Meet Crazy Eddie, The Least Boring Grifter In American History
Back in the 1970s, you couldn't turn on the TV in New York without a man lunging violently at the screen and screaming at you that the prices at Crazy Eddie's were ins-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ne! Delivered in a tone usually reserved for announcing a 30-percent discount on trucker speed behind the abandoned rest stop, the ads quickly became a New York icon, parodied by everything from SNL to Futurama. In an era when the city's main industry appeared to be burning down porno theaters for the insurance money, Crazy Eddie's became a major success story. But who was this madman slashing prices so low on electronics?
Well his name was Eddie Antar and behind the scenes he was running all sorts of sleazy scams. Even his prices were so low mostly because he didn't pay sales tax and bought half his TVs off the back of a truck. But by the 1980s, Wall Street was booming and Eddie decided to ditch his shitty old schemes and take Bear Stearns for everything they had. All the country's sharpest financial wolves proved completely unprepared to deal with a streetwise hustler who got his start following people around the Port Authority and harassing them into buying a cheap stereo. Before long, Crazy Eddie, who just a few years before had been demanding customer's shoes as a deposit, had sold over $70 million in stock and fled the country with bundles of cash strapped to his body like the Michelin Man.
Eddie's first ad aired in 1975, when New York was at a bit of a low point. Police officers lurked at every airport, jumping out from behind pillars and frightening tourists with warnings of their imminent murder. They even printed a helpful pamphlet labeled "Fear City," featuring a massive drawing of the Grim Reaper and warnings to "stay off the streets after 6 PM" and "try not to go out alone." Tourists were also warned to "never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever" since "the city recently had to close off the rear half of each train in the evening so passengers could huddle together and be better protected." The only way it could have been scarier was if every visitor got a gun with one bullet in it and a warning to use it wisely when the time came.
In reality, this was basically bullshit. Passengers were not barricaded in their subway cars, desperately holding the door shut like Train To Busan. And it was entirely possible to set foot out of your hotel at 6:01 PM without the locals burning you in a wicker man. The cops were actually just threatening to destroy the tourism industry as leverage in a massive public sector pay dispute that also saw garbage piling up on street corners and fires raging unfought. Even the city's engineers wedged the drawbridges open and went home. New York itself had gone entirely broke (the mayor's office had given up even keeping complete financial records) and President Ford was refusing any assistance, due to a deranged plot by supervillain chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld to turn Chicago into America's financial capital.
The city's lawyers were actually in the process of filing for bankruptcy when the teacher's union pension fund agreed to provide a $250 million bailout, allegedly because another union boss threatened to throw their leader out of an 8th-floor window if he didn't cough up the money. It's not a great sign when your city has to fund itself by shaking down teacher pensions, although at least the mayor managed to restrain himself from jumping out of an alley with a knife, demanding passers-by donate their wedding rings to the park budget.
But there was one bright spark. Low, low prices on electronics! And it was all thanks to Crazy Eddie, the lunatic slashing costs on everything from stereos to VCRs. His prices were ins-a-a-a-ane! At least according to the TV ads that first hit the air that summer. The delightfully cheesy ads featured pitchman Jerry Carroll screaming at you about the incredible savings down at Crazy Eddie's. Shot with the budget of a cheap porno, and the production values of a much cheaper porno, the ads quickly became a massive hit for their kitschy charm.
Like everything about Crazy Eddie, his famous ads were born out of some bizarre '70s hustling. Eddie had just upgraded from the Port Authority to a store in Brooklyn when a salesman from the local radio station wandered in and tried to sell him some advertising. Eddie supposedly said he'd buy $5 worth if the salesman went outside and peed on the side of a bus (or possibly a cab, the story varies). The guy actually went through with it, because salesmen in the '70s knew how to make $5 the hard way. Unfortunately, he neglected to get the cash in advance. Eddie never coughed up the five bucks, but he did like the way DJ Jerry Carroll read "insane" and hired him to star in a string of TV and radio ads. The rest was history.
While Carroll took care of advertising, the real Crazy Eddie was a guy named Eddie Antar, who was running every shitty scam imaginable. The stores' low prices were possible because they didn't pay sales tax, bought products from gray market sources, gouged customers on warranties, and billed manufacturers three times the actual cost for repair. Salesmen were so aggressive they would offer to take your shoes as a deposit. There was so much skimming off the register that most stores reported net profits of some rubber bands and a Canadian nickel. Eddie used the profits to live the high life with his wife Debbie, and his girlfriend, conveniently also named Debbie. Which ended with Debbie 1 and Debbie 2 fighting in the street while Eddie tried to make a getaway. Debbie 1 eventually tracked him down at a bar mitzvah and served him up some divorce papers to go with his entree.
