The Bootleg Files: Ritz Thrift Shop Commercial

BOOTLEG FILES 724: “Ritz Thrift Shop Commercial” (1975 New York City-based television advertisement that ran for too many years). LAST SEEN: On YouTube. AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None. REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Too brief and commercially obscure.


It is not unusual for a nationally-aired television commercial to gain a level of cult popularity and stay in broadcast rotation for years. But it is less likely for commercials designed for a specific local market to gain that level of popularity. However, at least one highly unlikely commercial wound up becoming a cultural phenomenon in a single market, enjoying a ridiculously long run despite being seriously outdated by the time it wore out its welcome.

In 1975, the Ritz Thrift Shop in the heart of New York City decided that it wanted to raise its visibility through a television advertisement. The store, which specialized in the purchase and sale of used fur coats, was a rather specialized retailer with a minimal consumer appeal. Nonetheless, it found that it paid to advertise, trumpeting its business over the years via newspaper and television advertising.

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By the mid-1970s, however, the store needed to broaden its appeal to the new female wave who came into the workforce as a result of the Women’s Lib movement. These women were serious about establishing their own careers and being in charge of their finances. At the same time, however, the Ritz Thrift Shop suspected that many of these women still harbored a sense of vanity in wanting to appear to be above the living-paycheck-to-paycheck routine by dressing in a manner that was a few degrees higher than the cloth coat appearance that was typical of mid-1970s office attire.

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The advertisement for the Ritz Thrift Shop was designed by the creative agency DiIario Wergeles and helmed by the Leodas-Abrusto production company under the direction of Dominic Abrusto. The total budget for the half-minute spot was approximately $20,000, which was fairly low even by the cheapjack standards of that distant era. The commercial opens with a close-up of a very attractive woman adjusting her earring while looking out a window of a vehicle whose make is not immediately obvious. On the soundtrack, a male narrator speaking in vaguely Ivy League dulcet tones states, “Some women lunch at the Plaza, ski in St. Moritz and buy expensive furs every year.” Then, the woman’s mode of transportation is cruelly revealed: she is a passenger on a municipal bus.

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“Some women just look that way,” the snooty-voiced narrator tells us as the woman is shown to be just an everyday person riding mass transit along with the rest of the proletariat. Ah, but the woman has an ace up her working-class sleeve.

“They have one thing in common,” the narrator continues while the woman walks down a street and into the location being hyped in this commercial. “The Ritz Thrift Shop. Some sell us their furs, others buy them. We’ve been handling the finest second-hand furs for over 50 years.”

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The camera shows the woman trying on a luxurious fur coat while a male attendant guides her into the apparel. The woman is set before a three-paneled mirror to appreciate her ascent into second-hand glory. “And some of the loveliest furs are here at a fraction of the original cost.”

The woman, ebullient that her purchase of someone’s cast-off fur coat, parades out of the store into the street while the narrator states, “See them at the Ritz Thrift Shop at 107 West 57th Street. You don’t need a million to look like a million.”

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At that point, the camera zooms from its distant perch to catch the woman in medium shot. It appears that she heard what the narrator said, as she grasps the collar of her newly-bought used fur coat, smiles and then says “Oh, thank you!” with charmed sincerity before disappearing off-screen.

The beauty of the commercial is that is taps into the class gap that was still prevalent in New York City during the mid-1970s. The working-class women of the city lacked the funds and connections to become part of the social elite that were still considered to be Manhattan royalty during that era. If a working woman could spend money on a cheapish second-hand fur coat, she could get the sensation of being viewed as being among the city’s most powerful ladies. Or, at the very least, she could lap up an easy compliment that she looks more regal that she really is.

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A great deal of the success in this commercial came through the casting of Barbara Clement Gould as the woman at the center of the sale. She was a successful print model who graced magazine covers and runways in the 1960s and early 1970s, but never achieved household name status. Gould, who was 39 when she was cast in this commercial, later recalled that the low-budget production was so cheap that she had to wear her own clothing while riding the bus and walking into the store. Gould would continue working into the 1980s, most notably playing a mother in a popular commercial for Ivory Soap.

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The Ritz Thrift Shop advertisement first aired in 1975 on New York City’s independently-owned television stations. While the store would try other advertisements over the years, this was the spot that resonated with people. Twelve years after its debut, it was still being shown on the air, even though the popularity of fur coats had diminished due to the success of the animal rights movement in forcing the fashion industry to shift away from using animal fur in its garments. Slightly blurry copies of the advertisement – obviously taped on VHS video recorders – can be found in unauthorized postings on YouTube. And even if you are not a native New Yorker, the strange appeal of this commercial deserves to be experienced. Rarely has a grab-bag of socioeconomic and emotional yearnings been so brilliantly captured in such a deceptively subtle manner.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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