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Smithe brothers aim for 'Sex' appeal in latest quirky commercial
By Deborah Donovan | Daily Herald Staff

Walter, Tim and Mark Smithe show off "Smithe-O-Politans -- which they swear are a family tradition -- in front of The Bean in Chicago's Millennium Park.


Bill O'Neil | Walter E. Smithe Furniture

The designer handbags, left, are a joke and a thank-you for watching the commercial, says Tim Smithe. Karen Lynn, above, fixes Walter Smithe's hair during the Daley Center part of the commercial shoot.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/15/2008 12:07 AM

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The three Smithe brothers hoist red "Smithe-O-Politans" in front of The Bean in Millennium Park.

"It's been a Smithe family tradition for 50 years," says Tim. "Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas."

"Ever since cranberry juice was invented," pipes in Walt.

"For Cinco de Mayo we switch out vodka for tequila," adds Tim.

Then, the trio -- owners of Walter E. Smithe Furniture and stars of their own offbeat TV ads -- roll up their suit pants and wade barefoot in the park's fountain.

It's all for "Smithe and the City," a new ad debuting today and a takeoff on the upcoming "Sex and the City" movie. The latest kooky Smithe commercial is modeled after the Sarah Jessica Parker montage of New York City monuments that opened the popular HBO television show.

"Instead of the girls from 'Sex and the City,' we have the boys from Walter E. Smithe," says Tim, who's in charge of the company's marketing.

As nonchalant in person as in their well-known commercials, the brothers defy thunder and rain to cavort around Chicago icons.

Without blocking streets and asking permission only at Navy Pier, the Smithes and a tiny crew rush from Millennium Park to the Wrigley Building, North Avenue Beach, the Daley Center and the Art Institute.

The morning rain is fierce, at one point forcing the brothers to take a break and huddle around a covered table at Millennium Park.

An even greater blow to Walt's showbiz poise during the shoot's early hours was "almost getting killed in an accident" while driving in from Barrington Hills. And we won't even talk about the hair jokes he endures during the shoot. The shorter coifs of his slightly younger brothers Tim and Mark hold up better to the elements.

But by the time the brothers get to Navy Pier, the sun is trying to peek through. And Walt, a father of five, chats easily with a group of junior high students from South suburban Momence.

The youngsters -- whose soggy field trip is a reward for work in honors classes -- are recruited to walk in the background as extras while director and cameraman Bill O'Neil shoots.

"We're expecting a lot because all of you kids are above average," says Walt. "Tell your teachers you learned more at Navy Pier than you would have in honors physics."

The brothers have learned over eight years of commercials to be good sports. The danger of a lightning strike grounds a plan to take the students for a ride on the Navy Pier Ferris wheel, and O'Neil jokes that he could get better angles if the brothers jumped in Lake Michigan.

"At least one would not come out -- one of us would have a heart attack," says Walt. "The old one. The water's about 48 degrees."

The statues at the Pier provide some of the day's best improvisations. The brothers pose with the bronze statue of dancing children. Then in a moment made just for guys known for selling sofas, they sit on the metal couch by the statue of Bob Newhart in his role as Robert Hartley, Chicago psychologist.

At the Daley Center, Tim pulls out three designer handbags for the brothers to carry for a stroll in front of the Picasso statue. This is his trademark "tongue-in-cheek thank-you to viewers for watching our commercial."

Vinetta Sims, a security guard, volunteers fashion advice, recommending which purse goes best with each brightly colored shirt.

Passers-by often recognize the Smithes. They ask about working with Ernie Banks and get a handshake or photograph.

"Mark was always the best actor, Wally is most improved player because he was awful, and I've always been average," reports Tim, who lives in Winnetka.

Mark -- the only one who lives in the city -- shows off his urban knowledge by talking about concerts in the park, why the Smurift-Stone Building has a sliced-off diamond top and the benefits of seeing a movie at Navy Pier's IMAX.

"When I grow up I want to be a docent," Mark says. "It's a beautiful city, there's so much history."

And Tim reflects on the success of past commercials that have made him and his brothers household names.

"We're trying to find the magic," he says. "Start with a decent concept, show up and have a great crew and the magic happens."