Touched by an Angel

The Trikilis brothers created the world's best-selling poster. It almost destroyed them.

Stinking Lizaveta Grog Shop Wednesday, August 3
It may be the most famous pinup poster of all time. Farrah Fawcett's smile is a row of impossibly white teeth so perfectly aligned they look machine-made, her hair a windblown blond tangle that swallows her slender hand.

Then there is her nipple: a salacious nub straining against the nylon of her red one-piece. Its appearance marked the advent of "nippling." Whenever a model applies ice to her breast before a photo shoot, she's paying homage to Farrah.

This was more than just a poster; it was an icon of its era, the image that crystallized the carefree sexuality of the anything-goes '70s.

For Farrah, of course, it helped launch a career. When the pinup was shot, she was not yet one of Charlie's Angels. She had turned heads in commercials for Noxzema and the Mercury Cougar, but she was best known in her role as the wife of The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors. The poster made her an It Girl. It sold more than 5 million copies -- making it the best-selling wall art of all time -- and forever imprinted Farrah on the libidinal subconscious of an entire generation of teenage boys.

For Mike and Ted Trikilis, the two Ohio brothers who created the pinup, it was the engine that powered a multimillion-dollar poster empire called Pro Arts Inc. Before Farrah, they were just a couple of college dropouts, trying to make a quick buck selling black-light posters to hippies at Kent State. After her, they became celebrities in their own right, star-makers whose services were highly sought by Hollywood. Ted was even crowned "King of the Posters" by The Washington Post.

"These people are looking for something more than just a pretty picture," he told the paper in an interview at a posh Beverly Hills restaurant, where he furiously munched peanuts by the handful. "This is something that lasts. I call it the mental bullet."

But while the image proved enduring, success did not. Farrah, of course, would eventually meet the fate of all aging beauties and become a fallen star, fodder for tabloids and rubbernecking snarks. The Trikilis brothers fared no better. They frittered away their fortune on bad business decisions and expensive lawsuits. It would cost them their business, their homes, and eventually, each other.

The epitaph on Nicholas Trikilis' tombstone is as true for his sons as it was for him: "A salesman's salesman who never quit." The son of a Greek immigrant, Nicholas sold houses to GIs returning to Parma during the housing boom. He was so good that developers couldn't keep up. "He sold himself right out of a job," Ted remembers.

Nicholas, along with his wife, Genevieve, raised Mike, Ted, and their sister, Paulette, in a comfortable, two-bedroom home behind a dry-cleaning business, just off Mahoning Avenue in Canton. Their childhood flickered by like the films at the matinee up the street, where they whiled away Saturday afternoons.

The Trikilis brothers grew into reflections of each other. They looked alike -- goofy kids with wide noses and thick brows behind professorial glasses -- but their personalities were opposite. Two and a half years older, Mike was an inveterate gambler with an explosive ego. Ted was calmer, with a more soulful disposition. He followed his brother everywhere, including to Kent State, where they would each drop out, just shy of completing their degrees.

In 1967, with the hippie movement in full swing and the Vietnam war growing unpopular, the Trikilis brothers opened a gallery and art-supply store, a lime-colored monstrosity called the Green Gas House. It was a humble operation, kept afloat only by Mike's uncanny knack for winning high-stakes poker games.

"I brutalized my mind, is what I did," Mike says, adding that he used to stand at a mirror every morning and hypnotize himself into winning. "For a long time, I thought that I was invincible."

Business picked up at the end of the year, when the brothers received a visit from a Chicago poster vendor. They purchased three cartons -- about 300 posters -- featuring antiwar slogans. When word got out on campus, the store was mobbed. "It was a madhouse," Ted recalls. Kids were buying posters faster than he could shelve them. Sensing they were onto something, Mike called Chicago. "Give me a dozen of what's hot and two dozen of what's really hot," he said.

"Everybody capitalizes on something," he recalls, "and it was for a good cause."

