UPDATED: MARCH 17, 2023 AT 11:34 AM
All the failing banks in the news lately remind so many here of Washington Mutual (WaMu), and it seemed like a good reason to revisit one of the Northwest’s most memorable — even indelible — ad campaigns of all time.
WaMu, a long-loved local company here, failed on September 25, 2008. Despite recent banking troubles in California and elsewhere, WaMu still qualifies as the largest such collapse of a financial institution in American history.
Yes, rest assured that your giant foam hand is still valid: We’re still number one!
Long before the subprime mortgage crisis 15 years ago, Washington Mutual was founded in the ashes of the Great Seattle Fire way back in 1889. By the late 1960s, the Seattle-based savings and loan was on the rise, adding branches and wanting to expand the customer base. That’s when Seattle advertising agency Kraft, Smith and Lowe was hired to raise the beloved institution’s profile.
The resulting campaign featured a friendly and familiar-looking—yet hard to name—character actor as Washington Mutual’s spokesperson. In one particular TV commercial preserved by longtime local ad man David Horsfall, the famous man can be seen in a wide shot, standing at the base of the Space Needle. He is the epitome of avuncular and seems like someone you can trust with all your money – like a living, breathing FDIC.
“Look closely at an exciting idea and you’ll see it’s founded on a simple, solid base,” the man says as a zoomed-in shot of the Space Needle dissolves. “Steel and concrete . . . the same kind of base you need when designing your future. A safe, solid foundation, like money in a savings account, can support your highest dreams.”
As the 30-second commercial reaches its conclusion, it’s a close-up now. The famous spokesman is in full “trust me” mode, his hand patting one of the concrete footings and giant bolts that hold the Space Needle in place.
“Lay your financial foundation with Washington Mutual,” he says with a gentle smile. “The friend of the family.”
Similarly, locally shot commercials with the same actor and slogan apparently played constantly on Northwest TV and radio stations in the 1970s, and variants—at least with the same actor—were produced as late as the early 1990s.
The ridiculously snappy tagline — “Washington Mutual, the family friend” — is credited to a local man named Dean Tonkin.
Tonkin is in his early 80s, retired after a decade-long career in advertising, and now directs a ski program at Snoqualmie Pass. Tonkin grew up in Portland. He moved to Seattle as a child and graduated from Queen Anne High School. After a stint in New York working for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, he took a job in the late 1960s at the Seattle advertising agency Kraft, Smith and Lowe.
Tonkin told KIRO Newsradio that the inspiration for “Friend of the Family” was more like frustration and came from a popular Broadway musical and movie in the 1960s.
It appears that the composers of “Oliver!,” the musical based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” “wouldn’t release the music from the play — ‘Consider yourself at home, consider yourself one of the family,'” Tonkin said , quotes lyrics from one of the show’s more memorable tunes.
“And so I came up with ‘friend of the family,'” he said.
With slogan in hand, it was time for Tonkin to choose a spokesman.
The actor who would become Washington Mutual’s spokesman was born in Portland in 1923 and grew up in the neighborhood known as Northeast Portland. He attended acting classes at the University of Washington, although it is not clear if he graduated, and he served in the military in World War II. The man’s Northwest roots played no part in him landing the Washington Mutual game.
Over the course of a decade-long career, this actor eventually appeared in hundreds of plays, radio shows, movies and TV shows from the 1940s — with notable roles in TV shows like “Planet of the Apes” and “General Hospital,” in movies like “Norma Rae” and in plays like “A Christmas Carol” — and yet he was never a household name.
And that, says Tonkin, was a big part of the appeal of Booth Colman.
“He was a true gentleman who personified some of the qualities I wanted for Washington Mutual,” Tonkin said. “And he also had a good film background as not someone who is going to ‘vampire’ the story by being superior in his popularity.
By not “vampirizing” the ad campaign, Tonkin believes it would never be about Booth Colman; it will always be about Washington Mutual—unlike, say, recent campaigns for cryptocurrency companies featuring celebrities like Matt Damon.
Tonkin says Colman was chosen in Los Angeles through a “cattle-call audition” process and then at least one “call-back” to confirm he was indeed the one.
It’s hard to believe now, but Tonkin also says that the choice of Colman as spokesman and the adoption of the “friend of the family” tagline were not subject to any of the kind of preliminary scrutiny common to major advertising campaigns these days.
“It wasn’t put through any rigorous focus groups or convoluted market research,” Tonkin said. – It was only because it felt right.
And how quickly Washington Mutual management loved the tagline “friend of the family”?
“As soon as it came out of my mouth,” Tonkin said.
Colman died in Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 91. It is unclear if anyone ever asked him how he felt about the 2008 breakdown of the “family friend”. Tonkin says he was quite disappointed to see the local institution, which he had helped build, fall so dramatically so quickly.
While the WaMu bank branches and Booth Colman are no longer with us, at least one geographic reference to “alternate universe” Washington Mutual remains on the Seattle map in the form of the WaMu Theater at Lumen Field.
The theater was officially named that in 2006 as part of a 10-year naming rights deal with Savings and Loan. At some point in the past 14 years, First & Goal, the entity that operates Lumen Field, quietly swapped out the “Washington Mutual” roots of the facility’s name, so it is now formally called the “Washington Music Theatre,” though the nickname remains the WaMu Theater . See what they did there?
In another “alternate universe” moment, Tonkin says there was always a slight chance Colman wouldn’t get the gig.
Tonkin told KIRO Newsradio that there was at least one other actor who applied for the spokesperson job, but the group that made the decision at the Los Angeles audition — Tonkin, a Washington Mutual representative, and the creative director and art director from Evans, Kraft and Lowe — could just don’t get past one aspect of the man’s appearance.
Tonkin says he can’t remember the other man’s name – after all, this was more than 50 years ago – but describes him as “a very badass actor.”
And why, exactly, did they choose Booth Colman instead of the other guy?
“We didn’t like his haircut,” Tonkin said.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him hereand subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcasthere. If you have a story idea, email Felikshere.