By the 1980s, the city was changing and Eddie had to change with it. Greed was good, suspenders were bigger than ever, and Wall Street had given up on ever sleeping again. Classic New York industries (breaking open a hydrant and then stealing the tires off the repair truck) were left by the wayside in favor of new opportunities in the financial sector (doing so much lunch cocaine you accidentally bought control of McDonald's, before fleeing to Guatemala in a Grimace costume stuffed with embezzled Happy Meal toys). Compared to ruthless corporate tycoons like Ivan Boesky, Robert Vesco and Michael Milken, Eddie Antar's scams started to look very small indeed. So he decided to get with the times and teach those Wall Street fat cats a valuable lesson: Nobody out-scams Crazy Eddie!
With the help of a cousin who had just graduated business school, Eddie cooked up a new scheme to list his stores on the stock exchange, jack up the share price, then cash out for millions. To pull this off, Eddie had to do something that went against everything he stood for: He had to start paying taxes. In fact, he started paying them with enthusiasm. This was completely unprecedented in '80s New York, where most stores accepted payment only in non-sequential unmarked bills, ideally tossed from a moving car at 3 AM. Some of the swankiest stores on 5th Avenue didn't even own a cash register, preferring to keep all takings tucked inside of the owner's bra. The IRS was accustomed to visiting luxury boutiques to find a truck peeling out of the parking lot and the manager sitting on the empty floor, insisting that they had always just sold loose batteries for 10 cents each.
Avoiding sales tax for years actually turned out to be an incredible weapon, because when Eddie suddenly did start paying the tax on every deal it made it look like his sales had exploded overnight. He even started overpaying his income taxes, or making up fake sales just to pay the tax on them. Nobody in history has ever shoveled cash at the IRS with such enthusiasm. To really sell the deception, he sent a cousin undercover as a spy at his auditor's firm. The cousin tipped him off about upcoming audits, allowing him to rush his entire inventory to that one store, which appeared to be stuffed to the brim with the chunkiest VCRs the former Yugoslavia ever produced. The fake inventory alone was soon valued at north of $60 million.
As a result, Crazy Eddie appeared to be growing at an incredible rate and word soon spread on Wall Street that the stores were a hit. When Crazy Eddie went public in 1984, the share price tripled within a year and increased tenfold soon after. Investors poured in at least $145 million. Eddie himself made at least $70 million selling part of his stake in the company. He also started flying to Israel with bundles of cash strapped to his body. For those of you unfamiliar with the corporate world, it's usually considered a worrying sign when your CEO is spotted waddling through the airport with loose hundred dollar bills fluttering from the ankles of his pinstriped business sweatpants.
Things started to fall apart in 1987, when Eddie sold $20 million in stock just days before announcing a 90 percent drop in profits. The outraged investors sued, at which point Eddie coolly offered to buy the stock back at half the original price. Noticing the chaos, some Houston investors launched a takeover bid for the company, which Eddie was confident he could fight off. But then an old enemy resurfaced, in the form of his ex-wife Debbie 1. Eddie's family had sided with Debbie 1 during the split, so when she re-opened their divorce case, Eddie fired most of them in revenge. That turned out to be a mistake, since Eddie's own brother and father teamed up with the Houston boys to force him out in a hostile takeover.
The buyout went through in November and the Houston consortium arrived up to inspect their new stores, congratulating themselves on acquiring a great business at a discount. They discovered empty stockrooms and virtually nonexistent sales. Over 50 percent of the supposed inventory didn't exist at all, while stores had been randomly opened on the same street, providing "growth" without any real new sales. This had all been covered up by simply throwing the company's financial records directly in the nearest dumpster whenever the auditors asked to see them (there's probably a landfill somewhere that's just Eddie's mouldering invoices on top of NYC's 1970s financial records). The company was losing money faster than a pug at a dog track. But hey, what do you expect when you buy a company from a guy called Crazy Eddie?
Eddie himself carefully assessed the situation and promptly fled the country in disguise. He turned out to have multiple passports and an entire fake identity in Israel, which he used to travel and live the high life. The FBI launched an international manhunt, which apparently didn't stop Eddie from visiting the States multiple times while on the run. Presumably, he just wandered by in the background while the Feds repeatedly arrested Jerry Carroll as the famous Crazy Eddie.
The real Eddie was eventually located in Switzerland after he helpfully walked into the local police and complained that his bank wouldn't let him access the $32 million in stolen money he'd deposited there. He was immediately deported to the US to stand trial, since trying to take the stolen money back is the one thing the Swiss banking system won't stand for. His stores went out of business so hard that not even '80s nostalgia has managed to bring them back. Still, in an era of Wall Street fraud, it's hard not to admire the guy who got so good at scamming customers with cheap turntables that he leveled up to scamming a legion of Lehman Brothers types out of $140 million, while producing history's most entertaining ads along the way. You may have been crazy, Eddie, but at least you were never boring.
Top image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock, Crazy Eddie