Pitch Sessions: A look back at the wild and wacky local TV ads of yesteryear.

Pitch Sessions: A look back at the wild and wacky local TV ads of yesteryear.
Raw Credit: The Schweig Engel gang's take on the tune Raw Hide.

Schweig Engel: Dying for Deals
Explaining an old Schweig Engel television commercial is like describing an LSD bender, given that it involved (1) home furnishings, (2) extreme slapstick violence, and (3) absolutely no finance charges.

During the 1980s and '90s, Schweig Engel, a.k.a. "The King of Credit," self-produced ads of such hysteria and surrealism, they approached the avant-garde. While the goal never altered — they aimed to unload TVs, appliances, furniture and jewelry — their strategies varied wildly. Employees appearing in the spots sliced each other's heads off. One manager exploded. Another was gobbled up by a dinosaur. Another donned a giant turkey costume and got chased by a pilgrim wielding an ax. All three pranced in Santa Claus garb. It was impossible to not watch these things.

Click here to watch the slapstick-violence masterpieces, or here to watch the spoofs.

Schweig Engel's Mike Stein
Schweig Engel's Mike Stein
Schweig Engel's Warren Lewis in "Credit Busters" garb.
Schweig Engel's Warren Lewis in "Credit Busters" garb.

Schweig Engel shuttered its doors for good in 2004. But within a few years, the TV spots began to resurface on YouTube, warming the hearts of commenters who remembered them.

The videos also caught the attention of Nick Corirossi, a writer and director for Funny or Die, the popular website owned by Will Ferrell and AdamMcKay (creators of Anchorman and Talladega Nights).

One of Corirossi's friends from St. Louis recommended the YouTube videos. So he watched them.

"They were literally the funniest fucking commercials I'd ever seen," he says.

Now, Corirossi and his colleagues are arranging to fly members of team Schweig Engel to Los Angeles in January to write, shoot and star in ads for Funny or Die. "The whole thing is tentative," Corirossi says. "Will Ferrell knows nothing about any of this. But it's become a passion project for the staff here. We have to make it happen. I will make it happen."

Mike Stein was just a 28-year-old white kid with a squeaky voice when he left Florida in 1981 and arrived in St. Louis. His mission: manage the original Schweig Engel store at Delmar Boulevard and Kingshighway.

Stein's grandfather, Sam Singer, had been one of its first employees after it opened in 1919. He bought the store in 1938. It had begun as a photography shop, but by the time Stein showed up in the early '80s, the inventory had switched to TVs and appliances. The neighborhood had changed, too, from white and affluent and to primarily black and lower-middle class.

"We could have moved out to west county," Stein says. "But I didn't want to compete against big-box stores. And at that time, finance companies didn't want to lend to black people. That gave us a great opportunity."

Schweig Engel did charge high interest rates — sometimes, the highest allowed by state law. But they were not, they emphasized, a rent-to-own firm. They targeted customers who had bad credit but held good jobs. If those patrons made all their payments on time, they earned a rebate after the final payment. Meanwhile, their diligence was reported to the credit bureau.

In 1983 the company moved to Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue. Stein trained his attention on advertising. Print ads had flopped. Stein's conventional TV ads didn't jolt the masses, either. So Stein joined forces with his colleague, Warren Lewis, a man with an offensive lineman's build who'd worked his way up from company janitor to head of the furniture department.

Their first zany commercial: "Schweig Engel Vice," a crude takeoff of Miami Vice. Clad in a white blazer à la Don Johnson, Stein sucked on a cigarette and said, "We're gonna take these rental places out of action and give credit to you!" Then he and Lewis whipped out big assault weapons and fired off-screen at...no one in particular.

"It went off the charts," Stein recalls. "We had to pull the ad off the air. We were growing too fast."

A lanky and quick-witted salesman named John North came up with the next spot: A man visiting a rent-to-own shop has to rip off his own arm and leg to pay the high rates.

The trio even ventured outside the TV studio to shoot on location.

"We actually did one by the zoo in Tarzan suits," Lewis recalls. "We almost got poison ivy hiding in the trees. I actually had a loincloth on. It was wild."

The Schweig Engel boys were by no means the area's first wacky pitchmen. Others also left an indelible mark on the psyche of St. Louis couch potatoes. The first was Steve Mizerany and his roller-skating Decent Boys from the New Deal appliance store near the Bevo Mill.

Uncle Leonard, a diminutive salesman in a skipper's cap, buddied up to Cardinals players to hawk electronics from his north St. Louis shop. The folks at Home Furniture in Collinsville, Illinois, dressed up in a gorilla suit and promised customers "no monkey business" at their store.

Stein and his colleagues weren't even the first to take advantage of the green screen, either. The Slyman Brothers used the technology in the early 1970s to superimpose themselves sitting atop the Arch and waving down at viewers. Becky "Queen of Carpet" and Wanda "Princess of Tile" used the green screen to float above downtown on an enchanted rug.

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