THE WAY WE WHIR
Quick! Name one thing that costs exactly the same today as when it was introduced more than 30 years ago.
Here's a clue: It's as much a part of the American motel room as the Gideon Bible, the seascape bolted over the bed and the ubiquitous "sanitary" strip that testifies to the hygienic safety of the toilet seat.
Still can't put your finger on it? This cultural touchstone for a generation of American travelers has been immortalized on film (the 1971 Frank Zappa comedy 200 Motels), in song (Jimmy Buffett's "This Hotel Room"), on TV (Roseanne) and even in comic strips (a recent Sunday installment of Doonesbury).
Give up? It's the wondrous Magic Fingers, the coin-op bed massager that promised motel guests fast relief from "tension," "fatigue" and "sleeplessness." Today, 15 minutes of those good vibrations will set you back a mere two bits, just as it was three decades ago.
And if you're lucky enough to find one of the gadgets today, chances are your quarter will eventually wind up in the pocket of Richard Pullen, one of the biggest movers and shakers in Magic Fingers' history.
"Everybody's heard of Magic Fingers," says the semiretired Pullen, 72, who operates one of the country's last remaining Magic Fingers franchises out of his comfortable home in Sun City. "It's the name that just won't die. There's something about it that catches everyone's eye."
Pullen himself first saw the motorized mattress's moniker in early 62, when he a spotted a newspaper ad seeking investors for the miraculous new gismo. Then working as a salesman for a national catering firm, Pullen saw Magic Fingers as a way to claw his way out of his rut.
"I was successful at what I was doing, but realized that the only way I was ever going to have any real financial independence was to own my own business," says Pullen, a New England native whose low-key manner is every bit as restful as the service he sells. "I'd been squirreling money away for years. When I saw that ad, I knew it was time to make my break."
Pullen resigned from the catering firm and headed for Magic Fingers' headquarters in New Jersey.
As Pullen soon discovered, his unlikely career shift closely mirrored that of the man who had invented Magic Fingers.
The vibrating motors that sent finger waves through the world of roadside slumber were the brain children of one John Houghtaling, a cookware supersalesman (his successful pitch involved staging dinner parties in the homes of prospects) whose circuitous route to Magic Fingers began in 1958. Impressed with Houghtaling's sales lan, a new firm approached him about selling vibrating beds to motels.
"They thought I could sell anything," Houghtaling, 75, says with a laugh during a telephone interview from his Florida home. "Well, they were mistaken. Those beds didn't work very well and they were very expensive--if I remember correctly, about $300 apiece."
Still, convinced of the potential in shaking quarters out of motel guests, Houghtaling struck out on his own, developing a fist-size motor that simply snapped onto existing box springs, instantly transforming virtually any mattress into a "therapeutic," "massaging" bed. In 1962 he finally introduced the invention via a franchising operation.
"I turned it into a motel program and a lot of us made a lot of money," reports Houghtaling, who sold the business in the late 1970s. (General Stamping & Mfg. Company of Hialeah, Florida, continues to manufacture Magic Fingers home units for mail-order sale but is not involved in the coin-drop models.)
"At one point, we had a quarter-million of these out in the motels," he claims. "Some of these guys [franchisees] had as many as 10,000 units apiece. The pros--the ones that got in early and stuck with it--really did well for themselves." He'll get no argument from the Valley's resident Magic Fingers czar, Richard Pullen. Totally sold on the product--We live in a world filled with tension," he says--Pullen shelled out $2,500 for one of the first franchises Houghtaling sold. In addition to the exclusive right to buzz beds in several Arizona counties, the investment included 100 coin-operated units, with the option of buying additional units at about $25 a pop.
"It became apparent that with this concept, in order to make any real money, you had to be big," reasoned Pullen. "And I mean real big. Otherwise, you were just kidding yourself; you had to have some other source of income."
Fortunately for Pullen, many franchisees, including those who'd invested in rival systems such as Rest Aid and Sleep Ease, didn't realize this principle until it was too late. "So I bought em out," Pullen says with a smile. "The big devour the small--that's the American way of life. All that glitters is not gold and a lot of people who got into this just didn't have the stomach for the business."
