Longform

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."

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Dewey Webb