How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Much Is That Trolley In The Window?

The mid-1970's was not a good time to be looking for work on Madison Avenue. Especially for a 35-year-old with no New York agency experience. But there I was, with a portfolio of clever ads for small clients, and a reel with a couple of good Dairylea commercials.

As Sevan and I walked around the upper East Side of Manhattan, we'd often pass a small storefront whose window was filled with “junk sculpture.” There was one especially clever piece that caught my eye – a trolley. Sevan promised to buy it for me as a reward when – and if – I found a job. She was a very organized, very busy woman in a high pressure job, and she was getting tired of having an unemployed housemate who didn't have come anywhere near to matching her drive and ambition.

I did what I could to get interviews, but they were few and far between, and none of them led to employment. I started helping out at Sevan's office, a glorified gofer assigned some of the routine tasks. And some not so routine.

Rock & Roll Revival

Flirting with Fame

It was the TV production company's chance at the big time. It was my chance to work on location with some of the rock 'n' roll stars from my teen years.

In the 1970's, the ABC TV network was trying to compete with NBC's dynamite Tonight Show ratings with a 90-minute variety show format called ABC's Wide World of Entertainment. (It worked for Wide World of Sports, the thinking went, so...)

ABC approved and bought shows from independent producers, and the owner of the production company where Sevan worked had lots of big ideas. One was a salute to burlesque. I thought it was a good idea, and so did the queen of the strippers, Ann Corio. Sevan's boss asked me to write a modern comedy sketch, based on the “wise guy & sexy girl” comedy routines that filled in the gaps between strippers' acts in the old days. I based it on a major theme of the day, Women's Liberation, using double entendres such as “standing up for women.” Corio liked it. ABC didn't.

One of the ideas ABC did buy was a rock 'n' roll revival show put together by promoter Richard Nadar. The plan was to videotape the live performance of 50's rock stars at the Arena Stage near Washington, DC, and mix it with rehearsal footage for an “inside look.”

Since I had some experience in rock 'n' roll radio, I was hired to be a sort of production assistant/gofer. It was a great opportunity for me. First, I was given some taped radio interviews, a razor blade, splicing tape and a splicing block, and told to create some memorable sound bites for possible use in the show.

They were used effrectively in the transitions between rehearsal footage and live performances.

On location, I was assigned to carry a microphone on a pole and wander backstage with a cameraman the mic was attached to, capturing behind-the-scene moments with the stars. We happened to be near the entrance when Little Richard showed up, his head wrapped in a turban. He asked if this was some other show. I told him no, it was ABC's Wide World of Entertainment. With that knowledge, he grinned into the camera and ad libbed a line that ended up being used before the standard ABC opening.

Well,” he mugged, “I've been around the world, and I'm wide!” I'm not sure anybody knew exactly what he meant, but it cleared the censors.

We intruded on the Shirelles while they were rehearsing in their dressing room, where one of the three, the heaviest one, as I recall, made eyes at me. The Dovells were cooperative, as were most of the other acts, with one exception: Chubby Checker wouldn't come out of his dressing room or let us in.

We watched them rehearse with the pick-up band, and to my surprise, when Little Richard was finished rehearsing his act, he took a few more minutes to sit at the piano, and he sang the most heartfelt rendition of “I Can't Get No Satisfaction,” full of spirit and soul and sadness. We all lamented the fact that the public didn't get to hear what he could really do with it. I felt privileged, having known that he had that ability, long before a lot of other people discovered it.

The night before the show, we gathered in a hotel room with the Dovells for a pre-production meeting, deciding which camera would be on what performer during each line of their songs, and it turned into a sort of live karaoke session, with printed lyrics and all of the production crew singing “Bristol Stomp” with the actual performers.

For the taping of the live show, I was assigned to carry cable -- to keep it out of the way -- for one of the cameramen. For this videotaping, each camera was connected to its own video recorder in a van, so that everything each camera shot was on its own tape. The mixing and editing would all be done in post production.

