There we were, Geoff Nate and the two most important women in his life, his wife Elayne (spelled with a “y”) and his then secretary Elaine (spelled with an “i”). We were between careers. I had made a pledge to these ladies that, whatever we did, no more public companies (a pledge I was able to keep for about ten years.) Elaine Paris and I took a small two-room office back in the Westwood high-rise where Burt Harris and I began our Cable Television adventures. We had absolutely no agenda. I was actually being pitched by headhunters to CEO a couple of failing Cable programming businesses, but I passed, having just been-there-done-that, which is another story I will save for a future blog.
This Blog, “The Goodnight Johnny”, goes back to the early 1970s before the proliferation of wireless remote controlled television sets. Actually, the first TV remote was called the “Lazy Bones.” It was developed in 1950 by The Zenith Radio Company and utilized a cable that ran from the viewer to his TV set. A motor in the TV set operated the tuner through the remote control which changed the channels and turned the TV on and off. Although customers liked having remote control of their television, they complained that people tripped over the unsightly cable that meandered across the living room floor.
In 1955 a Zenith engineer named Eugene Polley invented the “Flash-Matic,” which represented the industry’s first wireless TV remote. The Flash-Matic was actually a highly directional flashlight which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise. It had its limitations however, because if the TV sat in a sunny area, the set might turn itself on or off and the tuner might start rotating on its own.
A year or so later, Zenith’s Dr. Robert Adler suggested using “ultrasonics,” that is, high-frequency sound, beyond the range of human hearing as a new approach for a remote control. The transmitter used no batteries; it was built around aluminum rods that were light in weight and, when struck at one end, emitted distinctive high-frequency sounds. The original Space Command remote control TV was expensive however, and a luxury that increased the price of the set by about 30 percent.
The “Goodnight Johnny”
We had explored the idea of a wireless remote at Channel 100, our most recent Cable TV gig. At Channel 100 we had a complete laboratory and six or eight engineers working on pay television technology for the CATV industry.
Late one evening, while watching the end of the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” on NBC, my wife asked “Why don’t your engineers at Channel 100 invent a way to turn off our TV without getting up out of bed?” This was her subtle way of suggesting that it was my turn to get up and press the off button. It was a discussion we visited many times.
While driving to work the next morning, I thought that there must be millions of manually tuned television sets owned by people like Elayne and me whose viewers were faced with that same inconvenience every night, or whenever for that matter.
That day towards the end of a frustrating progress report meeting with our engineers, I brought up my wife’s question about a wireless remote control for television, something people could buy in a store and install themselves.
“Forget it,” was their response. “Can’t be done,” they said. “People who want a remote control TV will just have to pay a couple hundred dollars more and buy a Zenith.”
“OK,” I replied. “But what if the device did nothing but turn the TV on and off so people wouldn’t have to get out of bed at night before going to sleep?”
That brought a lifting of eyebrows from my assembled.
“Maybe,” said one.
“Might be possible,” said another.
“It won’t be easy,” said a third. “It would require a service call from a professional, because he would have to open up the TV.” That brought on a rather heated discussion about how, what and where.
I interrupted and said, “OK… you guys think about it.”
“But please on your own time,” added their boss, our Director of Engineering, Patrick Court.
“I’m posting a reward here and now,” I said, “One thousand dollars cash for the man who comes up with a simple design for an on/off device which requires no involved installation that a person can purchase in a store for $19.95. For development purposes I propose we will call it our ‘Good Night Johnny Project.’ One thousand dollars cash reward for the guy who can invent my wife’s ‘Good Night Johnny’”… on his own time of course.
Every week at the end of our regular cable TV tech meetings I would mention my ‘Good Night Johnny’ challenge. After all, back in the 1970s a thousand dollars was like $10,000 today. Though there was no shortage of ideas, including the ultrasound technologies employed by Zenith, none of my guys could come up with a simple device a person could install himself that he could purchase for $19.95.
Months went by, and the subject was more or less forgotten which pleased Patrick Court no little. Patrick, who by the way had some forty patents in his own name, had assured me when I first came up with my $1,000 challenge that it simply couldn’t be done and certainly not with some device that a person could buy in a store for $19.95 and install himself. That was it, and the project was more or less forgotten.