The brothers plowed profits back into the store, expanding into a larger facility in Medina. They rechristened the business Pro Arts, eschewing their hippie trappings for a more buttoned-down image. They touted Pro Arts as "Ohio's #1 Distributor of Youth-Oriented Posters" -- never mind that it was Ohio's only poster distributor. Along the way, they decided to cut out the middleman and manufacture the posters themselves.

To secure licenses for various celebrity likenesses, Ted would call Hollywood agents and guarantee a $6,000 return on every signed contract. It forced the brothers to keep sales brisk, but fattened the account folder. Before long, Pro Arts was producing posters featuring the stars of Kojak, Baretta, The Bionic Woman, and The Six Million Dollar Man. A poster of the Fonz sold more than a quarter-million copies -- enough to give Pro Arts a net worth of $90,000 in 1976 and secure the company's future.

But the path to success was cluttered with obstacles. The move to Medina cost $180,000. The brothers also had to take out a $100,000 loan for new printing machines, which turned out to be clunkers. Instead of cranking out the promised 900 posters an hour, they managed only 300, and of those, about one-third were misprints.

There were other missteps along the way. In 1969, Pro Arts capitalized on prevailing antiwar sentiment with a poster featuring a rainbow design, dubbed "Super Peace." Unbeknown to either of the brothers, the bearded, shaggy-haired Michigan hippie who'd designed the image was just a 16-year-old kid. A rival poster company snapped up the copyright from his parents and sent Pro Arts a cease-and-desist order. When all the legal wrangling was through, Pro Arts was out $33,000.

Still, by 1976, the Trikilis brothers presided over a modest empire of black-light posters and celebrity pinups. Ted and his wife, Io, owned a 57-acre farm in peaceful Westfield Township. They had no children. Mike, meanwhile, was well on his way to becoming a father of seven. He and his wife, Sandra, lived in Montville Township's exclusive Rustic Hills neighborhood.

That's when Farrah entered the picture.

Ted had never heard of Farrah Fawcett before that clear April afternoon when he was planting apple trees on his farm with his neighbor's son, Pat Partridge, a precocious Akron U student. During a lull in the digging, Partridge suggested that if he were running Pro Arts, he would make a poster of Farrah Fawcett.

"Who's Farrah Fawcett?" Ted asked, a question so ridiculous, it became a punch line on the Pro Arts floor.

Who was Farrah Fawcett? She was only the most beautiful girl in the world. She was the one in the Wella Balsam shampoo ads. In fact, Partridge was slightly chagrined to admit, the guys in his dorm were buying women's magazines just to get pictures of her. They papered their walls with her. Why, if someone was to put out a poster, they'd sell 1,000 copies in his dorm alone!

That night, Ted asked his wife if she'd heard of Farrah Fawcett. She certainly had. Io grabbed a magazine off the coffee table and flipped to one of Farrah's ads. She was pretty, wholesome, and blond. She was perfect.

That Monday, when Ted returned to work, he told Mike that they were going to produce a poster featuring Farrah Fawcett.

As if on cue, Mike asked, "Farrah who?"

After much explanation, Ted got on the phone to Rick Hersh, Farrah's agent, and pitched the idea. Hersh had just one question: "What type of product is Farrah to be selling on the poster?"

"We want to sell Farrah on the Farrah poster," Ted explained. She was selling herself.

It was an odd request, but Hersh agreed to bring it to Farrah.

A few days later, Hersh called back and accepted the proposal. Farrah thought the idea was "cute," he said.

Farrah suggested a photographer she knew. Ted made the arrangements.

Early in the summer of '76, Ted received a package containing 25 shots of Farrah in a red swimsuit. She marked her favorite with a star: gleaming teeth, windblown hair, and . . . her nipple.

Ted showed the photos around the office. Everyone had a different opinion about which one they should use. In the end, Ted went with the one Farrah had chosen. After all, who knew Farrah's assets better than Farrah herself?

