Step Right Up, Folks: A 1999 Documentary, ‘Pitch People,’ Gets Its New York City Premiere

Why the delay? Although Stanley Jacobs’s film about the world’s second oldest profession made the festival circuit back in 1999, the affable and entertaining picture was never picked up for distribution.

Via SJPL Films
Al Spino in 'Pitch People.' Via SJPL Films

It’s fairly common knowledge that “Aida” is a 19th-century opera by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Did you know it’s also a business strategy that was put into practice by an ace pitchman, Jerry Crowley? “Aida,” in this case, serves as an acronym for “attention, interest, desire, action” — the latter being the transmission of both a bargain too-good-to-be-true and a fistful of cold hard cash.

“Pitch People,” a documentary by Stanley Jacobs, is having its New York City premiere this coming Friday at Village East Cinema, some 25 years after its completion. Why the delay? Although it made the festival circuit back in 1999, the picture was never picked up for distribution. It took a worldwide pandemic, as well as the advent of streaming platforms, for Mr. Jacobs to take the film out of storage and give it a proper airing.

What is a “pitchman?” New Yorkers who have frequented the Union Square Greenmarket over the years may recall an elderly British gent who had a way with vegetable peelers, Joe Ades. Sitting on the curbside and keeping an eye out for Greenmarket officials — Ades never filed for a permit to vend his wares — he would regale curious passersby, in his mellifluous Manchester accent, with the miraculous capabilities of his product.

Ades was a grafter, the British term for a person of industriousness and ambition. You might be forgiven for thinking the word bears a close resemblance to “grifter,” an association Mr. Jacobs doesn’t altogether dispel. Still, the director keeps things light, opening with a scene from “The Inspector General” (1949), wherein Danny Kaye plays a snake oil salesman. Less manicured film clips follow, including a hugely unconvincing Indian chief extolling the health benefits of “Dr. Killpain’s Famous Stomach Bitters.”

Lester Morris circa 1950 in ‘Pitch People.’ Via SJPL

“You could go back in biblical days,” one of many featured salesmen, John Worsley, says, “and there were guys behind tables pitching or hawking something.” Elsewhere, pitching is posited, with a wink and a nod, as the second oldest profession. It also made good as a family business, if the Morris clan of Asbury Park, New Jersey, is an indication. 

Lester and Arnold Morris talk about their father, Nat, in terms that are admiring all the while admitting that his parenting style was strict. A day working with dad had Arnold crying: “But, boy, I’ll tell you, I never made the same mistake twice.” Tough he may have been, but Nat did invent the Morris Metric slicer, the crazy straw, and, in so many words, the infomercial. 

The villains of the piece, to the extent that anyone is villainous, are the Popeil family. Seymour Popeil was Nat Morris’s nephew and, to hear tell of it, “the same as anybody else: He was a hustler.” Seymour established his own business in Chicago, manufacturing kitchen gadgets that were a bit more high end and a bit more expensive. He went on to ensure his place in history by adding the word “-matic” to his products, i.e., the vegematic. Lawsuits ensued between Popeil and the Morris family; perhaps there was a certain amount of envy, as well.

Other than Ron Popeil, the name casual television watchers might recognize is Ed McMahon. Johnny Carson’s sidekick worked his way through college during the 1940s pitching vegetable slicers on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. A 1986 clip from “The Tonight Show” has McMahon rattling off his patter like he’d been doing it yesterday: “I know a woman in Bayonne, New Jersey, who cut a tomato so slim it lasted all summer long!”

“Pitch People” ends on an equivocal note. Over the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy,” various pitchmen, none of them young, muse about the fate of their craft as the 20th century was drawing to a close. An actress who specialized in being the incredulous housewife in a number of infomercials, Nancy Nelson, says that the social good contributed by pitchmen is “not a big deal, but it’s nice.” The same could be said for Mr. Jacobs’s affable and entertaining documentary.


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