One morning about six months after Elaine Paris and I had left the Cable TV business, I got a call from my wife, the other Elayne.
“When you come home tonight please bring me a check for $1,000. I just invented the ‘Good Night Johnny’.”
“What? What did you invent?” I asked, having no idea what she was talking about.
“Yes…” she replied. “The ‘Good Night Johnny’. The gadget that turns off our TV without getting out of bed.”
“I don’t understand,” was my reply.
“Yes, it’s right here in the Hammacher Schlemmer Catalogue. It’s called a ‘Whistle Switch’ and it sells for twenty dollars. I found it, and I want my thousand dollar reward.”
“Sure, sure,” I said. “I’m really busy now, can we talk about it when I get home?”
“Yes, but be sure and bring my thousand dollar reward.”
Waiting for me when I got home was a copy of a mail order catalogue published monthly by Hammacher Schlemmer, a well-known gadget store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Just as Elayne promised, there it was in a quarter page ad. Hammacher was selling a device called a “Whistle Switch” which they claimed could not only turn on and off your TV but also radios, record players, lamps, fans and most of the small electrical devices in your house. And what’s more, the price was indeed twenty dollars.
“How about that,” I said to my wife. “If this gadget really works on TVs you’ll get your thousand dollars.”
I sent in twenty dollars to Hammacher Schlemmer the next morning plus whatever they wanted for mailing and handling, and in less than a week UPS delivered a Whistle Switch. We had purchased our first ‘Good Night Johnny’.
We opened up the cardboard mailer which contained a small hard plastic box with electrical outlet prongs and a pliable little plastic gizmo which had a tiny whistle at one end. According to the directions, squeezing the little gizmo forced air through the whistle which transmitted an almost indiscernible, hissing sound which I assumed sent out some kind of signal to the Whistle Switch.
The directions were simple: All a person had to do was plug the Whistle Switch into the wall, and then plug the TV, lamp, or other household appliance into the Whistle Switch. Squeezing the “whistler” turned the TV, lamp, or virtually any electrical device on or off.
“How about that,” said Patrick Court when I showed him the gadget the next day. “I think you owe your wife a thousand dollars.”
“So what are you going to do with the thing?” asked Elaine Paris.
“We (I emphasized the “we”) are going to sell this ‘thing’,” I replied. “Do a little research and find out who makes it for Hammacher Schlemmer. Give the manufacturer a call and see if they can sell us a couple dozen. Explain that we are distributors. Ask them where else it’s sold and their wholesale price.”
I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but no more than a week later I was on a plane to Boston where I rented a car and drove about an hour to an old factory building in Hudson, Massachusetts. One floor of the building was occupied by a small company called Mark Engineering. The owner was a man named Ed Hatfield, a nice guy about my age in his early fifties who, as I remember him, looked a lot like the actor Kevin Spacey.
Ed had done a little research and checked me out. We hit it off right away. He gave me a brief tour of his facilities where I observed several people stuffing Whistle Switches into Hammacher Schlemmer “Invento Boxes”. I told Ed that I believed he had a product of mass appeal with great retail potential. I said that we wished to be his distributor, and we wanted exclusive rights to sell his Whistle Switch.
I told him he could retain the Hammacher Schlemmer business, but we wanted the rest of the world, and I would consider placing an initial order for ten thousand pieces. I added that our orders would be insured by a domestic letter of credit, something I had checked out with my bank before leaving Los Angeles.
I spent the rest of the afternoon learning more about Ed and the product. Though the place looked like a factory, all I saw were those few people stuffing boxes. At that point I got an education.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, Hudson was a bustling New England factory town which included woolen mills, fabric manufacturers and a shoe making company, each of which to some extent employed cottage labor. Cottage labor is a system whereby some elements involved in the production process utilized piece-work assembled in the homes of the employees. As the years went by however, most of the mills moved to the south where labor was even cheaper.
World War II brought a resurgence in textile production to the area as well as the manufacturing of specialized electrical components for the war effort. The latter took advantage of the town’s cottage labor history.
