Paging Bull

He's JJ! He's the owner! He's the King of Beepers! And we've got his number!

At this very moment, someone somewhere in the Valley--a man, a woman, a child, even a parrot, maybe--is undoubtedly mimicking the maniacal mantra that has catapulted an obscure Israeli pager salesman into the forefront of the local pop-culture firmament.

"I'm JJ! I'm the owner! I'm the King of Beepers!"
For the past three months, few Phoenicians within earshot of a radio have escaped his cornball clarion call. A hokey throwback to the yahoo ad campaigns of yore, this ingeniously cheesy catch phrase is at the heart of the screwiest, most obnoxious and inexplicably popular advertising blitz to hit the Valley in recent memory.

Delivered by a devilish-looking character wearing robes and a crown, that self-serving proclamation now reverberates across the city from office buildings and coffee houses to restaurants and playgrounds.

The man behind the squawk, meanwhile, has a very simple explanation for his success.

"People like my commercial," rasps the sultan of self-promotion in a heavily accented voice seemingly divorced from any one nationality.

"It's unique, not your regular commercial."

In a conversation filled with equal parts illusion, delusion and self-aggrandizing hype, that statement turns out to be one of very few indisputable comments to come out of the King of Beepers' mouth.

The talk comes fast and furious, as the King attempts to explain away a growing list of controversies storming the gates of his kingdom. In just four years on the throne, he's felt the sting of the National Organization for Women, the producers of the documentary Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam, and rival beeper dealers in three states. But whether defending his name and his business practices in a court of law or in one of public opinion, the self-directed beeper czar appears to thrive on the attention. Any attention.

Yet when JJ strides into his storefront Camelot on East Indian School Road one recent afternoon, few of his subjects pay the slightest bit of attention to the exalted ruler they know only through radio ads and garish billboards.

He's virtually unrecognizable without the Imperial margarine crown, the scarlet cape, the mischievous leer and the manic shouting that he saves for advertising shoots, and it's hard to believe his is the unremarkable countenance that's finally put a face on the Valley's highly competitive pager market.

This is the crazy king who wants to give everyone in town a "free" beeper? The same mad monarch who recently offered $1,800 on local radio for the return of his stolen JJ KING license plate? The mastermind who dreams up the spectacularly hokey publicity stunts, like the upcoming shtick in which a radio deejay will cover his body with vibrating beepers and have 100 listeners page him all at once?

In fact, the balding interloper in the pinstriped suit scarcely rates a cursory glance as he enters his dominion--even though he'd just pulled up outside the store in a black stretch limo.

Evidently dismissing the curiously dressed new arrival as a mere chauffeur, two high schoolers in baggy shorts and flip-flopped baseball caps turn their attention back to a wall-size reproduction of JJ's famous billboard. They're soon cracking each other up as they swap quips about the scantily clad model with the oversize vibrating beeper thrust between her legs. A bored-looking teen mom amuses her baby by taking swipes at an inflatable beeper hanging pinatalike from the ceiling. Across the showroom, a couple in tank tops and tattoos kill time by inventorying their supply of cigarettes.

After making several more passes through the showroom to no apparent purpose without generating any glimmer of recognition, the King retires to his modest throne room.

The royal chambers are far from regal, the furnishings hardly fancier than those found in a basic boiler-room operation. Walls are papered with schedules for the King's upcoming radio spots, most of them on youth-oriented FM stations. Piles of newspaper clippings, most of them documenting what his competition is up to, are strewn around the floor. A phone on the desk rarely stops ringing. In fact, the only thing that distinguishes this office from thousands of other similar low-end warrens is a couple of snapshots taken at a presidential reception sometime in the vague past. Although a dazed-looking JJ appears to have wandered within camera range while Bill Clinton was posing for a photo op, wall-size blowups of the quirky Kodak moment now grace all of the King's showrooms.

As it turns out, JJ's less-than-palatial East Indian School office is just a place to hang his crown while doing business in Phoenix. Although he makes his home in Beverly Hills, much of his time is spent on the road, overseeing a six-store miniempire that encompasses Southern California, Las Vegas and, since February, Phoenix. Valley business has been so good that he's already scouting another Phoenix location, possibly on the west or south side of town. And by the end of the year, His Royal Beeperness also hopes to cast his electronic lasso over Denver and Dallas.

Hoarse and tired--he's just limoed in from Las Vegas, where he spent seven hours in a recording studio shouting out a rap rendition of his advertising spiel--the King sighs wearily.

"People tell me, 'JJ, you live like a king,'" he says. "Yes. But I'm saying, 'I live like a king, but I work like a dog.'"

If it's lonely at the top, the 43-year-old beeper magnate is probably too busy to notice. "There is no Queen of Beepers," says the King. "I am not married. My company's my wife."

