City Paper is not for tourists
These should be big, big days for Gerry Bessell. “People buy televisions during Super Bowl week,” says the most famous TV salesman D.C. has ever produced.
Bessell is the founder and longtime proprietor of Theater Vision, a Rockville big-screen retailer. His local renown comes from putting several legendary Washington Redskins in a series of beloved TV spots back when the team was a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Area natives of a certain age can’t help but guffaw when recalling the sweet and simple horrendousness of a 1983 Theater Vision commercial starring Joe Jacoby.
Dressed in a period-piece casual jock ensemble of dark polyester shorts, white socks and tight yellow T-shirt, Jacoby delivered his lines with all the suaveness you’d expect from a 6-foot-seven, 310-or-so-pound dude who to that point had only taken directions from football coaches. “And, yes, and you can have this set here—50-inch, four-foot-screen—for as little as $895,” Jacoby stammered, standing in front of a projection TV identified as Theater Vision’s Model TVI-780-4. The set looked about as bulky as the lineman. At the commercial’s end, Bessell walked into the frame to make a closing pitch.
When the spot first aired, the Redskins had just won their first Vince Lombardi Trophy in early 1983. On camera, Jacoby introduced himself as a member of “the Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.” The low-budget commercial was such a smash that Bessell continued airing it through 1984. But since the team didn’t repeat as champions, the audio of him saying “Super Bowl” was snipped out. The amateurish editing only added to the awkwardness of Jacoby’s delivery.
Other Theater Vision ads featured Mark May, Art Monk, Jeff Bostic, Sam Huff, and even Jacoby’s wife, Irene, as spokesmodels. But it’s the Joe Jacoby spot that has the longest legs.
“People still come up to me and imitate Joe, saying, ‘And yes, and you…’” Bessell says with a big laugh.
Jacoby gets it, too.
“It is amazing how the commercials live on,” says Jacoby, now an assistant coach at Shenandoah University. “I didn’t know what I was doing. You see what I was wearing? That’s because nobody told me what to wear. I just showed up in [shorts and a T-shirt], and they told me what to say and we started doing the commercial. My daughters get out a tape of that now and then to make fun of the old man. They can’t believe I ever had hair.”
The should-be-Hall of Fame tackle says he doesn’t remember how he ended up shilling for Bessell’s shop. But he remembers what he got paid: “No money. Just a big-screen television,” Jacoby says.
Jacoby says he never even set up the TV in his townhouse. It was too big.
“Theater Vision got its money’s worth out of that ad,” he says. “People still tell me that that commercial was terrible. Yeah, it was terrible. But I guess it did its job, because it was memorable, too.”
Sure was. Just like vintage advertisements for Mr. Ray’s Hair Weave and Jhoon Rhee’s karate schools (“Nobody bother me!”), Jacoby’s Theater Vision commercial recalls a bygone time for our city. A time when independent businesses held their own against national chains. A time when production values didn’t matter in TV ads.
A time when the Redskins won.
“Those were good times,” Bessell says. “I guess I was a star.”
The nostalgia is understandable. For the first time since 1972, when he left a career as a DJ to open his Theater Vision store, Bessell, now 78, won’t be selling boob tubes during Super Bowl week.
Theater Vision went out of business last spring. By that point, of course, Bessell had stopped manufacturing Jacoby-sized projection models; instead, Theater Vision had rebranded itself as a boutique selling high-end models of the same svelte brands you can find at Best Buy.
“I’m going crazy,” Bessell says. “Something I built up…is gone. I’m not used to not working. I’ve got nothing to do.”
Bessell says three things killed Theater Vision: the Internet, the economy, and years and years of the Redskins losing. The first two factors have hastened the demise of family-owned electronics retailers across the country.
But the incredible goodwill the Redskins once had in the D.C. marketplace, Bessell suspects, might have kept the store afloat “a few more years” had the team put up a few more wins.
“When the Redskins are winning, people buy televisions,” he says. “That changes everything. When they were even just in contention for the playoffs, people bought a lot of televisions. When they made the Super Bowl, it got crazy.”
A 1992 Washington Post story about how to throw a Super Bowl party listed Theater Vision as the go-to outlet for oversized TVs. In the article, which ran days before the Redskins won their third Lombardi Trophy, Theater Vision associate Larry Barnett described a “feeding frenzy” for big-screen TVs that began right after the team qualified for the big game.
“We had nearly 200 calls in the first 30 minutes” after the 1992 NFC championship game, Barnett told the Post.
That was a long time ago. The Skins have posted an 86-106 record in the 12 seasons since Dan Snyder took over as team owner. They haven’t hosted even a single home playoff game since 1999.
“They’re not even sniffing the playoffs any more,” Bessell says, “and that really hurt us.”
Bessell says he’s been a Redskins fan for 70 years, and had been a season ticket holder since George Preston Marshall owned the team. But he dropped his seats after the Skins moved to Landover in 1997. He surmises that fans’ current “lack of respect” for management undercuts its players’ local endorsement clout.
“Before, even when the team wasn’t good, I had respect for the team,” says Bessell. “But I’ve lost that. People don’t feel the same anymore.”
Yet Bessell bets a Super Bowl appearance still means a whole lot of business for big screen TV salesmen in the right towns.
“This is still a big week for selling televisions,” he says. “Just not around here.”
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