The era of the local television commercial announcer enjoyed its golden age during the 1950s and 60s. Many came from radio where their voices became as familiar to us as our neighbor next door.
Remember when late night television hawked used cars instead of used women? Sometimes it seems like ages since that was true. Many cities produced local television spots that became favorites and made their spokesmen household names. Ask most anyone on the west coast who Earl "Madman" Muntz was and they'll know who you're referring to. Here in Chicago one of the most trusted names and most beloved commercial announcers was none other than Linn Burton. During the early days of television as recently as the 1970s, advertisers bought large blocks of time late night when it was cheap and aired their commercials live. In between, they would run a movie or two. It was on these late night shows that folks first saw the face to the voice they had heard so many times before on radio. In fact, Burton was all over Chicago radio. Eventually he was everywhere on television too, with the sole exception of WNBQ which had a policy of no free lancers at their station.
Burton didn't get into broadcasting until he was 32 years old. And it wasn't exactly planned. His wife at the time was working as the movie critic for WJJD and the Chicago Herald-American. Burton would call the station from time to time and talk with Al Holland. Each time Holland would be impressed with Burton's voice. Finally Holland suggested that Burton try radio. At first Burton thought nothing of it. That kind of work was for his wife. But Holland pushed and Burton went for an audition at WAIT radio. The auditions had been narrowed down to three hopefuls. The management asked each one how much they expected to get paid. The other two both agreed to $25 per week. Burton said he needed $35 as he was married and needed to support his wife, even though she was really supporting him. He got the job.
Unfortunately Burton wasn't doing so good. Having no experience in broadcasting (his first time at a radio station was the first time he auditioned), Burton constantly fouled things up. Miscues, late starts, shows running late. People were furious. Gene Dyer, WAIT station manager was ready to fire him. But Burton had a few supporters at the station and with their help Burton's job was saved but now he would be working foreign language shows. Burton would announce the opening to all the Jewish, Polish, Yugoslavian, etc. shows and also do their English language commercials.
But things would start to look better for Burton. When WAIT moved to downtown, Burton went with. Soon after he would begin a professional alliance with Tom Moore, one of the most visible of the radio salesmen. Burton auditioned again, this time against those he thought of as professionals. Burton felt he didn't have much of a chance, so he would lock himself up in the men's room to rehearse his lines. He won the audition. Working with Moore all those years, Burton would recall some amusing times. Once while Moore and Burton were sharing airtime on a local radio hour sponsored by Local Loan, Moore handed Burton ad copy that had the words "PUNCH" printed in large red letters across it's top. In one of the funniest on air flubs of all time, Burton belted out in his best sales announcer's voice- "There may be a shortage of cash, but there's no shortage of gas here at Local Loan!" Both Burton and Moore were reduced to hysterics. Management didn't see the humor. When new management took over WAIT, Burton was let go. He would now sell everything from bullet proof bibles to glow in the dark gardenias. He would also begin to announce for Union Life Insurance. Burton's spots were heard all over Chicago radio. He was now making $75.00 per week.
He was born Burton Offstein, the son of a Methodist minister who presided over a congregation in Chicago. However Offstein was not a name that worked well in radio. People would often mispronounce or not hear his name correctly. It was Gene Dyer who convinced Burton to change it. The name "Linn Burton" comes from the combination of his own first name and the first name of his brother. He paid his sibling $5 for the use of the name. Jack Payne, a commercial copy writer came up with the moniker "Linn Burton For Certain!" Burton didn't think much of it when he initially heard it but the first time he used it on the air- he knew it was a keeper and often credited it for being a big part of his success.
Linn Burton had a wonderful sense of humor as well as the ability to laugh at himself. He would joke that many of his employers had gone out of business after he started doing commercials for them. The supermarket chain, National Tea Company, was one such company. Another was Cook County Distributors, a discount chain. During a live television commercial for CCD, Burton would walk along a long table covered with merchandise. Out of camera view were tags that told the price of each item. When Burton came to a pair of shorts, he saw that the tag had been obscured. Not remembering from rehearsal what the price had been, he announced the shorts sold for 97 cents for two pair. In reality, the shorts sold for $1.97 for one pair! Management at Cook County were furious until they sold almost every pair in the store. While doing a spot for Holland's Jewelers, he absent-mindedly switch in mid commercial from selling jewelry to selling mattresses!
Burton's big break in television came the day that Sol Polk, who owned the giant Polk Brothers furniture warehouse stores approached him with the offer to do their commercials during their late night movie timeslot. Burton accepted the offer, but after a few weeks Sol Polk was getting worried. Burton was not working out as well as he had hoped. Burton was desperate to try something different or else lose the job. Remembering back to his Methodist upbringing, he took a cue from his father, who mesmerized his flock with a thunderous delivery that could not be ignored. He decided to do the commercials in the same manner. They were a success even though the stations and Burton both received some complaints. During another memorable live commercial for Polk Brothers, Burton, who rarely read from the ad copy, wondered what else he could say about the mattresses he was selling. Grabbing a knife from a nearby stagehand, Burton began to tear open a mattress on screen, all the time explaining to his audience how well made the Serta mattresses were. Sol Polk demanded Burton pay for the destroyed mattress. Burton told Polk to wait and see what happens. A few days later, Polk called and apologized. The store had made a killing on the mattresses. Another time Burton was demonstrating one of the new ringer washers that had come equipped with a new safety cut-off switch. Attempting to stay on screen as the camera lowered down to the washtub, Burton's necktie would get caught up and start to choke him. In a panic, he reached for the safety switch which cut off the power to the machine before he was choked to death on live television. Like a true pro, Burton sprung back telling his viewers how important the safety switch was. Again Polk Brothers made money.
Burton worked for Bert Weinman Ford, "Your TV Ford Man," for 26 years. But Fords weren't the first cars Burton sold. In 1955, an executive for Kaiser Industries was in Chicago to set up a dealer network to sell the company's new line of automobiles. Hearing Burton on radio during a Cook County Distributors commercial while traveling through the city in his limousine, he asked the chauffer if he knew where the store was. The chauffer drove the exec to the store and in short time Burton was selling the new '55 Kaisers and Frazers. The cars lasted about two years. Although Burton worked for Weinman for 26 years, he worked without a contract. When Joe Rizza, who had founded a successful chain of dealers found out, he hired Burton away to do commercials for him. For the first time in years Burton was not selling Fords. Instead he sold Pontiacs.
Linn Burton is no longer with us. But he is not forgotten. His honest and convincing delivery will be remembered by those of us who were lucky to see or hear him. He is as much a part of Chicago television's history as any of the talent who came to be legends.
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