It was this pool of workers that Hudson relied on to assemble the electronic circuits utilized in the Whistle Switch. As they did during the war, the ladies came into Ed’s factory every Saturday, filled their baskets with printed circuit boards, integrated circuits, resistors, capacitors etc. They then spent the week in one neighbor’s home or another soldering the various components together. They would return to the factory with their completed circuit boards the following Saturday.
Ed’s ladies received payment on a per piece basis for each finished board, similar to the compensation the Hudson ladies earned wrapping electric coils for the war effort. His small in-plant labor force simply installed the boards in their plastic housings, loaded the completed Whistle Switches and squeezers into their display boxes and shipped them out. I never did find out who made the housing and the squeezers.
The minimum order was two dozen units. Freight was FOB Hudson. FOB (freight on board) means the customer pays the shipping. I believe we paid Ed around eighty-five or ninety dollars per dozen. Our wholesale price was all over the place, but we enjoyed a very nice profit. The beauty of the business was that we never had to take physical possession of or warehouse the merchandise which was shipped directly from Hudson, Massachusetts to our customers.
Elaine and I formed a new corporation and filed for the right to use the name ‘Universal Controls Corporation’. We were surprised that the name was available, because it was one that implied a much larger, perhaps even a public, company. There we were doing business in two rooms in a four-hundred foot office in a West LA high rise.
We were not happy with Ed’s Whistle Switch label, so we had the label as well as the product’s plastic housing redesigned. We also ran the unit by our friend Patrick Court who, on the side and for a small fee, redesigned the original electronics which he had condemned as a “1930s era time bomb”.
Also we had to do something about Ed’s Whistle Switch box. Someone introduced us to a talented designer named Melody Mandel, who worked out of her home in the Hollywood Hills. She came up with an electric green box that could be seen half way across a retail store. She also designed the instruction insert and the point of purchase material. Melody gave our little Whistle Switch a professional look. We were ready for the big time.
We decided that the best way to introduce the Whistle Switch to the world would be at a trade show. Our timing was not great, however. We had just missed the Consumer Electronics Show and the Housewares Show as well. The closest thing we could find was something called the ‘Premium Show’ which was being held in Chicago that summer.
We reserved a ten by twenty foot space, and Melody designed a great looking booth in which we displayed TVs, lamps, and other appliances that could all plug into Ed Hatfield’s Whistle Switches. We hired a couple of cute models with T-shirts that said “Squeeze Me”. Their job was to confront passers-by, hand them the little whistler and ask them to “give it a squeeze”… (the gizmo, not the model).
But our big hit attraction at the show was ‘LC2C’, (pronunciation: Elsie Toosie) a robot, modeled after ‘R2D2’, the robot featured in the recently released “Star Wars” hit movie.
Somehow we had found a techie in Bloomington, Indiana, who offered to build us a little robot on wheels fashioned after R2D2. It’s housing was made from an ordinary black trash can. The robot was powered by a small automobile battery and controlled by the Whistle Switch electronics and our little squeezer. The number of short squeezes determined the direction the robot would move, start and stop while at the same time emitting flashing lights and robot-like noises.
“Elsie” was the hit of the show, though one of the show visitors was threatening to sue on grounds that Elsie had run him down and scratched his ankle. He asked if we carried insurance. Obviously we didn’t, and certainly not at that early stage of the game. We gave him a few Whistle Switches and assured him that “Elsie” would be more careful in the future.
No doubt about it, “Elsie” put the Whistle Switch on the map. We gave away every sample we had to buyers from all over and took twenty or thirty orders. The largest order came from the Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner company who bought five thousand units to give away as premiums during their big Christmas holiday promotion. Eddie Hatfield, who we encouraged to visit the show, was bowled over.
The most important contact we made at that show was a buyer from Bloomingdale’s Department Stores who would be, to a great extent, responsible for the product’s early success. His name was David Sachs, and he ran their lamp department. David, who looked a lot like Rich Sommer from the “Mad Men” TV series, was there in search of a Christmas novelty.
He was fascinated by “Elsie” and kept coming back to our little booth. On the second day of the show he said he would give us a big order provided we send him “Elsie” to use for in-store demonstration.
“Why not?” we thought, Bloomingdale’s was the most dynamic retailer in America. David said he would give us an initial order right then and there for five-thousand Whistle Switches provided we would agree to manufacture another 5,000 to hold at the factory as back-up if the Whistle Switch was as hot as he anticipated.
