The faces behind Baltimore commercials

Joseph Tomarchio Jr., co-founder of the Mr. Tire chain, has been the company's at-first reluctant pitchman for years.
Joseph Tomarchio Jr., co-founder of the Mr. Tire chain, has been the company's at-first reluctant pitchman for years. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Maybe you've heard these phrases before:

"If you have a phone, you have an attorney."

"You're making a big mistake."

"Nobody bothers me."

"Jack says 'Yes.'"

For better or worse, these are the catchphrases of Baltimore advertising, lines delivered incessantly by TV pitchmen who, not coincidentally, own the businesses they're pitching. They're not actors, and they might not have the greatest voices in the world. But they certainly are one thing: everywhere.

And they're definitely another thing: effective. They may seem silly sometimes, maybe even irritating. But you remember them, right? And these aren't commercials for fly-by-night organizations that don't hang around very long. They've been in business, and have been airing their commercials, for years.

"It can bring local flavor to the business," says Jane Goldstrom, vice president of Baltimore-based MGH, an advertising and marketing firm. "It can be a very good tactic, so people feel like they know the owner, or they can relate to the owner in some manner."

There's Krystal Koons, shilling for Koons Automotive, and Jack Antwerpen, willing to do just about anything for his Antwerpen motor group. There was Scott Donahoo, who sold off his car business in 2008 and is considering a run for mayor. There's even been a handful who don't sell cars, including the late Mark Helman of Bill's Carpet Fair, martial-arts instructor Jhoon Ree and lawyers Steven L. Miles and Ronald M. Sharrow. Surely, a Hall of Fame for local business-owning pitchmen would have to include such immortals as automotive tycoons Gary Hurley and Mr. Nobody (who would often get Orioles Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer to help him out), chicken mogul Frank Perdue (whose commercials earned him nationwide fame), the indomitable Mr. Ray (of Mr. Ray's Hair Weave, a John Waters favorite) and, of course, a Baltimore mainstay for decades, the man who proudly called himself "Mr. Cheap": Jack Luskin.

And then there are these three guys, proud inheritors of the tradition.

Alan Elkin: "We live and breathe this stuff"

Baltimore audiences have been watching Alan Elkin, founder of Advance business systems, for more than a quarter-century. We watched in the early days, when he starred in his commercial alongside his wife, Lois (and the catchphrase was "They need me"); we've continued watching as son Jeff has been brought in to star alongside his father. We've seen Elkin's TV spots grow in sophistication, and we've watched him grow older, too, watched him mature, watched …

"You're being too nice to say 'losing my hair,'" the Brooklyn-born Elkin, 78, who founded Advance in 1964, says with a laugh.

OK, yes. We've watched Elkin's "scalp growing," as he puts it. And we've watched his commercials grow from two-person spots, with him and Lois in bed until the phone rings and Alan has to run out and help a client, to more polished spots featuring Alan and Jeff in a boardroom asking for suggestions from their associates.

When Elkin did his first TV spot, in 1983, he wasn't exactly an experienced thespian itching to get in front of the camera. "The sum total of my experience was a role in my high school play, a cameo role type of thing," he says. "I would hate to have [making commercials] as my day job. I'm not Robert Redford."

Still, Elkin gets a kick out of people recognizing him in public. Not so much because they recognize him personally, he emphasizes, but because they recognize and remember his business.

"You get a deep feeling of satisfaction when what you're doing is recognized," he says.

His commercials' increase in scope is by design, Elkin insists. "The whole idea of 'They need me,' it was a nice ride, a fine message when we were a very small company. But when we became larger, the message was very upsetting to me. …When we did a focus group, the perception was that Advance was too small to serve the needs of a middle-sized or larger company, with multiple offices."

So Elkin brought more people in, to emphasize that Advance was more than just him. Still, it's Alan Elkin that people remember from the commercials. And though he was reluctant to do them at first — "It wasn't me," he says, "it was decided by the advertising agency" — Elkin doesn't plan on stopping them any time soon.