Soon after the poster hit the streets, it became a sensation. Sales increased exponentially. Seven thousand in September. Fifteen thousand in October. Thirty thousand in November. In December, the poster started receiving national attention and sold half a million copies.

Pro Arts did $2 million in business that year, wild numbers for a mutated head shop. The next year, 1977, the company turned over its inventory 24 times, selling 3 million copies of the Farrah poster in February and March alone. The sales blitz netted $6 million in revenue, of which $1 million was pure profit.

It would later be dubbed "the Farrah Phenomenon." For her one-season run on Charlie's Angels, she was paid $5,000 an episode -- chicken feed, compared to the $400,000 she earned in royalties from the poster.

Ted -- who emerged as the face man for Pro Arts -- became a celebrity in his own right. He appeared on The Regis Philbin Show and was interviewed for a profile in Playgirl. Free Enterprise splashed his photo on its cover and called him "The Man Who Sold the Million Dollar Face."

"There's an old expression, 'A picture's worth a thousand words,'" says Ted. "And I said, 'A Pro Arts poster is worth 10 thousand.' That's what it came down to. We were the best."

June 1977 -- when the Farrah Phenomenon was at its zenith -- brought an ominous sign. Factors Inc., a rival poster maker, won the license to make posters of a sci-fi flick from Twentieth Century Fox. The movie was Star Wars, destined to become that summer's biggest hit -- not to mention a merchandising extravaganza.

Still, the Trikilis brothers had little cause for complaint. Just a few months earlier, they had secured their biggest order ever -- $400,000 for half a million posters -- from Kmart senior buyer Leo Corwin.

"He says to me, 'That's a pretty good order, isn't it?'" Ted recalls. "And to show that we weren't a small company, I said, 'Not bad.' Just like that! 'Not bad.' I couldn't wait to get on the phone and tell my brother."

The notoriety of the Farrah Phenomenon also attracted a slew of new celebrities to the Pro Arts stable. The company inked contracts with Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Cheryl Tiegs, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

It was around this time that Ted conceived of his Fifty Million Dollar Sales Project, a program whose ambition was as naked as its name was grand. It came as an epiphany: Posters weren't just a passing fad, as he'd once thought. They were a crucial part of the entertainment business, just like records, television, and movies. He crunched some numbers and realized that if Pro Arts could install 2,000 poster racks a year in retail stores, they could reach $50 million in annual sales within 5 years.

To Mike, ever the cynic, it was tilting at a giant windmill -- "the Fifty Million Dollar Chase," he called it. Still, he agreed that distribution was the key to success. The brothers struck a deal with Kmart to put poster racks in 1,800 of its stores. Pro Arts added rack-building to its business and started cranking out a hundred each week. In no time, the company built, shipped, and installed more than 5,000. "They were beautiful racks, like furniture, really," Mike says.

They came at a stiff price -- $600 each -- but the Trikilis brothers were unconcerned. They were distracted by a far shinier star: no less a personage than Elvis Presley, the King himself.

On Tuesday, August 16, 1977, the media trumpeted the news: The King Is Dead.

As a nation mourned, the Trikilis brothers saw dollar signs. Orders flooded the office; everyone wanted a commemorative poster. The brothers found a suitably regal shot of Elvis, clad in a white jumpsuit, on the cover of The Atlanta Journal and paid the photographer $2,500 for the copyright. Pro Arts accepted more than a million preorders and went to press.

But they acted too soon. Factors Inc., the company's old rival, had purchased all postmortem publicity rights from Elvis' estate in Memphis. The company sued Pro Arts and got an injunction. Of the 1 million posters already produced, 800,000 were returned. With nowhere to put them, Mike and Ted fed them to the trash compactor.

Pro Arts eventually won the Elvis case, but not before losing more than $1 million in sales and $150,000 on lawyers. The award from the case was a paltry $17,000 in damages.

By 1978, Mike had grown frustrated with his brother's handling of the sales department. Ted was too much of a dreamer, unsuited for the rough-and-tumble world of deal-making. "A person could be right -- 99 percent right -- just by saying no to 100 percent of his ideas," Mike says.

