Tom LaBrie, a Sacramento water bed pitchman who brought “night comfort” to late-night television viewers in the 1970s and ’80s, died this week at 67.
From 1976 to 1990, LaBrie was a local icon and the most televised businessman in town. He greeted night owls watching late-night movies on Channel 40 with his signature “Night Comfort Theater.”
LaBrie would introduce movies, offer reviews and interview visiting celebrities, from actors George Peppard to Debbie Reynolds. And amid backdrops of a comfy leather chair, soothing string music and varnished water bed furnishings, the owner of LaBrie’s Sleep Center in Sacramento extolled the relaxing benefits of sleeping on water.
LaBrie, who conceived the advertising program, became a television fixture with his longish hair, drooping mustache and ever-mellow persona. His advertisements sponsored an estimated 12,000 hours of programming, generally classic to obscure movies airing after most people had gone to bed.
He became so well known that the likes of comedian Bill Cosby parodied LaBrie’s commercials for California water bed relaxation – which LaBrie softly delivered in his signature East Coast accent.
“When I started off, I didn’t really think that people up at that hour wanted to be yelled at,” LaBrie said in a 1986 Sacramento Bee interview, describing the easygoing pitch that made him a celebrity. He said people routinely would stop him, shake his hand “and say, ‘Oh, gee, aren’t you Tom LaBrie?’ It’s nice.”
LaBrie’s commercial spots were aired across the West, drawing in movie viewers and attracting customers for LaBrie’s water bed empire, which eventually totaled six stores, including three in Sacramento and one each in Stockton, Fairfield and Pleasant Hill.
“He was a real character, and he had a concept,” said Dale Brimley, a former general manager for LaBrie’s Sleep Center who worked for him for 34 years. “He realized he had a captive audience. Sometimes you were going to be awake at night, and you would turn on the ‘Night Comfort Theater’ and perhaps come in and look at some water beds. And it worked.”
Before going into the water bed business, LaBrie graduated from Michigan State University and taught eighth-grade math, science and sex education in a small town in Michigan. In 1970, seeking a warmer climate, he moved to Berkeley and went to work for a water bed retail chain – pitching the mattress of the counter-culture. He later opened his store in Sacramento.
LaBrie died of a natural but undetermined cause on Dec. 28, according to the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office.
His late-night television spots, many posted on YouTube, live on with the spirit of the times in which his business flourished.
On one commercial, LaBrie hailed the gains of young women in the 1970s and made a special pitch for why they deserved one of his water beds.
“This time I want to talk to the single girls,” he began. He went on to say: “So girls, there have been a lot of good changes in the last few years. If you’re thinking about a change in your lifestyle, come see us and we’ll talk about it.”
Another spot featured LaBrie’s critique of Frank Sinatra movies, including “From Here to Eternity,” “None But the Brave” and “The Detective.” “Sinatra is no doubt the greatest singer of love songs – but also one of the better actors of our times,” LaBrie concluded.
Besides the water bed business, LaBrie later partnered in a collectible toy business, Toy Alley.
Funeral services are pending.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.