Mary Elizabeth Armstrong, the disarmingly sweet spokeswoman for decades in Mama’s Used Cars TV commercials, died on September 30. She was 101 years old.
With her round cheeks, glasses and sensible white hairstyle, the telegenic and naturally comedic Armstrong for 30 years reached the Lowcountry with a motherly embrace on the air. And she did it from the yard of a car dealership at a Savannah Highway gas station.
The Lowcountry legend has also gone nationwide through the syndication of his spots for use by dealers far beyond South Carolina, in places like California, the Texas Bay Area and Chattanooga. , Tennessee, where she was so popular she received a key to the city.
“She looked like everyone’s grandma,” said Graham Eubank, president and co-owner of Palmetto Ford. Her role as a mom has also become a sensation because of the entertaining and good-natured bent of the spots.
According to Burnam Eubank, vice president and co-owner of Palmetto Ford, the character was the brainchild of David Simmons, the founder of DBS Productions, Palmetto Ford’s advertising agency.
Simmons was looking for a spokesperson to personify reliability for the used car dealership, which aimed to deliver dependability and accountability with the cars it sold. When the advertiser came up with the idea of a mother-grandmother figure struggling with her goofy son, played by Simmons himself, he found himself struggling to play the role with just the right mom for the task. .
After scouring the area, Palmetto Ford owner Manly Eubank suggested the babysitter he had hired watch over his youngest daughter, Elizabeth Eubank, at their Bohicket Marina home. When Simmons and Armstrong first did a spot, the chemistry was immediate — and long-lasting.
Simmons wrote the spots with an eye for slapstick comedy. With the antic – Simmons as his “lot boy” – Mama in the upright role guiding him and often gently chiding him to perform better amid the car lot gaffes.
When mom once asked him to jump a battery, he jumped over the car part. When she came across him in the field holding half an umbrella and asked why, he explained that there was only a 50% chance of rain. When she spotted him on a ladder hanging from signs and ordered him to go higher, he responded in a louder voice.
“People were always looking forward to these ads at night to see what the next spot would be,” said Graham Eubank, adding that the ads also featured items like $995 “fishing cars” that were affordable if not meant to last. long time. .
Armstrong capped off these segments by assuring viewers in a familiar Charleston accent, that the dealership offered “good cars and trucks from good people” and that “you can’t get a bad deal at Mama’s.”
By buying from Mama, Graham Eubank explained, customers gained peace of mind that they were going to get a good car, one inspected and checked, and that Palmetto Ford would stand behind the card.
While Armstrong was initially reluctant in public, she eventually ran with her public persona, and did so primarily for the good of her community. She volunteered at Ronald McDonald House and visited senior centers to wash residents’ hair. She handed out roses at the dealership on Mother’s Day.
In a 2018 interview with WCBD-TV, Armstrong herself said that one of her favorite things to do was take part in the Christmas parade, with onlookers asking where to find a car.
“She adopted him,” Burnam Eubank said, noting that the kind Armstrong has become a community leader.
True to the character she played on television, Armstrong was devoted to her own family, friends, and church, and found deep pleasure in being with her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great- grandchildren.
Karen Simmons, wife of the late David Simmons who now runs the agency, has remained close to Armstrong over the years and considers her a friend, confidante and mentor.
“His strong faith and his love of God radiated from everything around him,” she said.
Such authenticity made Armstrong the role of everyone’s mom and a part of nearly every Charleston household for three decades.
“It couldn’t have been better,” Graham Eubank said, noting that she was the right person for the job, which kept him there for so long. Palmetto Ford is creating a compilation of the commercials that will be shared in tribute to Armstrong in the coming weeks.
Mary Elizabeth Armstrong was born on Christmas Day 1921. She is predeceased by her late husband, Markley Edward Armstrong; his parents, Martin Lee Rozier and Agnes Rawls Rozier; his daughters, Carol Ellen Metts and Suzanne Gail Armstrong; his grandson, Robert L. Bonifay Jr.; and three brothers.
She is survived by her three children, Margaret Bonifay of Charleston, Virginia L. Armstrong of Charleston, and Markley E. Armstrong Jr. (Norma) of Charleston; his many generations of family; and his sister, Sarah R. Long.
Memorials may be made at Amedisys Hospice, 1027 Physicians Drive, Suite 240, Charleston, SC 29414. Arrangements have been made through J. Henry Stuhr Inc. Downtown Chapel.