The four-year-old "union" is the latest chapter in an international Horatio Alger saga that began 23 years ago, when the teenaged JJ arrived in this country from Tel Aviv.

Too proud to ask his family for money after losing his shirt in Vegas casinos, he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent a year working menial jobs while living in a Greyhound bus station. Somewhere along the line, he landed a job as a stockboy in a discount electronics store, a career path that eventually led to his own flagship beeper shop in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.

And, as JJ will be the first to remind you, the rest is history.
His rise to success is a subject dear to his heart--and, apparently, one that's rivaled only by the jealousy his high visibility supposedly inspires among others in the beeper biz.

Flipping through a newspaper, he points to a competitor's ad. The headline reads "Don't Let the King Give You the Royal Shaft."

"A lot of the competition complain a lot," he says. "Every town I coming to, it's the same thing. 'Who is JJ? Where is he coming from? How come he sells so cheap?'"

According to JJ, the answer to that last head-scratcher is easy.
"Three or four years ago, the main market was doctors, lawyers and drug dealers," he explains. "At that time, most people could not afford beeper. I change all that when I come up with the idea to lower the cost of beeper." And beepers don't come much cheaper than "free"--which is the too-good-to-be-true offer at the heart of JJ's empire. Of course, "Activation [fee] required."

If JJ is quick to blow his own horn, that's probably because no one else will. If he is indeed responsible for launching the trend that's brought beepers to the masses, his revolutionary contribution has apparently been overlooked by every business writer and trade publication in the country, including those in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

And if JJ's really a major player in the pager industry, it's news to several of the country's leading electronic communication resources, none of whom ever heard of JJ or his company, a name that rarely fails to elicit laughter. Nor does anyone but JJ seem to be keeping track of the sales records he claims to break on practically a weekly basis.

"I doubt that he's giving these things away for free," comments one pager-industry observer. Guessing that the cost of the pager is actually concealed in inflated activation or processing fees, the source dryly adds, "Pagers generally have not been free."

Of course, it's hard to argue with success. And by pitching his product to the booming--and less discriminating--youth market, the King has shrewdly tapped into what is currently the largest-growing segment of the pager industry. Although the pager market has grown so rapidly that customer-profile breakdowns don't exist, industry analysts estimate that there are currently about 35 million beepers in use. One measure of the technology's youth appeal? To counteract Coca-Cola's sponsorship of this summer's Olympic Games, Pepsi will soon begin distributing 500,000 beepers as part of a Mountain Dew promotion aimed at teens.

If you've never heard of JJ, it's not for lack of effort on his part.
"Listen, when you come to a town and spend a quarter-million dollars in advertising in 90 days, you can sell ice to the Eskimos," says JJ. "When we come to Phoenix, I bring two employees from L.A. The day I open, we have two employees from L.A. The day I open, we have 72 commercials on the radio. It was crazy."

He also had a few billboards, choice signage in which he shared advertising space with that buxom blonde and her throbbing pager.

"A billboard is a billboard," reasons JJ. "If we take right now the limo and drive two miles, you're don't going to pay attention to any advertising. But when you see my billboard, you got to remember it. Sex sells."

But some people aren't buying. While the controversial billboards have yet to pierce the local feminist consciousness ("Sounds just like the kind of thing I'd send to MS magazine for their 'No Comment' column," comments Karen Van Hooft, president of the Phoenix chapter of the National Organization for Women), similar billboards in L.A. have triggered several waves of letter-writing campaigns in the four years since JJ declared his ascension to the throne.

Although JJ claims he's glad to listen to anyone who's got a gripe, he readily admits that complaints about his beeper-mounting model have had no effect on his advertising strategy.

Well, almost no effect.
Digging an older version of the ad out of his desk, he explains, "See, she used to wear a bikini. But the women did not like that, so I dress her a little." It is one of the few times during the afternoon that a smile plays across the King's face.

That fleeting display of facial levity soon evaporates.
Asked about one of his billboards that loomed over a competitor's shop near Seventh Avenue and Camelback for several weeks this spring, JJ leans back in his chair and waves his hand imperiously.

"That, I have nothing to do with," he says wearily. "Why would I? I don't need to prove anything." Instead, JJ insists the billboard's ironic placement was just one of those things, freak happenstance that can be chalked up to a luck-of-the-draw contract that gives him no say in where his billboards appear.

If that's true (Eller Outdoor Advertising didn't return calls concerning the terms of JJ's contract), the King of Beepers has been the recipient of some of the most fortuitous placement in the history of outdoor advertising.

