ToquiNotes: After Decades of Laughs and Business, Time for "Grandma" to End Commercials, Close Shop

By Jeff Toquinto on June 17, 2017 from ToquiNotes via Connect-Bridgeport.com

He actually lived for about a dozen years in Bridgeport, just across the street from what is today Heritage Christian School. While it’s been years since he’s resided here, chances are good he’s probably been in almost every single house inside the city limits.
 
For that matter, he’s probably been inside the homes of nearly every individual in North Central West Virginia. If the name of the person – Vinnie Oliverio – doesn’t ring a bell, then his alter ego should. For those not familiar, Vinnie Oliverio is “Grandma” of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Grandma’s House Furniture.
 
You know, from the Big Red Barn in Nutter Fort.
 
If you’re like me, you spent decades watching Oliverio do commercials for his business that made the business a name as hard to forget as the commercials. I would argue there are few, if any, more recognizable local television celebrities as a result of advertising as Vinnie Oliverio.
 
As mentioned, if you don’t know Vinnie, then you likely know Grandma. The really funny thing about it is that their personalities aren’t that much different – and I mean that in the most complimentary form possible.
 
So why write about Grandma? Well, Grandma’s going out of business – for real. This isn’t an advertising gimmick to get people to come to their store, but come July 31 the doors to Grandma’s House Furniture will shut for good after 43 years.
 
Ironically, Grandma herself/himself hasn’t been on television much in recent years.
 
“Advertising has changed and we don’t own the airwaves anymore,” said Oliverio. “We used to do a commercial and shoot all day or on location, but it’s become more expensive and we know we can’t have a production team for an entire day for a small commercial. Still, those commercials are what made us get going and what made this work at this location for decades.”
 
There may be those who may not believe that Grandma’s House wasn’t always in Nutter Fort. In fact, it actually began in of all places at Vinnie Oliverio’s grandmother’s house, which led to the name.
 
“When we started we had two uncles in the business at that time so naming it Oliverio’s furniture seemed risky,” said Oliverio. “Since we started selling used furniture there in that vacant house, that’s what we called it.”
 
When it started at the actual grandma’s house, Vinnie was joined by a few family members, including his mother Louise in the entrepreneurial adventure. At first it was used furniture and things weren’t going too poorly before the first big move was made.
 
“We rented the basement of the Central Storage Building, and that was 3,500 square feet, for $350 a month, plus utilities. That was 10 cents a square foot,” he said.  “I’d still there if not for the closing of the Fourth Street Bridge that was slowly putting us out of business.”
 
Oliverio said there was no quick fix for the bridge. He said it was closed for years.
 
“We knew we had to move,” said Oliverio.
 
In 1982, the new location became a reality. First, however, another location almost became a reality.
 
Oliverio said property was purchased at the site today in Nutter Fort that is home to Wesbanco. The plan was to build a 10,000 square foot building on the property before fate intervened in the form of another furniture dealer.
 
“One of the brothers with Jack’s Friendly Furniture mentioned to my father that another furniture store was going out of business and he thought would suit us just fine,” said Oliverio.  “He was right and I’m still thankful to this day for that.”
 
The building in question was the former Rose’s Furniture location. The building, he said, was owned by a man named Bus White who agreed to a deal on a handshake to Oliverio, despite the fact the new furniture business owner were already cash strapped due to acquiring property to build on.
 
He said the payments were made to White. Eventually, Vinnie’s father Jimmie helped out Vinnie and his brother Donnie out with the cash to get started on with the agreement to pay him back. The agreement was paid in full and it benefitted all parties involved, but that’s not how things became successful.
 
The “Big Red Barn,” which had many prior businesses including a skating rink, needed to be filled. Again, not having money and needing to pay for merchandise would be a problem if a quick turnaround wasn’t in order.
 
“We hit the floor running and things started falling in place. My mom died in September of 1981 and never was able to work in the store, which was sad, but I always felt mom was pulling strings from heaven,” said Oliverio.
 
The first break came when the property purchased originally was sold – and for a profit. A bank showed interest and several things went in favor of Vinnie and Donnie Oliverio and others involved that was the first big break.
 