Meanwhile, the Kmart rack program was becoming a major drain on the company's resources. It had cost more than $3 million to set up, and sales didn't even begin to pay for it -- in part, because Kmart prudishly refused to carry a popular pinup of Morgan Fairchild in a swimsuit.

That wasn't the only problem. Ted had secured the rights to likenesses of the entire cast of Saturday Night Live. John Belushi's samurai, Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosannadanna, the Conehead Family -- they were all on board. Yet Pro Arts had not a single rack in New York. Lorne Michaels called to complain; cast members couldn't buy their own posters.

Pro Arts simply didn't have the personnel to service its many racks. When Ted visited several Kmarts and found competitors' posters mixed in with Pro Arts', he knew they were in trouble.

To solve the problem, Mike proposed an expansive dealership program. Each of the company's 30 sales reps would service racks in his own territory and take a cut of the profits.

It sounded good on paper, but Ted thought it would become a boondoggle. The high-powered reps could hardly be expected to waste their time on mom-and-pop stores when they had major accounts to manage. Worse, Mike expected them to pay for the privilege -- upwards of $10,000, with no promise of a return.

"The logic behind it was totally irrational," Ted says.

Despite those objections, Mike was scheduled to pitch his program to the reps at a sales meeting in Chicago in January 1979. But a blizzard grounded his flight. Ted would have to sell the plan in his stead.

Ted says he made a good-faith effort, but the reps rejected the proposal. When Mike heard the news, he accused his brother of sabotaging the idea.

After that, Mike grew increasingly prickly. He picked fights with Ted over trivial matters, often calling him on the carpet in front of employees.

By March 30, 1979, Ted had endured enough. He tendered his resignation from the company he'd helped build. "I decided to leave the company, rather than tear it apart," Ted says.

Two months later, Pro Arts was foundering. Sales were stagnant, and the slow summer season was upon them. Several members of Pro Arts' board of directors approached Ted and asked him to come back to lead the company. He had little choice -- his family's asssets were tied up in Pro Arts --so he accepted and became the company's president.

After that, Mike checked out. The only thing he seemed to work on was his golf game.

Soon after, Pro Arts came tumbling down. In June 1981, Kmart began shipping racks back and deducting the postage from the half-million in outstanding fees it still owed Pro-Arts. At the same time, Pro Arts was suffering under the rising inflation that was putting many family farms out of business. The company had close to $2 million in outstanding bank loans, and the interest rates spiraled from 7 to 24 percent, seemingly overnight.

"We had a huge monster, and we didn't have enough to feed it," Ted says.

That year, Pro Arts filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For a short time, it attempted to settle up by continuing to operate with a court-appointed board of directors. But the plan didn't work. By 1984, liquidation was the only option. Pro Arts had to pay with its Medina factory, its equipment, and ultimately Mike and Ted's houses.

Mike blames the collapse on his brother. The rack-service problem was within months of being solved, he says, before Ted came back and took over the company.

"He was the most stupid person, most unappreciative person, I've met in my life, by far," Mike says. "I wasted my life with this guy."

For his part, Ted resists the urge to point fingers, but says Mike suffers from delusions about Pro Arts' downfall.

"His reaction would be that everyone except him was responsible for putting Pro Arts out of business," Ted says.

The brothers have barely spoken since.

If the brothers fell from great heights, they landed in their own private rabbit holes.

Ted was able to stay in his house after foreclosure. His mother-in-law bought the place and agreed to rent it to him and Io.

He began investigating the details of Pro Arts' bankruptcy and saw endless corruption. He came to believe that Pro Arts was the victim of a vast conspiracy, involving inept judges, bloodsucking lawyers, shady investors, and other crooked characters.

It wasn't an altogether strange reaction for someone who's gone through bankruptcy, but Ted took it to extremes.

When Pro Arts went into Chapter 11, about 600 creditors filed claims. Ted says that the court illegally mixed them with fraudulent bills from the company's original stockholders and its former copyright attorney.

