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The K in K-tel: Phil Kives was king of catchy commercials on television

WINNIPEG — Phil Kives, the tireless and optimistic pitchman who pioneered the television infomercial, died Wednesday after being hospitalized with an undisclosed illness.

Kives, who was 87, grew up in poverty and made his riches after founding marketing company K-tel International. He sold everything from Miracle Brush hair removers to Veg-o-matic vegetable slicers to vinyl albums under titles such as "Goofy Greats" and filled with cheesy novelty hits.

Through it all, he remained in Winnipeg and always balanced his work with family life, his daughter, Samantha Kives, said Thursday.

"He would literally leave in the middle of a business meeting to come watch us play in a tennis tournament," she recalled.

"The commercials were also a family affair. A lot of the commercials he shot, he'd bring us kids in ... and we'd be actors in the commercials."

Kives was born on a small farm near the town of Oungre, Sask., in 1929. The family survived on welfare at times during the Depression and by the age of eight Kives was trapping animals and selling the fur to afford clothes, according to his autobiography on the K-tel website.

"In 1957, I left the farm for good for the lights of the big city of Winnipeg, Man. I had various jobs — from taxi driver to short-order cook. Then I tried my luck selling door-to-door, such items as cookware, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners," he wrote.

In 1961, Kives made his way to New Jersey and did sales items demonstrations at a department store. The following year, he returned to Winnipeg and found a new way to push products to a much larger audience.

"I made a live five-minute TV commercial on a Teflon non-stick fry pan. To my surprise, sales took off at a remarkable pace. I quickly spread the TV advertising throughout Canada and this five-minute commercial became the world's first infomercial ever."

More products would follow — including the Bedazzler, a Pocket Fisherman, a hamburger patty stacker and the mood ring —sometimes accompanied by the hook line: "But wait, there's more!"

And for a generation of teenagers in the '60s and '70s, his legacy was a long list of compilation albums with hit songs that were sometimes edited down to fit 20 or more on two sides of vinyl. A glam-pop song by The Bay City Rollers could be found on the same record as country star Dolly Parton and soul act The Drifters.

The same jam-them-in approach was used for novelty-song compilations such as "Goofy Greats," which featured songs about purple people-eaters, itsy-bitsy bikinis and surfing birds.

Kives had a positive outlook that helped him overcome any business hurdle, his daughter said.

"His favourite expression to us was 'Fear not' ... and I think that was his mantra for life."

He was inducted into the Canadian Professional Sales Hall of Fame in 2002 and kept active throughout his life.

"Even at 87, he went into the office every day," his daughter said.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

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