"Advance is not my job, it's my life," he says. "As long as the ads are effective and they bring in the business, I'll keep doing them."

Barry Glazer: "Don't urinate on my leg and tell me it's raining."

Attorney Barry Glazer enjoys being blunt, enjoys ruffling a feather or two. The guy you see in his television commercials — plain-spoken, confrontational, not above being a little outrageous to make a point — is pretty much who he is.

"if you look at all my commercials over all the years, you'd probably get a pretty good feel for what I'm about," says the 66-year-old Pimlico native, who urges people in his commercials to take on the big boys — the insurance companies and hospitals and other companies. He's a plaintiffs' attorney and proud if it.

"Doctors are always complaining that plaintiffs' attorneys are the reason why rates are so high," says Glazer. "Insurance companies are always complaining that lawyers are trying to make more money, to get them for every penny they can. …There's a general animosity toward plaintiffs' attorneys that's always out there. That's part of why I do the commercials that I do, to counterbalance that negativity a bit."

Take, for instance, his most (in)famous commercial, a screed against insurance companies that pay less than you owe on a car that's been totaled. He rails against insurance companies that assure their clients they are in "good hands" or "what good neighbors they are." And he ends with the classically indignant line, "Don't urinate on my leg and tell me it's raining."

"I knew it would be controversial," he says. "I wasn't sure they would even air it."

(Another of his commercial tag lines: "You can put lipstick on a pig or an insurance company. It's still an insurance company.")

Glazer says he writes the scripts for his commercials, often working on them for months. If they've made him any enemies, he hasn't heard from them. And no, he doesn't get nervous in front of the camera.

"It's a lot less stressful than trying a case," Glazer says. "I like the recognition. I don't know if it's an ego thing or what. But I enjoy it."

Joe Tomarchio Jr.: "Mr. Tire"

Joe Tomarchio says he has "a face made for radio," which may explain why that face won't look familiar to most people. But as the voice of Mr. Tire, the guy who complains about competitors' outlandish claims (That "really rusts my rotors"), who promises tires "on the rim and out the door" for one low price — that voice is instantly recognizable.

"That personality is me, that is not a put-on," says Tomarchio, 55, a Lochearn native now living in Howard County. "Some people, if you don't know me and you've never met me before, you might think that I'm screaming at you. I'm not. That's just the way that I talk, the way that I come across."

He never set out to become a vocal star, Tomarchio says. When he and his brother, Fred, started putting together spots for their business about 12 years ago, their advertising agency had other people ready to do the voice-overs. But Tomarchio wasn't satisfied.

"I felt that the advertising that they were doing for us wasn't aggressive enough," he says. "It wasn't memorable, it wasn't distinctive. So they said, 'We're gonna send our top guys out, and we want to interview you for about two or three hours.'

"We talked about the business and the passions I have about the business. They came back about a week later to make a presentation, and they said, 'We found a guy that we believe can deliver the message with all the passion.' …They were pretty coy about the way they did it. And then they said, 'It's you!'"

Incredulous at first — "Get the hell out of here," he remembers thinking, "I ain't doing no damn commercial for TV" — Tomarchio allowed himself to be persuaded.

"They said, 'Look, you come across, you certainly have a Baltimore accent, Baltimore slang. It plays well. You know your business, and you're passionate about your business. We think you should do it.'"

He did, and some 12 years later, he's still doing it — even after he and his brother sold the business to Rochester-based Monro Muffler Brake Inc., which has 785 stores nationwide. His brother retired, but Tomarchio stayed on. He's currently executive vice president of store operations, and he remains the voice of Mr. Tire. His commercials have even spread across the Eastern half of the U.S. In St. Louis, he says with a laugh, people heard his accent and asked if he was Canadian.

"Canadian?" he says. "I'd never heard that before!"


Recommended on Baltimore Sun