Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – Frank Trapani, the owner of Frankie & Johnny’s Furniture, who co-starred in the store’s offbeat, memorable and often parodied commercials featuring himself and the store’s “Special Man,” died Thursday. He was 83.
Store manager Brenda Slater, who herself appeared in many of the spots, said Trapani died in Florida, where he had recently relocated with his wife. He had been ill in recent months, she said.
Trapani owned the small furniture store, first located on N. Broad and later St. Claude Ave., which would ordinarily not have attracted much attention citywide, but for the power of television and the creativity and low-budget but memorable aspect of the commercials. They began airing locally in the 1980s and became even more popular in the 1990s, but still are instantly recognizable and often quoted.
The commercials got national attention as recently as last year, when Conan O’Brien discovered and then spotlighted them on his TBS late-night talk show, holding a contest to encourage viewers to submit their own parodies of the spot.
Frankie and Johnny’s catered to customers with, as it said in the commercials, “bad credit or no credit, on Social Security or welfare.” Despite that, shopping there was “no problem,” according to the spots, which were conceived by advertising executive Rod Montz.
Trapani, whose accent and demeanor were about as New Orleans as they come, stood just about 5’ tall. He played straight man to the actors in the commercials, who would explain that they had no credit, had just filed bankruptcy or received Social Security or welfare, but were looking to buy bedroom sets, living room sets or other furniture.
He would explain that in order to make the purchase, they’d have to put up their $50 down payment and then see the Special Man. Wearing a large Stetson hat and holding a cigar, the Special Man, played by Lester Love Sr., would instantly respond, “Let her have it.”
“She’s got it,” Trapani would counter, then dance down the store aisles to end the commercial, celebrating the ease with which customers could shop at his store.
“I say I say, see Frankie and Johnny’s, easiest credit men in town. For only $50 down, we can put you in a living room set or bedroom set today!” he’d chant.
Trapani had a good-natured sense of humor about the spots and the local response.
“All the time, I’ll be walking around the mall or out at a restaurant and people will come up to me and say ‘That’s the Special Man,’ or something like that,” he told WYES-TV for a 2005 documentary. “It turned out real, real good. That’s what we pay the money for (for commercials), to let people know we’re around.”
Lester Love Sr., a salesman at the store, who portrayed the Special Man in the commercials, died in 2001. He was replaced by Emile Washington, who died in 2007.
Funeral arrangements for Trapani are pending.