Imagine watching Home Shopping Network for 33,700 hours. Now imagine being on the other side of the camera that long.
"It doesn't seem like 25 years," said Bobbi Ray Carter, who's celebrating a landmark anniversary as the TV shopping pioneer's longest-running show host.
The St. Petersburg network stages a celebrity-laden (for Tampa Bay) private reception at the Museum of Fine Arts next week and an on-air host toast Feb. 7 featuring Sharif handbags that Carter helped design.
At 55, she's a testament to how much the cradle of TV shopping has changed. Today HSN touts brand names and quality-control inspectors. Teams of makeup artists, product stylists and set designers primp everything off camera. On-air graphics rival the broadcast networks.
Contrast that to 1983, when Carter answered a two-line classified ad during a lull in a singing and dancing career on the South Florida dinner theater circuit. The cable TV channel was in a Clearwater storefront. A down-to-earth ego and willingness to learn were job requirements. Her enthusiasm got her the on-air nickname Bubblin' Bobbi. Bosses crowned her queen of TV shopping with a cardboard tiara from Burger King.
HSN sold close-out schlock then. Show hosts did everything: pick products from a nearby closet, field customer calls, honk Oo-Gah horns for first-time buyers and choose when to cut prices. The worst product she ever pitched: a reindeer chandelier with candle holders in the antlers. "Hideous," she said.
Hers is a career of surreal scenes. Her first hint HSN was a national phenomenon sunk in when clerks and customers in a Manhattan designer boutique recognized her. Shoppers today snap up $1.1-million of "huggable hangers" or Andrew Lessman's nutritional supplements in an hour.
She resisted being assigned a bodyguard. That was when she joined Suzanne Sommers sequestered on a three-day cruise from Tampa with 5,000 pajama- and slippers-clad female fans at one of Sommers' girls-night-out pajama parties. "When you're on TV, people think they know you," Carter said. "So the only privacy was my cabin."
She's held hands for dozens of nervous entertainers stepping into a foreign world of no script or polished patter while staring at a sales-per-minute clock that brutally blesses or curses their next career move in real time.
She gently had to inform Phyllis Diller that her wig was on sideways, leaving a "Made in Taiwan" label dangling over an ear. Roseanne Barr fell uncharacteristically silent after extolling the virtues of her chicken wing sauce. "Fifteen minutes is a long time to talk about wings, so she just kept eating them,"Carter said.
There may be more. Carter shares a 2-acre spread near Tarpon Springs with her husband, Jerry, a custom furniture builder, and three kids. Her 20-year-old daughter, Noelle, is a broadcast major at USF.
"She wants to be a show host," Carter said.
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After a 20-year hiatus, Ybor City institution Silver Ring Cafe is selling franchises again.
Existing franchisees making the 61-year-old Silver Ring's version of the Cuban sandwich in Lakeland and Riverview were joined recently by a fourth in Land O'Lakes.
"We have a good product that travels well beyond Tampa,'' said Tim Booth, who owns Silver Ring with his wife, Kellee. It's a low-cost franchise with a $20,000 fee, 5 percent royalty and help getting used equipment.
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FAO Schwarz, the famous toy store that imploded in debt-induced bankruptcies in 2002 and 2003, is trying to get back on a growth path.
With only two stores left in New York and Las Vegas, FAO recently opened a toy department in a Chicago Macy's. But putting toys back in a downtown department store is only part of the test.
Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Target sell more than half of all toys, leaving enclosed malls with no toy store chain to sign.
"I can see us with 400 toy departments in Macy's mall stores," said Ed Schmults, FAO Schwarz chief executive officer. Toys sales are 35 percent ahead of projection in the first few months in Chicago. In Macy's adjacent children's apparel departments, business is up 20 percent.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.
Bobbi Ray Carter's 25th anniversary gala on HSN is from 8 p.m. to midnight Feb. 7, including the premiere of Bobbi by Sharif handbags.