In need of nostalgia? C’mon Down! U of W digitizes culturally important Kern-Hill commercials
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A furniture salesperson is only as good as their finest pitch, and Nick Hill Sr.’s approach always consisted of the same three words squeezed down into two and made to sound like one: C’MONDOOOOWN.
Hill Sr., who died in 2003, did not look like the prototypical Bay Street ad rep. A squat 5-9 man who was raised on a dairy farm in Rosser and always wore a cowboy hat, Hill Sr. was part Don Draper and part Tony the Tiger: as co-owner of the Winnipeg furniture store Kern-Hill, Hill Sr. seized the opportunities presented by radio and television to become an iconic local pitchman.
With a loose, improvisatory style of delivery, Hill Sr., along with his “number 1” son, Andrew, would appear on TV as floating heads, imploring potential customers to come on down to 843 Main St., the three-tiered furniture warehouse off Selkirk Avenue that Hill Sr. started working at in 1957.
No two takes were the same, and each one was made up almost on the spot.
“My number 1 son left the sofa-making machine on all night,” Hill Sr.’s floating head would say. Andrew’s floating head would knock $50 more off the price of a dinette set. “Son, you gave away the farm. Now the cottage?”
“Nobody, nobody, NOBODY will touch our prices,” shouts Hill Sr. in one ad. “Kern Hill is going to beat the crap out of our competitors’ prices with quality service and no sales tax!” he yells in another, leading to a shocked glance from his son, who clearly didn’t know his dad would say that.
The Kern-Hill television ads are time capsules of a bygone and quickly disappearing era of local business advertising, representing a world before social media and before the arrival of box stores like IKEA. And boy, are they weird, filled with glorious, surrealist shtick. For over 30 years, you could rarely turn on a local cable channel without seeing — and hearing — the call of the floating cowboy.
As commercials always do, they disappeared from the airwaves, but as good ones do, they remained in the collective memory of their viewers. For a long time, the Kern-Hill tapes were collecting dust somewhere. But where?
At least 20 were in the possession of local filmmaker Matthew Rankin, who, knowing the tenuous shelf life of Betacam and U-matic tapes, decided to hand them over to the University of Winnipeg, hoping someone there would find them of value.
Andrew Burke, a U of W professor with a focus on film, television, and Winnipeg’s visual history, was intrigued to say the least. Despite being raised in Nova Scotia, Burke saw the ads as a glimpse into the history of the city’s business past and the dynamic world of local television.
“Tapes from 30 years ago aren’t at a crisis point, but they are getting older,” says Burke, who got involved after U of W archivist Brett Lougheed acquired the tapes from Rankin. “Even in ordinary domestic conditions, the magnetic covering on video cassettes will begin to flake off.”
Burke saw the tapes as culturally important, academically useful, and teachable. “This is vulnerable media that needs to be taken care of,” he says.
“This is vulnerable media that needs to be taken care of.”–Andrew Burke, a U of W professor
So Burke applied for a discretionary grant for the tapes to be digitized. The grant, which allocated $1,000 toward the project, was approved, and this week, the University posted over two hours of Kern-Hill ads to its YouTube page, received by the public with hoopla.
Kern-Hill, of course, was only half Hill. The other 50 per cent was John Kiernicki, sometimes spelled as Chernicki. Before opening the business in 1952, ‘Kern’ sold televisions and other appliances out of a shop on Selkirk Avenue. He was joined in 1957 by a 25-year-old Nick Hill.
Before selling sofas, Hill doled out bodychecks as a hard-nosed junior and amateur hockey player, suiting up at one point for the Port Arthur Bruins and later for the Milwaukee Chiefs. He had aspirations of going pro, and told friends and family of the time he had his jaw broken by an up-and-coming scorer named Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who would go on to innovate the slapshot during a Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Canadiens.
“He quit hockey because he started to work with John selling TVs,” says his son, Nick Jr., 65, who is now president of the company. “He said he made more money doing that than he ever did playing a season of hockey.”
The duo saw quick success at their Dufferin Avenue store, and in 1958, opened at 843 Main St. “The new Kern-Hill store, which is expected to reach the growing number of home owners in the rapidly expanding Greater Winnipeg area, will also help to increase the company’s purchasing power and help to maintain prices as low as possible,” read a piece of what may have been sponsored content in the local paper The Israelite Press.
“This is necessary because of the tendency of prices to increase in all lines,” the owners said.
Over time, that business lingo was demystified, translated into the language of the common customer, and channelled through the voice of Nick Hill, Sr., who at his peak spent about 10 per cent of the company’s annual budget on advertising. With the impending arrival of box stores and the continued sprawl toward the suburbs, he understood he had to be loud in order to be heard. Kiernicki died a few years after Hill joined him in business, but his name was never removed.
“He was very smart,” says Nick Jr., of his father. “He always negotiated his deals and bought his ads in bulk for the lowest price he could find.”
There are some stories which stipulate that Hill Sr.’s dynamic approach to advertising stemmed from his time playing hockey in the U.S., where advertisers were trying different tricks. However, his son says the character he played on air was quite close to who his father really was, despite his being a rather quiet man off camera.
When it came time to record an ad, whether for television or radio, Nick Jr. would give his dad a rough, hand-written script. “He knew exactly what he wanted to say though,” he says. “And he was so confident, which made him believable.”
“Our reputation is your guarantee,” he’d shout. “Cmooooon down.”
Off-tape, Hill Sr., was a tireless community volunteer in children’s health care, with the Lions Club and the Sunshine Foundation, among others. He was awarded Hockey Manitoba’s Volunteer of the Millennium award.
When he died suddenly in 2003, at the age of 71, he had only weeks earlier recorded his final Kern-Hill ads. Since his death, his son, Andrew, has continued his father’s tradition.
A few years after Hill Sr.’s death, the store moved to a larger location on Nairn Avenue, needing more space than could be provided at 843 Main St. It is still in business today.
The company sold the Main Street building to Surplus Direct, which occupied the former Kern-Hill until two Saturdays ago, when the building was engulfed in flames and declared a total loss, erasing a landmark in the North End business world that could never quite shed the reputation of its former inhabitant. On its website, Surplus Direct advertises savings of up to 80 per cent off of retail items. “Click below to check out our inventory or come on down to 843 Main St.,” the display copy reads.
It’s a major loss for the Main Street strip, and for the Kern-Hill company, which is still nostalgically associated with that address nearly 20 years after moving east.
But with the archival advertising footage now available online, Nick Hill Sr.’s pitch will be preserved in pixels, in perpetuity.
To view the Kern-Kill commercial catalogue, go to: wfp.to/kernhill
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.