TAMPA — Rocky Hutson had the jitters. The big, bearded ex-trucker practically shook in his cowboy boots.
This was his big chance.
Laid off recently, he has a bad back. His best idea this year — a million-dollar one, he thinks — came to him while he was sitting on the toilet.
From his home in Grand Junction, Colo., the 51-year-old had pitched his idea to producers of the Discovery Channel's Pitchmen. In an e-mail, they told them they'd be searching for new inventions to pitch at the Ritz in Ybor City. Judges would winnow a crowd of 173 down to 20 who would get to show their products to star pitchman Anthony Sullivan.
In their future? Maybe an infomercial of their own.
Hutson bought a plane ticket.
"No. 12," a producer said Wednesday. Hutson was up.
"Now, there's two arguments that go on in every house," he said. "First argument is about money. Second is which way the toilet paper comes off the holder."
He showed judges a simple wooden contraption he crafted in his garage, in which the toilet paper holder swivels from one side to another, depending on one's preference. The T.P. Swivel, he calls it.
"I can't do anything about the money," he told judges. "But I can help with the toilet paper."
And just like that, his 90 seconds were up.
Now, like the rest, he would have to wait.
• • •
The line outside the Ritz curled around the block. Locals heard about the search on WFLZ-FM, whose morning host Todd "MJ" Schnitt teamed up with Pitchmen to dub the event "MJ Inventorquest 2009.'' Others heard through the show and traveled from across the country.
Bob Wilson, a 47-year-old house painter from Brandon, got in line at 4:30 a.m. He wore a caveman costume.
What's with the schtick, the judges asked.
"I gave you fire, right? I gave you the wheel. I've been waiting 150,000 years to give you …"
The Palm Plate, a plastic plate equipped with a thumb hole for an easy grip and a groove in the center to hold your cup, freeing up your other hand.
For that extra hand, Nick Dickerson has an invention: Get Back, a personal protection device made out of braided wire and plastic. (Okay, really, it's a weapon.) Picture two loops the shape of an 8. One loop wraps around your wrist. The other? Tuck it in your purse when you're at the ATM, just in case.
"You reach in to get your money and some guy grabs your hand — whack it!" says the 49-year-old from Seffner. "You can hit him on the face. You can hit him in the groin. Wherever you hit him, it's going to hurt."
The day unfolded like a parade of ideas you wish you had thought of first: the Auto Seat Net (traps your stuff so it's easy to reach while driving), the Bass Lasso (keeps fishing nets from tangling and cramping your style), the Grill Tamer (doesn't let your burgers burn).
There was the Hook a Lime (clips the lime so it doesn't fall into your beer), the Rack-N-Stack (Lincoln Log-style temporary shelves), KeyPout (so key copiers can't break in) and the Clean Remote (because, as inventor Daniel Ruback put it, "What happens in Vegas stays on the remote.")
Dor Jones figured he'd dust off an old invention for Wednesday — a doorstop you don't have to bend over to use.
"I see them selling all kinds of c--- online," said the 52-year-old from St. Pete Beach. "It's just an adventure, you know?"
• • •
For Hutson, it was more than an adventure.
"If I can't support my family," he said, "what can I do?"
It was just before 6 p.m. Producers had made their decisions. Hutson wished he hadn't forgotten part of his pitch. "I left out that it was made in America," he said.
Producers began to read. No. 36 — the KeyPout. No. 48 — the Clean Remote. Even the caveman made it.
Hutson looked around the room. Other inventors wore shirts with fancy logos. He wore a leather vest. Other products were wrapped in professional packaging. His T.P. Swivel sat in a cardboard box. Other products solved big problems. His, gosh darn it, did, too.
Then, he heard it.
Reach Alexandra Zayas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.