'Mr. Magic Fingers' made history, but not in his adopted hometown of Fort Pierce | Opinion

John Houghtaling was never a household name.

In Fort Pierce, the town he adopted late in life, there are no streets, parks, or community centers named in his honor.

There's no file on him at the St. Lucie County Regional History Center.

Mayor Linda Hudson had never even heard of him.

"I am not familiar with that name. Regretfully," she emailed in response to an inquiry I made last month.

But there was a time when Houghtaling's invention — the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed — was a popular perk for America's traveling public.

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This Aug. 9, 2007, file photo shows John Joseph Houghtaling, inventor of the " Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed" aboard his 52-foot yacht in Fort Pierce. Houghtaling died in Ft. Pierce June 17, 2009. He was 92. ( AP Photo/Paul J. Milette, The Palm Beach Post)
(Photo: Paul J. Milette, AP)
This Aug. 9, 2007, file photo shows John Joseph Houghtaling, inventor of the " Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed" aboard his 52-foot yacht in Fort Pierce. Houghtaling died in Ft. Pierce June 17, 2009. He was 92. ( AP Photo/Paul J. Milette, The Palm Beach Post) (Photo: Paul J. Milette, AP)

The invention was immortalized in movies and song. It was such a cultural touchstone that references to it cropped up everywhere, including a 2009 televised interview Fox News Channel's Brit Hume conducted with former presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.

During their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the vibrating beds were considered prized amenities in hotel rooms across the country, along with color televisions and heated pools.

For the meager price of one quarter, the beds promised a quarter hour of "tingling relaxation and ease."

As a kid growing up during that era, I viewed those vibrating beds as the height of luxury. (Although, to be fair, I also thought the same thing about waterbeds until I actually tried to sleep in one.)

Until very recently, I wasn't aware Houghtaling had lived the final years of his life on the Treasure Coast.

According to his obituary in TCPalm, Houghtaling moved to the Sunrise City in 2002. He died seven years later, at age 92.

"It was probably the most enjoyable time in his later years," Paul Houghtaling, one of his four sons, said of the inventor's stint in Fort Pierce.

John Houghtaling was a native of Kansas City, Missouri. He didn't graduate from college and, according to his son, barely made it out of high school. He served as a crew member on 20 combat missions flown by B-17 aircraft during World War II.

He spent part of his career as a salesman, hawking products like Saladmaster cookware, Nutrilite vitamins and supplements, and a type of vibrating bed that predated his own invention.

Paul Houghtaling, who lives in Erie, Colorado, said his father's innovation was designing vibrating boxes that could be easily attached to any regular mattress, providing a low-cost alternative to their clunky predecessors.

John Houghtaling came up with that invention in the basement of his home in Glen Rock, New Jersey, in 1958. And the rest, as they say, is history.

At one point, there were more than 100 dealers peddling the Magic Fingers beds across the country. About 250,000 beds were in use during the peak of their popularity.

Jimmy Buffett, the legendary songwriter with ties to Florida, referenced the beds in his song, "This Hotel Room."

"Put in a quarter, turn out the light," Buffett sang. "Magic Fingers makes ya feel all right."

The beds were also fodder for a few jokes.

One famously malfunctioned in "National Lampoon's Vacation," leading to an awkward scene where the Griswold children encounter their parents in a very compromising position.

In "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," dim witted Del irritates straightlaced Neal by setting beer cans on a Magic Fingers vibrating bed, causing them to explode in a sudsy mess.

And in an episode of "The X-Files," Mulder falls asleep on Scully's bed as she laments: "I just put money in the Magic Fingers."

Paul Houghtaling said his dad was perfectly willing to take those humorous barbs lying down.

"He was fine with it," Paul Houghtaling said. "He didn't care. He thought it was free advertising."

John Houghtaling moved his family and his company to South Florida in 1968. He eventually sold the rights to the Magic Fingers Vibrating Beds to another company, but continued to sell coin-operated devices like scales and pulse monitors until his retirement in the 1980s.

Paul Houghtaling said moving to Fort Pierce allowed his father to fulfill one of his retirement dreams.

"He wanted to live on a boat," Paul Houghtaling said. "At that point, the Fort Pierce City Marina allowed live-aboards."

Dean Kubitschek, the marina's longtime manager, recalled John Houghtaling was a tenant there, although he couldn't remember much else about him.

Paul Houghtaling said his father especially enjoyed hanging out in a tiki bar at the marina.

"He loved being on the water," Paul Houghtaling said. "He liked the small-town marina. He just liked the community."

Then along came Hurricane Frances, a 2004 storm that caused heavy damage to the marina and destroyed about 170 boats moored there.

John Houghtaling rode out the storm at a local hotel room (not sure if it had a Magic Fingers bed or not), while his houseboat, a 52-foot Bluewater named "Magic Fingers," could be seen on television news coverage from the harbor prior to the storm's arrival. After the storm, "Magic Fingers" was gone.

"They never found his boat," Paul Houghtaling said. "It's probably in the Intracoastal under a pile of sand."

John Houghtaling remained in Fort Pierce after losing his boat, living in a couple of different places before dying of a brain hemorrhage in 2009.

Houghtaling died the same year as singer Michael Jackson and politician Ted Kennedy, although the inventor's passing drew considerably less attention.

Although John Houghtaling was largely ignored while living in Fort Pierce, it's not too late to honor his memory.

Fort Pierce is planning to rename Jaycee Park, which is located across the Intracoastal Waterway from Houghtaling's old home in Fort Pierce City Marina.

The city is also preparing for the development of King's Landing, a mixed-use project downtown that includes a hotel as its centerpiece.

TCPalm columnist Blake Fontenay
TCPalm columnist Blake Fontenay

How fitting it would be to name the access road leading to the hotel after a man whose work could once be found in hotel rooms throughout the country.

Although Paul Houghtaling said his father wasn't one to seek out publicity, he said it would be "cool" to have some type of memorial in Fort Pierce.

I agree. It's the very least Fort Pierce leaders could do to give the man known as "Mr. Magic Fingers" a fair shake.

This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him via email at blake.fontenay@tcpalm.com or at 772-232-5424.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Vibrating bed's inventor lived in obscurity in Fort Pierce | Opinion