Though the Whistle Switch was sold only in their Lexington Avenue store, Bloomingdale’s went through half of David’s initial order over the Thanksgiving weekend. The following Monday David ordered the release of his back-up inventory. Eddie had to triple his work force and would express each day’s production down to Bloomingdale’s as it came off his assembly line.
During the holiday season David sent the robot down to the children’s hospitals where it was covered by network TV news. She was featured on Merv Griffin’s television program, during which the host personally danced “Elsie” around the studio with the Whistle Switch. Back in Los Angeles 20th Century Fox did something similar with their Star Wars robot on local TV.
Of course the other Bloomingdale’s stores in the country begged us for product, as did Macy’s and Gimbel’s in New York, but we stuck to our deal with David. It wouldn’t have made a difference however, because Eddie Hatfield had nothing left to ship. He had simply run out of electronic components. It would be several months before he could get back into full scale production.
That Christmas at Bloomingdale’s certainly opened doors for the Whistle Switch. Orders came in from retailers all over the country, especially from the big Federated Department Store chain of which Bloomingdale’s was a member.
We took the Whistle Switch and “Elsie” to the Housewares Show in Chicago where we established a group of national sales representatives. Several months later we brought her to the big Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas where we met and opened what were to become our most productive accounts.
This is where the “Good Night Johnny” really felt at home, doing what it was originally designed to accomplish, turn the TV on and off, and most specifically, to my wife’s delight, Johnny Carson at bedtime.
We had an amazing amount of traffic by our little booth at the CES show that first year, though our “Squeeze Me” models had plenty of competition. As happens, two young guys not far from us were introducing something they called an Apple personal computer which attracted a crowd. However, the big draw at the show that year was a booth just down the aisle selling video cassettes of a porno movie called “Deep Throat”. The star of the film, Linda Lovelace, was only a few feet away from us selling autographed copies.
For us the CES show was a smash. Our little manufacturer, Ed Hatfield, was overwhelmed. He actually had to install an assembly line in his factory, because the cottage labor ladies simply couldn’t keep up.
Elsie may have been one of the first, but very soon the country was loaded with R2D2 imitations. We retired our little robot to stud and returned her to her godfather in Indiana shortly after the Consumer Electronics Show.
As for Elaine and me, we had to hire a bookkeeper and a receptionist to handle the phones. We needed more space and moved to larger offices.
We doubled the size of our booth at the trade shows the next season and created colorful point of purchase lamps for our retailers whose shades rotated in response to commands from the Whistle Switch.
We produced a television commercial which we made available to our customers featuring a man and a woman in bed thankful that they didn’t have to get up to turn off Johnny Carson.
With all that exposure going for us, the second season was a smash. All the big drug store chains featured the Whistle Switch, as did the major hardware stores.
We increased our credit line at Security Pacific Bank, now Bank of America. There was no way Ed could have personally financed the manufacturing of the quantity of units we were asking him to build to meet the demand.
Ed took our bank’s letter of credit to his bankers in Massachusetts who accepted it as collateral to finance his Whistle Switch production, which had increased ten-fold. I don’t recall what Ed paid in the way of interest to fund his borrowings, but we paid something like 1.5 percent to finance our DLC.
We, on the other hand, were assuming the lion’s share of the risk, so we very carefully screened our customers, insisting on thirty to sixty day terms. Much to our surprise Bloomingdale’s, the chain that kicked this whole business off, proved to be a notoriously slow payer. Someone told me later that was the way they treated most of their vendors.
My son Dan was living in New York City at the time and coincidentally on the same block across the street from David Sachs, our Bloomindale’s Whistle Switch buyer. I sent a special delivery letter to David along with a copy of their overdue statement and duplicate invoices, mentioning that my “6 foot son who collects guns for a hobby” would be coming to David’s apartment that weekend to discuss the matter.
We received a check via special delivery a few days later.
A Forgotten Market
There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes with being able to market a device that contributes to the comfort and convenience of it’s customers.
One day we received a call from the operator of a trade show we never knew existed. It was called the “Disabilities Expo” and was scheduled to run for two days at the convention center in Pasadena. The show was primarily for manufacturers and providers of products and services specially designed to aid the physically handicapped.
