Furnishers Of Laughs The Zany Local-boy Hosts Of "Furniture On The Mend" Are On The Prowl For Old Flea-market Finds - And New Nationwide Viewership.

Posted: January 24, 1994

This is the problem with being almost a big star:

People recognize you. Not enough to gush and throw flowers at you, or sneak into your hotel rooms, or name their kids after you. But enough to make it hard to buy a table for 80 bucks.

That's the problem for Ed Feldman and Joe L'Erario, the native Philadelphians who host the popular TV series Furniture on the Mend, seen on both WHYY-TV (Channel 12) and cable's Learning Channel.

They frequent auctions and flea markets to get hurting furniture for their show, a cross between a do-it-yourself lesson and a stand-up comedy routine.

On a recent cold morning they went to S&S Auction in central New Jersey to look for stuff.

It's something they'd normally do, but now they have a deadline. The guys are ending their production relationship with WHYY and doing new segments exclusively for the Learning Channel to air this summer. They need 26 pieces of furniture to mend, one for each new episode.

There, right next to the gravel parking lot off Interstate 295 in Repaupo, was a sea of furniture, some glazed with ice, some broken beyond repair. Beat- up dressers, sagging sofas, some lamps with crushed velvet shades, countless chairs in rows were all out there, taking up about three football fields' worth of space.

The sight warmed Feldman and L'Erario's hearts. They like this place

because the bidding starts really low. Sometimes less than $20, rarely more than $100.

But Feldman said that when people see his unmistakable face - his crazy salad of brown curls, his thick-rimmed glasses, his croquet-wicket mustache - and realize he's the guy from the zany TV show, all of a sudden the bidding goes higher.

"They think I know something. They think if I want it they should want it," he said, not trying all that hard to hide the pride he's found in semi- celebrity power.

L'Erario and Feldman spent this morning walking through the field of furniture like two farmers checking a new crop, joking, making wisecracks, laughing all the way.

They swear the jokes they say on the show are actually written in a script. But watching them interact off-camera, anyone would conclude joking is the only way these guys know how to communicate.

"Oh sweet Lord, look at this," said Feldman, walking up to a red fake-leather sofa. It looked like a reject from a 1950s dude ranch, with brown horse heads on the back cushions. The armrests were shaped like wagon wheels.

"I love this," Feldman said.

"It comes with a pair of chaps," quipped L'Erario.

Nature should have provided the rim shot. Ba-da-bum.

They walked up to a slightly stained, slightly scratched oak dresser.

"This is not a nice piece," said L'Erario, ready to walk right past it.

"It is a nice piece. It's well constructed," said Feldman, leaning his considerable weight on the dresser and shaking it.

What about that big black ring stain on top?

"You put a doily there, or a lot of perfume bottles," answered L'Erario, straight-faced.

That's how it goes with the furniture guys. Straight line, joke. Straight line, pun. Straight line, lyrics from some obscure song.

And in between all that, some solid advice about refinishing furniture.

Buy solid pieces, Feldman advised. Veneer isn't always bad. But bad veneer over bad wood is a disaster.

Take some old wood stains off with ammonia, an alternative to stripping solutions, added L'Erario, who really knows his chemicals.

In spring, Feldman, 40, and L'Erario, 38, will begin taping their fifth season of Furniture on the Mend, a show that started as a wild idea and became one of local public television's most popular half-hours.

Feldman told the story of how it all started while L'Erario ran to the dry cleaners near his Northern Liberties workshop to see if a green stain would come out of his yellow linen jacket.

Feldman grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. L'Erario is a South Philly boy. Feldman did stand-up comedy for a while. L'Erario went to art school and still loves to paint.

They met in 1979 when both needed money and worked in construction.

"We started doing routines at work and cracked everybody up," said Feldman.

They became friends and eventually started separate businesses - Feldman fixing and reupholstering furniture for department stores, and L'Erario, a carpenter, designing and building restaurant and bar interiors.

Feldman started teaching classes in do-it-yourself furniture refinishing for the Mount Airy Learning Tree in 1985, and realized people enjoyed a little humor mixed in with their tacks and wood stain.

"I thought, nobody teaches this on television. They teach you how to make cheese," Feldman said.

Feldman pitched the idea of a funny how-to show to his pal L'Erario. Then Feldman's girlfriend (now his wife) pitched the idea to a friend who had a friend at WHYY-TV.

The folks there liked the idea and let the guys tape five segments in L'Erario's scruffy workshop. (L'Erario's business is called Refinishing by Vincent, even though L'Erario's name is Joe. He thought Vincent sounded classier.)

The WHYY people edited the segments down to five-minute spots and aired them between regular shows.

People loved them.

So, in 1989, the show was born.

"We became hot in Philadelphia," said Feldman, adding that viewers' letters to WHYY indicated their show was one of the seven most popular programs on Channel 12.

WHYY says it has produced 40 installments of Mend, 14 on its own and 26 with the Learning Channel, which started co-producing the program last year. Channel 12 probably will keep running some of those shows when the guys move to cable, and WHYY is looking into distributing existing episodes to other public stations.

Mend is on the Learning Channel at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, and three times on Saturdays: noon, 4:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

On Channel 12, the furniture guys go on at 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays and again at 8:30 p.m. Sundays, just after the far more serious do- it-yourself show This Old House. (You'd never catch master carpenter Norm Abram cracking wise about veneer.)

Feldman and L'Erario say they're leaving WHYY for wider exposure. Feldman said the Learning Channel had found the sponsors to beam the show from coast to coast and, well, "we want to be popular, very popular."

They seem to be on their way.

They are booked to do demonstrations at home shows across the country this winter. They'll be featured performers at the Philadelphia Home Show, Feb. 6, 7 and 8.

They are writing a book based on the show and plan to take walk-on parts in a Hollywood movie called Double Dragon. (It has big stars like George Hamilton and Vanna White.)

"It's a futuristic karate film. It's a movie based on a video game that was based on a comic book," said L'Erario.

Apparently the producer is a big fan of the furniture duo, and asked them to be in the film.

"It's based in L.A. of the future," said Feldman. "Half of L.A. has fallen into the ocean and there are earthquakes every day."

L'Erario finished the thought.

"Everyone jacks up their houses and we play these guys who own a company called Jack City," he said.

Feldman interrupted, quoting their movie script lines: "If you don't buy

from us, you don't know jack."

But back to their television show. The furniture funnymen will tape 26 new episodes beginning in March. The shows will start airing nationally on the Learning Channel in summer.

So between now and March they have to find 26 pieces of ailing furniture to mend. That's why they were visiting the field of battered bookcases and damaged desks in New Jersey.

After about 90 minutes of looking, the guys were more impressed with the auctioneer out in the field than the furniture planted there.

"He's really good," said Feldman, as he listened to the auctioneer's voice, rattling off numbers like a sewing-machine motor.

"I wonder how he is at home eating dinner," L'Erario said, with a sly grin.

Feldman couldn't pass up the straight line.

"Chicken, chicken, chicken, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes," Feldman said, imitating the auctioneer. "Do we have any peas, peas, peas, peas?"

They crack up.

Then L'Erario said the trip hadn't been a failure after all. He had an idea.

"Let's put the auctioneer on our show," he said.

Feldman loved it.

Yeah, they decided. They'd present the auctioneer doing his real job, but then at the end of the program they'd show him at home, drinking coffee.

Feldman mimicked the skit.

"He'd be there at his table pouring coffee saying, 'Coffee, coffee, coffee. One sugar, two sugars, three sugars.' "

They laughed at their own joke all the way home.

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