Pitch People Poster

Pitch People (1999) Review

Writer/director Stanley Jacobs’ (96 Souls) documentary Pitch People made its premiere at the Palm Beach Film Festival in 1999. It had a successful festival run, but technical issues prevented it from getting a proper release. When COVID shut down most production work, Jacobs decided to revisit his film and, using digital technology, restore it. And now, twenty-five years later, it’s finally seeing a release.

Pitch People opens with old Hollywood movie footage depicting snake oil salesmen, the original American pitchmen, mixed with footage of actual pitch people before diving right into a subject that is a lot more interesting than one might think. In a variety of short soundbites, we get a quick history of the trade from biblical days up through the time the film was shot during the age of the infomercials, or maybe I should say the second age of the infomercials. Because as we find out, half our shows, that were designed to sell the sponsor’s product, in this case a cooking show sponsored by a grill maker, flourished during the early days of television.

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But, even before that, there were the pitch men, or demonstrators as they were called, who worked the carnivals, state fairs and boardwalks of resorts like Atlantic City. Pitch People features interviews with, and stories about, several members of the Morris family. From their patriarch, the late Nathan Morris, who found success manufacturing and selling things like “The Glass Knife” and “The Morris Metric Slicer” to his sons Arnold and Lester and extended family.

Part of that extended family was his cousin Sam Popeil, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship that included lawsuits over infringing products. Ironically, the two now share a final resting place in the same family plot. Sam’s son Ron would found Ronco, the company responsible for so many of those cheap gadgets whose ads filled the airwaves.

Probably the most recognizable person interviewed in Pitch People is Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show and the face of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. He recalls making $500 a week working Atlantic City’s boardwalk, back when a loaf of bread cost five cents and a bottle of milk seven. McMahon also says that Jack Klugman from the original Odd Couple and movie tough guy Charles Bronson worked there as well, something I hadn’t heard before. The image of Bronson, best known for playing Paul Kersey in the Death Wish films, selling kitchen gadgets had me laughing.

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Jacobs keeps the film’s pace quick as the various interviewees tell their stories, stories that tend to be quite entertaining since they’re being told by people whose job was to entertain crowds while persuading them to buy their products. And there’s a weird fascination in hearing the differences and similarities in how they managed to do that

Unfortunately, as the pitches move from in person to late night television, the film becomes somewhat less interesting. Some of the products we see on display at the National Infomercial Conference, like The Wonder Scooper, a plastic rake you wore like a glove, are amusing. And a sequence where a product repeatedly fails because it was assembled wrong is also good for a laugh. But shooting commercials lacks the interest of working the fairgrounds and street markets.

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Pitch People ends on a somewhat sombre note, as many of them see it as a dying profession. We see Nathan Morris’ factory in Ashbury Park, now boarded up and abandoned, empty spots where street markets and pitch booths once thrived, etc. Others say there will always be a job for a good pitchman, and as long as there are used car dealerships, he’s probably right.

Overall though, Pitch People is a fun, light-hearted look at these fast talking salesmen and women. It manages to make its subjects endearing while skilfully dancing around the fact most of the stuff the sold us, or our parents, was useless crap.

SJPL Films will release Pitch People to Digital Platforms on May 17th. You can check the film’s website for more information.

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