In total, he perceived at least 2,000 counts of fraud in his case. Those, plus a string of illegal bank transfers, screwed him out of everything, he says.

He compares the bankruptcy to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Pro Arts was a big, fat marlin, he says, and the sharks of the legal profession stripped the carcass to its bones.

"I used to get so frustrated at these guys constantly wheeling and dealing and changing the program that I actually went out sometimes by myself in the plant and literally had to scream to relieve the tension," he recalls.

Ted sued the court-appointed board of directors, the Medina County Prosecutor's Office, the local bank that foreclosed on the company, his own bankruptcy attorney, and others, variously accusing them of fraud and bribery.

The facts of the case are endlessly convoluted, with years of complex history behind them. But during seven years of litigation, Ted made the names and numbers his best friends.

Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed.

Ted turned to his pen for justice. He lashed out at his persecutors in a 174-page, self-published book titled The Unindicted. It's a rambling treatise that concludes with Ted's "final testament" to the Pro Arts chapter of his life.

"This book will shorten my having to tell and retell the story of the company that manufactured the Farrah Fawcett poster," he wrote. "It is for the entrepreneur waiting to be born and the achiever waiting to become successful."

Meanwhile, Mike's family life disintegrated along with Pro Arts.

His pillared colonial in Montville Township was a wreck, its walls riddled with holes, the carpet stained beyond repair. His children ran wild in the well-to-do neighborhood, often passing out in nearby yards, says retired Montville Township Police Chief Michael Sailer.

"The neighbors weren't very happy with them," he says. "They were just a pain in the neck."

But Mike didn't see officers doing their duty. It was undue harassment, he says.

The situation exploded in May 1984. Mike and Sandra had stopped sending the kids to school, and it didn't take long for the child-welfare department to intervene. When a crew of cops showed up to take the kids, they also served a warrant on Sandra, who was to be transported to Fallsview Psychiatric Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls for a mental evaluation.

"She was swinging at us with one of those little sickle bars," recalls Medina County Sheriff's Sergeant Ralph Stanley. "It was broken, and she didn't hit any of us, but she was telling us she didn't want to go."

On that day, when Mike saw his children "kidnapped" and his wife "hog-tied," he became convinced that the cops were conspiring against his family.

Pro Arts was forgotten, and the name "Trikilis" came to mean something else in Medina County. Any lawman summoned to what was ominously dubbed "The Trikilis Compound" got an earful about crooked justice.

"In any community, if you talk to any law enforcement agency, there's always a family or a name that when it goes out over the police radio, it's like 'Here we go again,'" says Lieutenant John Detchon of the Medina County Sheriff's Office.

From 1986 to the present, at least 52 violations were filed against the family -- a library of nickel-and-dime offenses, ranging from disorderly conduct to seat-belt violations.

Mike's kids came to share their father's conspiracy theory. When Theodore, Mike's third-oldest son, was busted while running through traffic, he told the arresting officer that police "who walk around with gold and guns" were the cause of all the family's troubles.

Mike was proud that his children followed in his rabble-rousing footsteps. "I always wanted my kids to turn out just like me," he says. "Never kissed anybody's ass, never worked for anybody."

It all came to a head in 2003. Undercover agents had been monitoring the frequent visits Mike's youngest son, George, was making to known drug houses. When they caught him and his brother Nick on tape, dealing marijuana and anabolic steroids, they pinned both with indictments. Nick went to trial on the charges, was found guilty, and did six months.

For George, justice wasn't so simple. In a series of bizarre events after his indictment, he trespassed at the garage of one federal agent and placed harassing phone calls to another. When arrested, he tore his jail cell apart, wore the smoke detector as a hat, and said it was the only thing protecting him. Police opened the door to restrain him, and George lowered his head, charged forward, and speared the booking officer. Two officers were hospitalized; one didn't return to work for a week.

