stupid animated Christmas bear.
Fun fact: 1985 was also the year the Coca-Cola Company tried to launch New Coke, and we all know how well that turned out. Should have left the marketing decisions to The Fridge. That kid could sell anything.
First aired around: 1980
In this one, the most famous line comes at the end: “Aronson, home of the credit connection, Aronson.” What the hell is a credit connection? I’m still not sure, they never explain.
Where are they now: Once a top 100 furniture store with sales of $40 million in 2005, Aronson closed all remaining stores in 2006. Did it have something to do with the credit connection? We many never know the truth.
First aired around: ‘80s
“The whole town’s talking about the Webb boys.” That’s pretty much the only thing you’ll remember from these jingles.
Fun fact: In 2010, local officials in the small Kane County town of Hampshire took offense to the fact that the Webb Boys would presume to know what their whole town was talking about. "We don't appreciate people assuming what we're thinking," stated Hampshire official John Thorkington in a totally non-Onion article. "This is an old hard-working town. We don't talk about much. Mostly about church, the weather, and just how each other's doin'. That's about it around here. This whole talkin' about the Webb Boys thing is nonsense."
Al Piemonte Ford
First aired around: 1986
Whether in a cheap suit, Cosby sweater, or black button down that looks like he’s about to go clubbing, Melrose Park’s most famous car salesman Al Piemonte didn’t rely on catchy jingles or celebrity actors to get his message across. Instead, he pointed at the camera like a lunatic and talked very quickly and loudly for decades.
Fun fact: I once caddied for Al Piemonte (who died in 2014 at age 83) as a kid and thought I was in the presence of a true celebrity. He was a pretty decent golfer, too, as far as I can remember.
Walter E. Smithe
First aired around: 2003
Whether spoofing Sex and the City, wrestling with Billy Corgan, or diving in pools with their suits on during the Olympics, Walter E. Smithe can always be counted on for some of the most widely recognizable and bizarre spots this side of Eagle Man. But the spot aired during their “Cicada Sale” with big human heads of the Smithe brothers placed on tiny insect bodies easily takes the cake.
Fun fact: The company pulled a fast one on the city in 2006, when an April Fool’s ad declaring that they had bought Wrigley Field and renamed it “Smithe Field” was taken a little too seriously by some confused fans who emailed the company looking for answers.
Peter Francis Geraci
First aired around: 2009
While not as old as some of the other classic commercials, this one pries its way into the list due to its relentless force of repetition and the amazing boredom of the commercials. How anyone could think to hire this bankruptcy lawyer after seeing these snoozers is beyond comprehension, but they must work or Geraci wouldn’t keep running them. All the time. In your sleep.
Fun fact: Geraci was arrested in 2003 and briefly held in police custody at Larrabee and Division for “verbal assault” after an altercation at his condo building. Geraci told the Reader that the cops passed the time by teasing him and “playing my TV commercials over the speaker in the police station.” So there is such a thing as justice.
Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.