It wasn’t long after that when a WDTV salesperson sold Grandma’s House Furniture 50 television spots for $500.
 
“I remember the first commercial spot didn’t bring anyone in when it was decided that we should do the Grandma bit with me as Grandma since Donnie wasn’t going to do it so I got elected,” said Oliverio. “To this day, I don’t know whose idea it was. No one remembers, but I’m glad someone came up with it.”
 
With the idea in hand, a wardrobe was needed. Oliverio turned to Bridgeport’s Shirley Urtso Brown.
 
“I told Shirley I needed a wig and a nightgown and she knew where to get both so I raided a closet and got started,” said Oliverio. “To let you know how old that first commercial was, as part of the promotion, we were giving 13-inch black and white televisions with a minimal purchase.”
 
That first commercial showed Grandma lying in bed – with a wolf or as Grandma referred to it “Wolfie.” And the series of commercials that one of my college professors in marketing called “brilliant branding of name, product and location” among other things, was off and running.
 
“Was it a hit? Yeah, we knew it immediately. People started noticing and people started showing up so we kept going and doing anything and everything,” said Oliverio.
 
There was Oliverio and a strip mine where a half a stick of dynamite was used to blow up “Pa” in his recliner to emphasize a new recliner was needed in a skit that actually singed Grandma’s wig and nightgown. That led to Grandma supposedly being dead and Grandma’s ghost haunting the store and forcing brother Donnie to lower the prices.
 
For the store’s 10th anniversary, Vinnie Oliverio  ran down the middle of Elk Creek with the music from Bo Derek’s hit movie “10” playing in the background as Grandma’s braided hair wig flew from side to side.
 
“That was back in a time when no one cared that you used music from a movie for your commercials,” said Oliverio.
 
Of course, there was a cease and desist from Disney itself. The reason? Grandma’s House used music from Beauty and the Beast.
 
“It came with a nice picture of Mickey Mouse,” Oliverio laughed.
 
There was a skydiver imitating Grandma (the late Gigi Folio from the Wonder Bar) who actually dove over the Nutter Fort location, while Vinnie was filmed at the North Central West Virginia Airport on the tarmac hanging on to a wheel. Eventually, they dangled Vinnie from a parachute at the building for added emphasis.

“I was pretty much game for anything,” said Oliverio. “I ended that commercial telling everyone I would take the bus the next time.”
 
There were bears, there were campfire scenes, there was parodies of beer commercials the Beverly Hillbillies and so much more, including the actual voice of the Price is Right – Johnny Olson – telling Vinnie Oliverio to “Come on Down” as a commercial was shot in the old Robinson Grand. And there was one consistent co-star in Bridgeport’s Lou Aragona.
 
“He was the most consistent,” said Oliverio. “To this day he says we need to do one last commercial. The thing about Lou is that he always had ideas and he worked cheap.”
 
It’s unlikely there will be a last commercial, but that could change. Vinnie Oliverio has actually been retired for some time and when his brother Donnie recently passed away, he knew it was time to move on.
 
“We were a good combination. He was great with numbers and I was a frustrated actor, or maybe actress, so it all worked out. I know it’s time, but it has been a great run and I loved what I was doing. It was more fun when I was younger because it was a different era. The store was a gathering place and you had the salesmen come in, stay the night and take you out. We had a blast,” said Oliverio. “It’s just time to call it a wrap.”
 
Fare thee well Grandma. Thanks for the smiles.
 
Editor's Note: Top photo shows Grandma in her "Gunslinger" role, while Vinnie Oliverio is shown with frequent co-star and Bridgeport resident Lou Aragona in the second photo. In the third picture, he's entertaining plenty of youngsters as young and old alike loved the character. The family photo shows Vinnie with his late brother Donnie and his late father Jimmie. A trio of celebrities gather in the fifth photo of Oliverio is joined by former Pittsburgh Steeler the late L.C. Greenwood and former U.S.  Senator Jay Rockefeller. In the sixth picture, Grandma shows what a tough day on the set gets you. In the bottom, the fun still continues - this time away from television and at the Italian Festival - for Oliverio. All photos courtesy of Vinnie Oliverio.


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