Of course we would take a booth, I said. Our records indicated that from time to time we had been receiving small orders from hospitals, clinics and even physical therapists. In fact the local Horton and Converse store carried the Whistle Switch.
The show was an eye-opener for both of us. Though it represented a very small market, we got tremendous satisfaction out of introducing our product to people in wheel chairs, on crutches and to others who had even more serious physical limitations. It was an experience I will never forget.
We had taken with us a couple hundred Whistle Switches to sell at that show. We actually GAVE them all away the first day. In fact, we went back to the office, picked up several hundred more and did the same on the second and last day of the Disabilities Expo.
How about that? Johnny Carson himself should have been there. He would have been proud.
One day I received a call from the Tandy Corporation. Would I be willing to fly down to their home office in Fort Worth, Texas and meet with the president of their company to discuss a “relationship”? At the time Tandy owned some five-thousand Radio Shack stores. They were by far the world’s largest retailer of home entertainment products and electronic components. I flew down to Fort Worth as soon as they could work me into their schedule.
It was a meeting that lasted slightly more than an hour and included Radio Shack President, Lewis Kornfeld, some of the top executives and their key radio and television buyers. They knew everything about the product; where it was made and by whom. A totally shocked Eddie Hatfield, class act that he was, had referred them to me.
Would we be willing to produce Whistle Switches for them under their Radio Shack Sonic Control private label? Our product would be shipped to them in bulk. Packaging and distribution would be handled at their warehouses and factories. Their initial order would be fifty-thousand units. The price was approximately nine dollars per unit, which was two dollars less than our lowest wholesale price. They would pay for shipping. Radio Shack proposed to offer the product for sale at our recommended retail price of $19.95.
I took the deal. It was apparent that they had left me no room for negotiation. We shook hands, and one of their executives took me down a couple of floors to their vast purchasing department where someone typed up an order. That was it. I took the elevator down to the main floor, a cab to the airport, and I was home in time for a late dinner.
At nine dollars we were netting only a dollar a unit. We couldn’t complain however, because apart from finance expenses and office overhead we had no costs associated with this sale. Tandy stuck to their side of the deal and paid promptly sixty days after receipt of the raw product in their warehouse. Fifty-thousand dollars profit was big money for us in those days.
Tandy doubled their order for the second year. What a treat it was to see our Whistle Switch in the Radio Shack stores and in their catalog, even if they were selling it in a different box under a different name.
Because the Whistle Switch had really taken off, Eddie needed a minimum of eight months lead time to order parts from his suppliers and schedule his labor requirements. I called the buyer at Tandy to give us some idea of what they would be needing for delivery in the fall, their third season. We were still shipping a thousand or so units each month to refresh their inventory, but still no big order. We couldn’t get so much as an estimate of what they might need for the Christmas holiday season.
Despite many calls to their purchasing department, I could find no one who could give me an answer.
My Texas sales rep had no luck either, however he feared the worst because in those days Tandy was beginning to shift a lot of their production to overseas sources.
One day I got a call from another one of my sales reps who had just returned from a visit to one of his suppliers in Hong Kong. He said that from what he had observed at one of the local factories, we were going to have some serious “competition”. A few days later we received in the mail a “Sonic Remote Control Switch” in a Radio Shack standard package that he had brought back with him to the states. It had been made in China. Our biggest customer had knocked us off.
A big shock, yes, but there was another on its way:
Elaine Paris, my partner in all this, made an unexpected announcement. Elaine was attractive, divorced and raising two sons when we first met. I was looking for a secretary, and she was looking for a job. The chemistry was perfect. She was always very popular and dated a lot of interesting men during the years we were together. I met several. They all seemed to be nice guys.
In the middle of our Whistle Switch boom she began seeing more and more of a Canadian television executive named Bill Stewart when he came to LA on business. I didn’t think much would come of it. After all, they lived 2,500 miles apart.
I guessed wrong. One day she announced that she was moving to Canada. Her sons were old enough to take care of themselves, and she was in love. Needless to say I was shaken. She assured me she would only be a phone call away and would continue to look after our mutual investments, which by the way she still does to this day. Nevertheless I was underjoyed.
At the time of Elaine’s announcement Whistle Switch had several employees, one of whom served as marketing director.
