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Saturday, February 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

Magic Fingers still alive, but nearing its finale

The Flamingo Motel in Coeur d’Alene still features the Magic Fingers bed massager

“It’s still only a quarter,” said Shelley Williams, innkeeper at the Flamingo Motel, of the 1950s-era Magic Fingers machine at the motel in Coeur d’Alene. (Kathy Plonka)
“It’s still only a quarter,” said Shelley Williams, innkeeper at the Flamingo Motel, of the 1950s-era Magic Fingers machine at the motel in Coeur d’Alene. (Kathy Plonka)

Russ and Rusty Gill were once the region’s Magic Fingers kingpins.

In the late 1980s the father-son team from Spokane ran an 80-motel network with 2,000 of the machines, which vibrated a mattress for 15 minutes when a motel guest stuck a quarter into a coin box.

By many accounts, the Gills were the last active Magic Fingers operators in the country. In 2002 the Wall Street Journal wrote about the business and said the Gills were probably the last of “the Magic Fingers men.”

At this point, the Gills are writing the final chapter of the Magic Fingers saga. They have just one motel – the Flamingo, in Coeur d’Alene – that’s still using and promoting the mattress-vibrating gadgets.

Mead resident Russ Gill, 68, is keeping a stockpile of their last 100 working units.

His son, Rusty Gill, 46, who lives in Newport, sells some of those on eBay.

The two men have seen the rise and fall of Magic Fingers, a piece of Americana that makes people think of crewcuts and good vibrations.

The strange and unlikely success of Magic Fingers owes a lot to the creative flair of its inventor, a New Jersey entrepreneur named John Houghtaling, who created the device in 1958.

Houghtaling convinced motel operators that Magic Fingers was a health aid and comforter, and by the 1970s it was estimated more than 250,000 units had been installed in motels from coast to coast.

Russ Gill got into the business in 1983. He drove thousands of miles covering a route from Montana to Idaho to Central Washington, and said in his best years he did all right financially, pocketing about $30,000 a year. He always used the same formula with motel operators: He’d take 80 percent, they got the remainder.

But by the 1990s, the smaller motels that had Magic Fingers units were being replaced by corporate-owned operations.

Many of the national chains, like Motel 6, discarded the units because they saw them as carrying a seedy truck stop taint. Plus thieves began stealing the coin boxes, leading motel owners to consider them more a nuisance than an amenity.

As recently as five years ago, Russ Gill still hit the road, maintaining his route. He visited each motel, collected the quarters and serviced the machines, mounted below the bedsprings, that weren’t operating correctly.

“About five years ago, it just wasn’t worth the time anymore. It wasn’t worth the time driving and the cost of the gas you burned,” Gill said.

He removed the last couple hundred of his Magic Fingers boxes and put them in storage.

His only ongoing motel customer is the Flamingo, which has a unit in all 13 rooms.

Gill said he’d have pulled the units out there, too, “But Al Williams, the owner, told me to leave them there. He said they’ll stay there as long as he’s around.”

Williams and his wife, Shelley, see the Magic Fingers units as part of the motel’s retro appeal.

“It’s a big point of interest for us,” Al Williams said. “It’s something our guests come in and ask for.”

If any units break, Williams calls Russ Gill, who’s retired but doesn’t mind driving to Coeur d’Alene with his tool kit.

Rusty Gill works as a water systems operator for Pend Oreille Public Utility District in Newport. It’s his job to sell their remaining inventory of Magic Fingers units on eBay. He sells a couple units per month, usually for about $50 each, he said.

Those are authentic Magic Fingers units, Russ Gill said, identical to the one invented by Houghtaling, not a knockoff like those found online in the last decade.

Each sale sets off a little more relief and regret.

For Russ Gill, operating the Magic Fingers route is part of his family’s heritage. His wife’s father, the late Wade Brown, was the pre-eminent Magic Fingers operator in the region. Brown, a car salesman in Sandpoint in the 1960s, decided to go all-in and build a Magic Fingers franchise in the Inland Northwest.

His timing was right, because gas was still cheap and long-distance leisure and business travel created a sprawling motel industry. The Magic Fingers device was “probably the first guest-room amenity after the TV,” wrote Ed Watkins, editor of Lodging Hospitality magazine, in an article on the occasion of Houghtaling’s death in 2009.

Russ Gill wanted a piece of the action, and with $6,500 he persuaded Brown to sell him the parts of the route covering Montana and southeast Washington.

Over the next 15 years Russ bought the remainder of Brown’s route. It wasn’t always easy money. But it was his own business and he was in charge, Russ Gill said.

For Rusty Gill, the Magic Fingers story is about being with his dad as a teenager and young man, learning how to be a good listener.

“It gave me a lot of good memories,” Rusty Gill said about the years he spent helping his dad make his rounds.

From Ritzville to Ellensburg, and from Wenatchee to Walla Walla, they covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of people.

Mostly, the son saw his dad treat people right and be successful at the same time.

“He was born to do this kind of thing. He’s real sharp with business. But he’s also someone that people like to be around. He just has the ability to be easygoing, and people end up liking him.”

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