Over the years, St. Louisans have watched Becky, the self-proclaimed “queen of carpets,” as she’s taken numerous rides on her magic carpet, had a cream pie thrown in her face, been “struck” by lightning, and lost a ton of weight.
Well, now the region’s empress of campy commercials and her high-flying carpet have come down for a crash landing.
Becky Rothman and her brothers, Jules and Arnold, pulled the plug this week on Becky’s Carpet & Tile Superstores. The chain’s five locations shuttered on Monday, but a handful of employees are still working to fulfill orders and give out refunds.
On Tuesday morning, Rothman, 56, appeared to be in a daze as she walked around her crumbling kingdom -- the chain’s headquarters in Manchester.
Her hands trembled as she fumbled with the keys to unlock the door to her second-floor office, where a coffee mug with a picture of her crowned self sat on her desk.
While that crown was nowhere to be seen, Rothman still looked somewhat regal with a bronzed face and done-up eyes. But her voice cracked at times as she said she wanted her customers to know that she appreciated their patronage over the years.
“I tried and I tried and I tried,” she said, breaking down into tears. “But I can’t overcome the circumstances.”
Rothman blamed the company’s demise on competition with big box stores and the recession, which brought new home building to a screeching halt.
“It’s tough out there,” she said. “A lot of people have lost their jobs. Putting food on the table comes way before putting carpet down.”
She did not provide a clear explanation for why the end came so suddenly. The chain’s 30 or so employees were just notified on Friday of the impending closures, leaving some customers angry as they wondered if their previously-placed orders would still be filled.
Rothman said the initial plan was to downsize and to continue to operate just the store in south St. Louis County.
There’s still the possibility that might happen, she said. But then she and her brothers decided to close all of them for now.
“Everything got crazy real quick,” she said. “So I thought the best thing to do was to take care of the customers and then go from there.”
Employees are calling customers to schedule whatever installations they can, she said. For the rest, they are working to give out refunds. She directed customers to call 314-447-3200 for more information.
The St. Louis and St. Charles counties assessors’ websites provide one hint to the company's financial problems: Rothman Properties is delinquent in paying more than $150,000 in property taxes from 2011 at four of its stores.
At its peak, Becky’s Carpet & Tile had eight locations in the metro area. But the company began paring back after the recession hit, including closing a store last fall in Fairview Heights.
The five remaining locations were in Fairmont City, St. Peters, Hazelwood, Manchester, and South County.
On Tuesday, Rothman reminisced about the beginning of the family business, which had its start when her father, Murray, opened Veterans Linoleum and Rug Co. in East St. Louis in 1954.
“I remember when I was a little girl going to work with my dad,” she said. “I was probably 8 to 10 years old. He would stick the bank deposit in my coat pocket and send me the three blocks to the bank. It’s funny how you remember certain things.”
At the age of 22, she and her brothers took over the business when their father died in 1977.
They changed the name to Becky’s Carpet & Tile as they began to expand in the 1980s. The chain’s signature wacky commercials began hitting the air waves around that time, too.
In the earlier commercials, Rothman often appeared alongside a family friend, Wanda, who was dubbed the “princess of tile.” They would often appear to hover on the magic carpet near the Gateway Arch and sometimes even flew into outer space.
Rothman said she often would write the commercials as she was putting on her make-up. And many of them were improvised on the spot.
“We’d wing it a little,” she said. “I’ve had cream pies in the face. I’ve fallen off the Arch -- a little bit of everything... The crazier the better.”
Many of the commercials ended with the tagline: “Nobody beats Becky’s” or “Rich man’s carpet at a working man’s price.”
“She was an icon,” said Haim Mano, a marketing professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Everybody knows Becky.”
He has used Rothman’s commercials in his classes as a case study of the way many local companies use over-the-top antics to grab viewers’ attention during quick commercial breaks.
It’s a tactic also used by car dealerships and other businesses trying to get noticed in a local market, Mano said.
He said Rothman’s commercials were a success in that they accomplished what advertisers hope to do: be memorable and bring awareness and recognition to a brand.
“A lot of people also followed her ups and downs in term of weight,” he added. “At times, she made a point of it because she was slimming down.”
Up until a month ago, she was still taping tv spots to run through the end of the year, Rothman said, noting that she wore a turkey outfit for a Thanksgiving commercial and a Santa Claus get-up for one around Christmas.
“Maybe you will see my turkey outfit -- you never know,” she said optimistically. “They say you can’t keep a good woman down -- and in my case, you can’t keep me grounded for too long.”
But on Tuesday afternoon, the gates in front of the company’s Fairmont City location was locked and the neon “open” sign was not lit.
And outside the South County store, a competitor was already trying to take advantage of the situation.
Joe Wambach, the owner of B-Back Floors, and his employee, Rick Hurd, sat outside on a patch of grass and eating lunch. They were waiting to approach would-be customers of Becky’s.
Since Becky’s has closed, B-Back’s business has doubled, Hurd said.
“One customer came in yesterday saying that Becky’s closed,” he said. “Today somebody called who completed an order with Becky’s and were waiting for a refund, and then put in the same order with us.”
Staff writers Madeleine O’Leary and Lisa Brown contributed to this report.