“Randi’s doing a very nice job,” insisted Elaine. “Besides,” she added, “you are getting bored with the Whistle Switch,” which was really the truth. Actually at that time I was seriously considering the idea of getting involved in the automobile rental business.
So Elaine went off to Canada and married the guy. She became a successful executive with Merrill Lynch, and lived up there for 12 years until they both retired and moved back here to Thousand Oaks.
Bill Stewart passed away a few years ago, but Elaine and I remain very close to this day, and she is acting as my sounding board in the preparation of this Blog.
Back to the Whistle Switch: Our third Christmas was actually pretty good. We opened up Canada for whom we had to redesign our box and printed materials. Everything sold up there at that time had to have packaging and instructions in French as well as English. It was worth it. We got big orders from Canadian Tire, Canada’s largest hardware group, and from Hudson’s Bay and several other department store chains.
By the fourth season however, the novelty of the Whistle Switch was wearing thin. The department store business had lost its momentum; we were becoming a staple. To maintain sales volume we began selling the product through discount houses and catalog showrooms who, of course, slashed our $19.95 suggested retail price.
We went too far however, when we agreed to sell ten thousand Whistle Switches to a chain called the Price Club which was owned by one of the men who started Costco. Our wholesale price to Price was nine dollars per unit. Our representative assured us that they were going to discount the product to sell at $12.95. Somehow the word got back to us that they were running a big ad the next weekend, advertising the Whistle Switch to sell below cost for $8.95. It would have destroyed our business. Somehow Ed was able to divert the truck on which the goods were shipped back to Hudson, which probably saved the Whistle Switch. Our sales rep, who would have made a big commission on the deal, quit before we could fire him.
To add to our troubles, somebody had come out with something called the “Clapper”, an on-off switch that was activated by the clapping of hands. The clapper was a novelty sold only during the Christmas season. It was heavily advertised on TV, and they were offered to the retail drug chains on consignment. That means the promoters of the Clapper got paid only on the basis of merchandise sold during the holidays, after which they would send people into each store to pick up the unsold inventory.
Eddie assured me that the Clapper was a “piece of junk; a toy”. That was in fact the truth. It was so sensitive that the sound of John Wayne’s six gun or even a door slamming would turn off the TV.
Nevertheless the bloom was off the Whistle Switch, and besides, more and more television manufacturers were beginning to produce less expensive TVs with built-in remote controls, the prices for which were already being discounted. The industry had moved to infrared, the space age remote technology which is utilized today. The modern remote control employs functions neither Polley or Adler or my friends Patrick Court or Ed Hatfield ever dreamed of.
What with Elaine’s exodus to Canada, the loss of Radio Shack, the diminishing market and the “Clapper” competition, my energies were being directed elsewhere. It was a good thing because on July 21, 1983 the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission seized the Whistle Switch. It wasn’t our Whistle Switch, but Eddie Hatfield’s original devices he sold to Hammacher Schlemmer.
According to the government all of the original product that Mark Engineering sold before June 30, 1978 was subject to deterioration over extended use, represented a fire hazard and was therefore subject to recall. The seizure was published in Consumer Reports magazine. My engineering friend Pat Court had predicted as much when he labeled the old models “Time Bombs” and insisted on redesigning the circuitry.
We sent notices to our sales representatives, distributors and customers that we would replace any returned Whistle Switches, ours or Ed’s original lot, immediately at no charge.
I don’t recall how many of the original models we replaced, but it couldn’t have been more than fifty or a hundred. On the other hand the negative publicity certainly didn’t help our already declining sales volume.
I got on a plane and flew back to Hudson, Mass. I showed Ed my very conservative estimates for the coming season. There would continue to be a small market for the product’s use with older model TVs, lamps, stereos and other household electrical devices. However the volume that we had enjoyed for the last few years was a thing of the past.
It had been a short but great run, and we had even made a few bucks with the Whistle Switch. I felt it was time however, to return distribution rights to the gadget and what remained of its now predictable and certainly dwindling market back to Eddie and his Mark Engineering, who continued to fill diminishing pipe lines for a few years before they dried up.
We had come to the end of the yellow brick road. “Ding Dong the Switch is Dead.”