A tribute to ray “the menards guy” szmanda (1926–2018) gas 37 weeks pregnant

Today the news is spreading that Ray Szmanda, the Midwest-famous “Menards Guy,” a multi-decade TV commercial pitchman for everything from paint to faucets to lumber, passed away May 6 at the age of 91. For nearly 25 years a growing radius of TV viewers were introduced to his signature black glasses/blue sweater combo, his giant grin, and his seemingly relentless enthusiasm for home improvement.

Ray started the gig way back in 1976, three years before I was even born. But by the time I was about 20 and starting a stint at the Menards general office making TV commercials, Ray was still there plugging away at those cue cards, letting a huge chunk of America know exactly what was on sale that week with a pocketful of puns at the ready.

For about a year, every Friday I got to work alongside Ray as we shot the opener, closer, and narration of anywhere from eight to 10 commercials. That’s a lot to shoot, and we needed to hustle to get it all done. We’d sometimes be in the studio or on location, but oftentimes we’d be right out in the open in the store during regular business hours. And of course it was in the store where he’d turn heads.

Even in his later years (he was in his mid-70s by the time I worked with him) he had a booming voice that would echo throughout the aisles of the westside Eau Claire Menards, commanding attention from unsuspecting shoppers. We’d be tucked away in the paint aisle with lights, cameras, and microphones and as soon as he started in on the script at full volume, the rubbernecking from customers would be hilarious. He was a legit celebrity. Imagine for years hearing Ray’s voice on TV selling you carpet and yard supplies and then suddenly you’re actually in Menards and you hear him in real life in the aisle behind you. People were in shock. And he loved every minute of it – waving hello, shaking hands, and giving the people what they wanted with a boisterous “Save Big Money!” on command. It was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a job.

After a morning of shooting we’d break production and he’d invite us all out for lunch together, often at a pizza buffet. At lunch he wouldn’t remove his blue shirt, nametag, or his signature black glasses (which didn’t even have lenses in them due to the glare on camera). Needless to say he stuck out like a sore thumb to anyone who’d ever watched television across the Midwest over the previous 20 years. Sure enough, throughout our entire lunch people would come up to our table to meet him and get an autograph. That’s when – happy as can be at their request – he’d pop open his briefcase packed full of headshots, ready for personalization to his many fans. He loved it, and so did we.

Ray Szmanda on set at a Menards commercial shoot for Gorilla Rack Shelving, circa 2001. Volume One owner/publisher Nick Meyer is the guy in the gorilla suit – it was his job to jump into the frame, hop up and down, and pound his chest. Ray had plenty of monkey jokes for the crew.

To celebrate this Midwestern cultural icon, we’ve gathered up some photos, videos, and tidbits here to share (see below), including a great interview Volume One had with him roughly nine years ago. He truly was a kind and generous man. Please, comment below with your stories and memories too.

Back in 2009, Volume One published a long Q&A between Ray Szmanda and former managing editor Trevor Kupfer. They covered a lot of fascinating ground, including his other gigs, how he got the Menards job, and funny things that happened while filming commercials.

Ray Szmanda: Yes. I was a professional drummer. I played on the road. This is when I was young. Right when I got out of the Navy at 21. I had my own trio. We played 40s music, what we called swing. Swing lasted about 10 years, and then of course rock ‘n roll came in.

The Found Footage Festival – a local favorite – puts together touring comedy shows based on old VHS video footage from just about anywhere, from corporate training videos to infomercials. And The Menards Guy is no exception. Check out one of their favorite clips.