“Happy holidays, Rita!”
That cheery greeting is as much of a media signifier for local holidays as the Eat’n’ Park star. It’s from the seasonal Pennsylvania Lottery television commercial that’s been running, in one form or another, for almost 30 years. The sharp-eyed among us noticed a reboot starting about nine years ago: same shots—choir, newsstand, guy handing out tickets—but different people.
The commercial was re-made in 2012 in a high definition, widescreen format better suited to 21st century flat screens, according to lottery officials. The role of Joe, the friendly dispenser of scratch-offs, was taken over by Vanderbilt Drive resident Harry Gerhardt.
“If I was going to get one commercial, I’d want it to be this one,” Gerhardt said, noting its potential longevity, and the fact that he gets paid every time it airs.
But it’s far from the only commercial he’s done. Gerhardt, a 1971 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, majored in theater at Point Park College, now University. But instead of pursuing an acting career, Gerhardt joined his father’s business, selling industrial supplies to school districts and municipalities.
“I found out I was pretty good at selling stuff, and I thought, ‘Why would I want to be a starving actor?’” he recalled.
But right around when Gerhardt turned 40, with a wife, two sons and a successful business, the acting bug bit again. He auditioned and won roles in community productions, at Little Lake Theater, the Jewish Community Center and the New Works Festival. He had a couple of small parts in plays at City Theatre and Pittsburgh Public Theater. Then Gerhardt was cast in a Neil Simon play at South Park Theater and like in a Hollywood movie, he was discovered by a local agent.
Eventually, Gerhardt was getting several jobs a month. He appeared in enough local and national commercials that he was required to join the Screen Actors Guild. He was featured on a billboard for Kings Family Restaurants. He did voiceover work, a couple of independent movies and “tons” of industrial training films.
“I was a construction worker a few times. I got to sit on a bulldozer,” he recalled. As he got a little older, he said, “I played a heart patient.”
Gerhardt noted that in the last few years, advertising agencies and production companies have preferred to cast real patients in their drug commercials. “Now my agent emails me to ask if I’m on a certain medication before they send me to an audition. So much for HIPAA laws.”
But the lottery spot was a coup, and Gerhardt worked hard for it. “It’s very competitive,” he noted. To gain an advantage, he wore a sports jacket he had that looked a lot like the one worn by the original Joe, along with a red tartan scarf.
It worked: After several auditions, Gerhardt got the part. “When my agent called, I had just played the Powerball. I was backing out from some place on Painters Run,” he recalled.
Then it was on to Philadelphia to film the commercial—on a warm October evening, with Gerhardt in a long winter coat, scarf and gloves. Just like the 1992 version, the commercial starts with Joe pushing open a couple of windows and looking out on a faux snowy scene.
The windows were pretty low. “I had to practically do a split to get down far enough to open them,” Gerhardt recalled. “Me with two artificial hips.” They got the shot in 10 or 15 takes, he said.
His commercial work started to slow down as he approached age 60, Gerhardt said. “Then the last two years with COVID, it’s pretty much died.”
He still does auditions and the occasional job. With the pandemic, auditions are mostly DIY, digitally recorded and submitted via email. “The convenience is nice, but I would prefer to go to my agent’s office,” Gerhardt said. “Sometimes they’d give you pointers, and that was helpful.”
As he waits for commercial production to pick up, he continues to work his day job. And each holiday season, he puts on his jacket and scarf and visits his clients, distributing Pennsylvania Lottery scratch-off tickets.
“My customers get a kick out of it,” he noted. Appropriately enough, he even had a customer named Rita.