Prosecutors offered George a two-year plea deal, but he insisted on going to trial and defending himself. Jurors spent weeks listening to elaborate tales of conspiracy and abuse of power. But the highlight came when Mike testified in his son's defense.

As he stood up, Mike fumbled with a copy of Hornswoggle, a board game he had invented to parody the legal profession. He tried and failed to prop it up on the defense table, at which point the judge warned him to put it away. But the jurors no doubt got a good look at the cover, which depicted Mike in judge's robes, sitting on the bench in a pose of thoughtful contemplation.

Once Mike was on the stand, George asked his father to state his name.

"The Honorable Mike P. Trikilis," he answered.

And his occupation?

"Inventor of the old legal game, Hornswoggle," he said.

In short order, the jurors found George guilty on all counts. The judge gave him nine years.

"I think they wanted a show," says Medina Attorney Jim Ciccolini, a court-appointed attorney who helped George with his defense. "I don't think they wanted the show to end."

Arriving for a recent interview at a Strongsville coffee shop, Mike tosses a half-smoked Pall Mall to the pavement as he approaches the front door.

The man who credits Pro Arts' success solely to himself can still bullshit with the best of them. He grins, laughs, and playfully bops your arm with the back of his hand. He delights in talking about the time he went to Vegas and won $31,000 in a weeklong gin-rummy bender.

"These guys played for $5 a point!" he exclaims.

It's only when he gets started on the collapse of the company that his charm disappears. Mike's face twists. A smoker's growl rumbles up from his belly. All 150 pounds of him collect in a pair of gesticulating hands that look as if they could split wood. He swears that he never should have trusted Ted.

"It was the fatal mistake of my life," he says, seething.

More than once, his story lifts him to his feet, one accusing finger wagging in front of him. The others in the coffee shop pretend not to notice.

Three hours pass, and Mike has only gotten to the Pro Arts bankruptcy. The story stalls out. What's left is "crap," he announces. And so was George's trial, he says -- the sheriff's office erased crucial videotapes of the fight in jail.

He rises for the last time and lifts a cigarette to his mouth. "You need anything else, you got my number," he says.

Farrah's fortunes plummeted along with those of the men who helped make her famous. After storybook romances with Lee Majors and Ryan O'Neal, she fell for James Orr, a man who would later be convicted of slamming her head into the ground and choking her.

After 20 years of saying no, Farrah finally agreed to a Playboy photo shoot and revealed the nipple made famous in her celebrated pinup. A subsequent video, in which she twirled her hair and talked about her insecurity with her body -- "I don't like my hair . . . if I keep talking, I'll cry!" -- cemented her reputation as a flake.

Two years later, she posed for Playboy again, this time rolling around in paint and claiming to be an artist. A promotional interview with David Letterman, in which Farrah seemed spaced out on drugs, became, as one critic described it, "one of the most infamous train-wreck appearances in talk-show history."

Of late, Farrah has joined the long line of washed-up celebrities seeking the redemptive cure of reality TV. This year saw the debut of Chasing Farrah, a TV Land series that promised "a brutally honest look at the real woman behind the icon." It garnered mostly poor reviews.

But her return to public life has got Ted thinking about cashing in one last time.

After writing The Unindicted, Ted again turned his attention to business, He raised $5,000 and started an air-purifier factory, Aran Aqua Pollution Control Systems, at Chippewa Lake.

His basement office is as big as a two-car garage. From a desk in the corner, an avalanche of paperwork cascades below a faded poster of Farrah. Ponderous and heavy-fisted, Ted wears rainbow suspenders over a blue T-shirt.

He says he still owns the rights to the famous Farrah poster, and he's thinking about auctioning it off on eBay, with a starting bid of $250,000. "It's the best-known copyright in the world!" Ted boasts, ever the salesman.

Yet when he's asked about Farrah the woman -- not Farrah the Poster, or Farrah the Phenomenon, but Farrah the woman -- Ted has surprisingly little to say.

"She seems like a nice person," he offers. "I never met her."

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