It's a chilly autumn day, and Martha Wyers is shuffling slowly around the roof of her Lakeview apartment building, her hands clenched. She's wearing a maroon sweatshirt with gold letters that read "In the Meantime...
Keep On Going!" "Yep, that's my motto and whatnot," Wyers says without stopping her laps. "Keep on going, I've got to keep on going." She's five-foot-three and very thin, with a pageboy haircut, dyed bright red. She draws thick purple brows above her eyes, which are wide and icy blue. Her voice is low and raspy. She's 99 years old.
Locals would probably recognize Wyers as the Bed Mart lady from the TV commercial. She's also prominently featured on a Bed Mart billboard on Clybourn just north of North Avenue. "It's a terrible-looking thing," she says. "It's terrible, just awful. The first time I saw it, I didn't know whether I liked it or not. After all, my nose was eight feet long. I think they put too many wrinkles on my face, and that hair looked like it was chopped off. That billboard makes me look like a little old lady, which I guess I am. In reality, I'm a vivacious-looking redhead. But that's publicity."
Wyers moves her arms around in the air like a windmill. She repeats this 20 times. "I figured these exercises out myself," she says. "Only I know what exercises I can most benefit from. This is why I do my own kind of exercises instead of going out someplace else. That takes care of the muscles in my whole body. That's what keeps me going. In the meantime, you can't stay inside the whole time, because if you sit inside and look at television or something, then you get goofy. Then you're not here anymore. So in the meantime, I've gotta keep active. I do whatever I can possibly do."
As she says this Wyers lies flat on the ground, puts her hands at her sides, draws her knees up, arches her back, and flings her legs over her head. She repeats this 20 times. "That," she says, "was difficult."
Wyers began her acting career eight years ago, when a neighbor, Scott Cleator, met her on the rooftop. He was sunning with friends, and she was exercising. "She'd start telling us stories, just animated kidding around, just your day-to-day doings. The way she'd talk to us, she'd have us rolling on the floor," Cleator says. "We started joking, and we said, 'You should get into commercials, Mar.' We were all thinking of Clara Peller and the success that she'd had with 'Where's the beef?' She was this tiny little lady with a big voice and the whole bit." Cleator started taking pictures of her, and they eventually secured an agent.
She was cast in a commercial for Coast soap that never aired; then she got the Bed Mart commercial, beating out 45 other women for the part. She's also an extra in the upcoming remake of Miracle on 34th Street. Auditioning, though, makes her tense. "You don't know really what to be, you don't know whether to let out all the experience that you've had or to tell them that you've had no experience at all," she says. "You don't know how to act and how to address these things. I had one audition, for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and they said I was too professional. Can you believe this?"
Wyers grew up in Minnesota, studied English and fashion design at Washington University in Saint Louis, and first came to Chicago sometime before World War II. She got a job designing for a clothing manufacturer downtown, where she met a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. Eventually she went to work for Saks, first as a salesperson and later as manager of the lingerie department. Over the course of her 20 years there her customers included Shirley Temple, Margaret O'Brien, Jack Benny, Mary Livingston, and the Marx Brothers. "All of these actors I've grown up with are all dead now," she says.
She's been living in the same studio apartment since the 1950s. The apartment is cluttered with Dresden china and knickknacks, including a Barbie doll, a windup Godzilla toy, and a wooden troll with a label that says "World's Greatest Drinker." She keeps four cockatoos in two separate cages. When she retired in 1964, at age 69, "I didn't know what to do," she says. Until the acting thing came along, her obsession seems to have been with being an election judge: she volunteered over a period of 12 years under the late Mayor Daley.
Her dream, she says, is to make a national commercial, just like Clara Peller. "You've gotta be in the public. I've been in the public all of my life. This is why I'm making commercials. I'll make a movie once in a while if somebody wants me; I'll go on radio once in a while. If I get a chance to get on any one of the stations, I'll do it, no matter what it takes. So get out of my way! I'm coming!"
Wyers holds her hands above her face and brings her knees close to her chest. Then she extends her knees and begins moving them furiously, like she's pedaling a bicycle. She moves her hands in syncopation. She does this 20 times for each leg. "See, when you keep doing this, you develop a tolerance," she says, huffing a little. "If I don't do this stuff every single day, my body gets stiff, and my muscles get stiff. At my age, 99, naturally your muscles are going to get limp, they're not strong anymore, and your blood isn't circulating the way it should anymore. In the meantime, I could sit around here and let myself get old and limp and not be active and whatnot."
She finishes her bicycling and sits up. "Now that," she says, "was strenuous. But I did it, I did it!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.