To date, few--if any--of JJ's billboard advertising dollars have been wasted in high-income neighborhoods like north Scottsdale, tony 'burbs whose residents would presumably be less receptive to his brand of side-show salesmanship. For months, however, one of JJ's billboards has stood sentry over an intersection near Christown Mall--or "Crip Town," as the decaying neighborhood is known to its detractors. In South Phoenix, the gigantic image of JJ and his beeper-humping blond playmate dwarf motorists as they travel across two major thoroughfares in and out of the gang-ridden area.

And in Los Angeles, one of JJ's seemingly strategically placed billboards even shows up in the opening paragraphs of No Matter How Loud I Shout, Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Humes' acclaimed study of the L.A. juvenile court system published last year.

Describing prisoners entering an ancient lockup facility in East L.A., Humes writes, "The most observant of them, however, can take heart at their continued, valued place in society and commerce: A lone billboard overlooks the street leading to the lockup, a depiction of a man in a crown and red royal robes, flanked by a six-foot-tall pocket-paging device and a young woman squeezed into a transistor-sized red bikini. The man is 'The King of Beepers,' and his product is especially popular with the hundreds of drug dealers, gangbangers, and assorted other criminals who pass by his shrewdly placed advertisement in shackles each day . . ."

To know JJ, the King of Beepers, is not necessarily to understand him. After doing business on East Indian School Road for less than four months, he claims the public now regards the street as the city's beeper district. After alluding to a list of charitable deeds he's anonymously performed, he rambles on about the specifics of his generosity at length. The King becomes far more agitated over the idea that someone might mistakenly believe he actually drives his own limo than he does over the suggestion that his advertising may be targeting gangs.

And after a lengthy discourse on why there's enough business in Phoenix for everyone, he concludes, "The last thing I want to do for a guy and his family and children is take food from their mouths to put in mouth of me. But it happens. The small ones going bye-bye, okay? The big ones stay. This is life."

All of which has made life with JJ a popular topic of conversation within the local pager-industry circles.

"JJ is wiping out nobody," counters Niv Amnon, manager of Free Beepers, a multistate chain with 19 outlets Valleywide. "He's going to be wiped out himself, and I tell you why: He's doing all this advertising without any sense because of his ego."

Amnon and JJ go way back--or at least far enough back that Amnon remembers when JJ was still calling himself Juda. The pair have been sniping away for years, most recently as business rivals in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Prior to that, both worked in a Los Angeles electronics store owned by Amnon's cousin Danny Gold.

"Danny has a store in L.A., so Juda opens a store in L.A.," singsongs Amnon of the pair's adversarial business relationship. "Danny opens in Las Vegas, Juda opens in Las Vegas. Wherever Danny goes, he goes."

Arriving in Phoenix 18 months ago, Gold evidently tried to throw the brakes on this increasingly predictable scenario. His brainstorm? Beat JJ to the punch by naming his own store--what else?--JJ the King of Beepers.

As the local billboard landscape demonstrates, that ploy didn't work. JJ set up shop in Phoenix anyway--but not before a supposed legal skirmish in which he somehow reclaimed rights to his throne.

Just how that coup was accomplished is--like so many aspects of JJ's career--open to debate. Although JJ insists he spent $150,000 in legal fees to wrest the title from his competitors in a local court case, there's no record of any such litigation in Maricopa County Superior Court.

"Lawsuit?" asks Amnon. "There was no lawsuit! Danny just tells him to take the name back, we don't want it."

Amnon even takes issue with his rival's customers, whom JJ describes as "everyone." "He attracts not even the middle-class," insists Amnon. "They are the garbage of the garbage. He is the king of nothing."

Nothing. That triggers a thought, and Amnon whips out one of JJ's old ads, one that promised customers who already owned pagers that he'd reactivate the units for free.

"'Pay nothing' it says," claims Amnon, stabbing at the phrase with his finger. "How do he get away with this?"

Punching the store's number into a speaker phone, Amnon is soon engaged in a verbal battle with JJ's clerk, who admits that, yes, there really is a $10 processing fee.

"Why do you write in the paper 'Pay nothing'?" demands Amnon. "If it's nothing, it's nothing. Nothing means nothing!"

"I understand, sir," stammers the voice on the other end of the phone. "I'm just telling you what I've been told to say, okay?"

"Bingo!" hollers Amnon, who slams down the phone after instructing the clerk to tell his boss to wise up. "You hear that? Nothing is $10? This is unbelievable. I would never do such a thing.

"With all this noise he's making, he's so small. He's spending millions on his limo and his advertising, but he doesn't realize that this state is conservative." Thwacking his finger at the beeper girl's image, he adds, "This is not Los Angeles or Las Vegas where he can get away with that stuff."