Operating his ever-expanding franchise as a sideline to his Valley real estate brokerage, Pullen eventually carved out a coin-operated empire that encompassed thousands of units in scores of motels stretching from Yuma to Oklahoma City. "Time was, we were in virtually every motel on East Van Buren," says Pullen, referring to the glut of motor courts that once lined that Phoenix thoroughfare. "At one time, we had over 1,000 units alone at the Grand Canyon. And during the 60s, we'd routinely sell 100 home units through the mail each Christmas, just on the strength of little stickers we'd put on all the units. For many years, this concept was a fantastic source of revenue." Most of that income was generated at mom-and-pop operations on well-traveled tourist routes; corporate-run hotels and larger motels with absentee owners generally gave Magic Fingers the thumbs down.
Not that Pullen was bothered by the snub. "You've got to draw a line as to what you can handle," he explains. "As a rule, we never went into a place with more than 150 rooms. Anything bigger than that got too unwieldy to handle. Plus, the occupancy rate in a place like that is spotty. Our revenue is based on occupancy. That's the whole key."
In return for allowing Magic Fingers to be installed in their establishments, motel owners generally received 20 percent of the take. But according to Pullen, an even more valuable benefit to innkeepers was the repeat business Magic Fingers raked in. Some vacationers and business travelers reportedly became so attached to the coin-operated pulsators that they actually planned their trips around motels equipped with the device.
"It was a great way for a motel to build its customer base," says Pullen, who claims he often received letters from travelers requesting directories of motels where Magic Fingers could be found. "Magic Fingers was something that helped distinguish your motel from the one down the road. It's an extra, and the guests appreciate it."
Well, some of them, at least.
Because first-time users had no idea of exactly what to expect (It quickly takes you into the land of tingling relaxation and ease," read the cryptic promise stenciled across the machine's coin drop), it was probably inevitable that some motel thrill seekers deemed the Magic Fingers no great shakes. An in-room roller coaster it wasn't.
"If the unit's working properly, the vibrations should be so subtle you almost shouldn't even know it's operating," explains Pullen. "You shouldn't be able to hear the motor, either. The whole idea behind the thing is relaxation."
In any event, Magic Fingers brought no rest to the wicked. The coin-operated contraption proved to be an irresistible challenge to devious wayfarers intent on stuffing the slot with slugs, jimmying open the coin box or hot-wiring or by-passing the pulsating unit. Although Pullen eventually took the precaution of bolting coin boxes to nightstands, he still contends that "the American public is basically honest."
More often than not, it was actually light-fingered motel employees--not motel guests--who were caught with their hands in the Magic Fingers. "It's been my experience in this business that most of our problems were internal," explains Pullen, who used a regional network of part-timers to maintain his dynasty. "If you were unlucky enough to run across a dishonest manager or a bad maintenance man, Katy bar the door."
Pullen took the thefts in stride. "It was just part of doing business," he says philosophically. "High risk and high yield go hand in hand, and this is high risk. You're putting your stuff out there and you're only checking it every three or four months. Things happen. And if you've had one bad unit, well, big deal."
But it was the march of progress, not larceny, that eventually loosened Magic Fingers' grip on the industry's profit sheet.
In the late 70s, the long-planned national network of superhighways neared completion, by-passing many of the main drags that had once been Pullen's bread and butter. The new freeway system forced hundreds of motels out of business, disjointing thousands of Magic Fingers in the process. "Highway 66 in the 50s and 60s was something else," says Pullen. "When I-40 came in, all those communities were devastated."
Almost as crippling was an innovation in bed design that's swept the American boudoir in recent years. Because it effectively eliminates box springs, the "pedestal bed" is incompatible with Magic Fingers units.
Still, hope springs eternal for the man whose franchise has long outlived the company that sold it to him.
"I've still got several hundred units out there on the highways, byways and interstates," says Pullen, who still hits the road every three or four months to check coin boxes in motels at freeway interchanges between here and New Mexico. (Phoenix lost its last remaining Magic Fingers units last summer, when Newton's Inn on East Van Buren closed.) "I guess I'll keep doing it as long as I'm able," says Pullen. "The revenue is just too good." And according to Pullen, it would be even better if more motels would just open their arms to his Fingers. "The sad thing is that the basic concept is better than ever," he says. "There's a lot more stress today than there ever was 30 years ago."
Or so he's heard.
Asked whether his own bed is equipped with Magic Fingers, Pullen smiles slyly. "Nah, I don't need it," he answers. "It's not for everyone.
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