In spite of the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, even a hype hound like the King of Beepers has to draw the line somewhere. And Home Box Office apparently crossed that line in October when the company repeatedly broadcast Heidi Fleiss Hollywood Madam, a made-for-cable documentary about Fleiss' prostitution ring. In a $1 million invasion-of-privacy and libel suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last December, JJ (identified in court records as Juda Alszeh, an Anglicized version of his given name) charges that the documentary erroneously portrayed him as a gun-wielding, wire-tapping henchman in the Tinseltown drug-and-smut underworld.

One of the more intriguing lawsuits to hit the Hollywood trade papers in recent months, the litigation centers on a shadowy character known as "Cookie," a much-talked-about (but never-seen) figure whose villainous presence hangs over much of the documentary.

At one point in the film, Ivan Nagy, Fleiss' onetime boyfriend, points to four bullet holes in his ceiling that "Cookie" and another man reportedly fired through his window. In another interview, a former porn actress refuses to discuss "Cookie" because she "won't jeopardize [her] life." Later on, a retired madam identifies "Cookie" as a onetime member of the Israeli Mafia who operates a Hollywood beeper shop.

When narrator/director Nick Broomfield seeks out the elusive strong-arm man, the quest takes him to a Sunset Strip business called J&J Beeper. Inside the store, Broomfield's camera picks up a poster advertising the store's 800 telephone line, a number ending in the word "KING."

Coincidences pile up on coincidences. Although the film does include a fleeting shot of a newspaper clipping revealing the actual identity of "Cookie" to be one Jacob Orgad, that detail is probably lost on casual viewers--most of whom have no idea what the King of Beepers' real name is anyway.

Instead, JJ-savvy audiences are treated to a much more memorable sequence in which narrator Broomfield drives through the streets of Los Angeles: "With Cookie on my mind, I imagined I saw him everywhere," says Broomfield as the camera zooms in on several of JJ's famous billboards, including a screen-filling shot of the King himself.

As a result of the alleged mistaken identity, JJ is suing HBO for at least $100,000 for "humiliation, embarrassment, hurt feelings, mental anguish and suffering." The suit also asks a minimum of $420,000 for loss of beeper sales, as well as $86,100 per month from disconnection of beeper services. Lawyers for HBO did not return calls regarding the suit, but categorically deny all those charges in court records.

Although the film's billboard images were subsequently "pixilized" for the documentary's theatrical release earlier this year, the electronic doctoring didn't fool many people who saw the picture during its weeklong run at Valley Art Theatre last month.

Or so claims one Tempe moviegoer, who reports scattered "titters" of recognition among the audience at the screening he attended.

"Everybody knew that was JJ up there," he grins. "Hell, yeah!"

Hearing about the Valley Art incident, JJ slaps a hand to his head.
"That movie, they show it in Phoenix, too?" he groans. "Listen. It was not me, but they use my picture. I'm not Cookie."

That statement appears to be true: Various records on file in L.A. County Superior Court indicate that JJ and Jacob "Cookie" Orgad (who is named as CEO of the rival beeper dealer in California incorporation papers) are indeed two different people.

Ironically, however, one of those documents also blows holes in JJ's story that he never even heard of Jacob Orgad until the Heidi Fleiss documentary. According to a civil suit over a lease dispute filed in 1991, JJ and Orgad were once partners in a Los Angeles electronics store called J&J Imports.

"Partner? I wish I had a partner," responds JJ. "He was never my partner."
On second thought, though, maybe "Cookie" did work for him.
"You have to understand that we have about 120 employees in L.A.," JJ continues. "My lawyer find out that he used to work here. I didn't know it."

So how did a lowly employee's name find itself onto a lease agreement co-signed by the owner? Beats JJ, who insists, "Believe me, I don't recall [that lawsuit]."

For the present, JJ's far more interested in his ongoing legal battle against Home Box Office.

"HBO, they want [to give me] a settlement right now, but I'm not ready," he explains. "Money is not everything in life. To get money and walk out is not everything. I want [HBO] to do something about it to show to the public that this was not me. I want something to do with the TV--they're to go on the air and say it was all a mistake."

Mistake or not, JJ's attorneys must ultimately prove that JJ was somehow damaged by the mix-up. That's why the lawyers are currently looking for witnesses--willing to swear, under oath--that the documentary changed their impression of JJ for the worse.

The lawyers may have their work cut out for them. Thanks to their client's clownish persona, should this case ever come to trial, it's a toss-up whether it'll belong on Court TV or Comedy Central.

For what it's worth, the King of Beepers can take consolation in one fan's fervent belief that his idol is incapable of perpetrating the atrocities attributed to him in the documentary.

"JJ rough up a hooker?!" asks the disbelieving fan, a thirtysomething graphic designer. "Nah, JJ would never do that--that's not his style."

The fan smiles. "What JJ would do is make her put on a red bikini and straddle a giant beeper.

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