Since the show was in the round, each camera could circle the entire stage, getting great angles and, occasionally, catching each other on tape. The camera whose cable I was carrying would catch each act as they came down the aisle and ascended the stage. When the Shirelles went up the stairs, that cute, chubby one winked at me and said, lasciviously, “How come you didn't come back to my dressing room?”

At the time, I thought she meant it, and that I had missed out on an intimate backstage story. Oh, well.

After the show, somebody's reputation must have caught up with him, because the tapes were not allowed to leave the premises until the Arena Theater's bill was paid. It actually got to the point of drawn guns. Either the bill was paid or someone talked the situation down, because we eventually left with the tapes, and the director edited them into a terrific ninety-minute show, with some interesting juxtapositions of rehearsal footage we captured and background audio comments I selected blending into the actual performances.

If you ever get a chance to see the show, which I'm hoping will show up up on youtube, or at the Paley Center for Media, look for a quick shot of a bearded cable carrier, beaming like a man propositioned by a Shirelle, and trying to get out of the shot.

My Not So Brilliant Career as a NY Producer

You can fool some of the agency people some of the time.

The summer of 1975 was a busy time at the production company Sevan worked at. Every producer and director had an assignment, and then it happened -- another job came in. It was a fairly big one, an opportunity to work with one of Colgate-Palmolive's agencies on a denture cleanser commercial. Not something you want to turn down.

While looking for agency work, I was just hanging around my girl friend's office, doing odd jobs, such as tearing off individual sheets of toilet paper, counting them and stacking them for a Cottonelle commercial. Someone figured I could handle the production details on the Colgate job, which included finding & shooting locations -- a drug store and a hotel room. The hotel room had already been selected.

Because it was up to me, I chose a drug store two blocks from the apartment I shared with Sevan, a real producer. After all, it would be an early start, so all I'd have to do is get out of bed and walk two blocks to work. The day before the shoot, I was handed an envelope full of twenties, “for emergencies,” I was told. I made sure I had the wad with me the next day.

I didn't know what emergencies might arise, but I sure felt ready with a couple of hundred dollars to spend as I deemed necessary.

New York City has a special police division for commercials and movies. You get a permit, tell them where to put the no parking signs for the next day, and it's done. Or so I thought. I got the permit, notified the proper people, and expected to find nobody parked where the location vehicles were supposed to be -- right in front of the drug store.

Wrong. No signs had been placed, so no parking spaces were vacant. When the van pulled up, I had the driver park on the sidewalk. I soon found out what a no-no that was. The police showed up in what seemed like seconds, to tell me that was illegal. I showed them the permit, they managed to get cars moved in record time, and the shoot went on as scheduled.

The policeman in charge put out his hand, I shook it, thanked him and went about my business.

During the shoot, the store manager came over to me, introduced himself and stuck his hand out. I shook it, thanked him and went about my business.

When I returned to the production company offices at the end of the day, I handed back the cash, in its entirety. The director looked at me, looked at the cash, then broke into a hearty laugh.

Every time I see her, she still talks about the location shoot I produced where people with their hands out only got them shook. Even in my thirties, I was so naive, I didn't know that everybody was expecting a little “under the table” cash.

The commercials came out fine and ran on the network news programs. But nobody has ever asked me to produce a New York location shoot since.

The Beauty Pageant

Why they don't call it a Brain Pageant.

I don't remember how I got connected to a free lance job as a writer of a beauty pageant, but it seemed like a good gig at the time. It was for a local independent Manhattan TV station, WPIX I think, and it was a location job – at one of the old Catskill Resorts – where the “Borscht Belt” comedians got their start.

A couple of days in the Catskills, interviewing beauty contestants, writing profiles and interesting bits for the emcee. One more kind of writing I never did before, but it was free room and board, a few bucks and an onscreen writing credit. What could go wrong, right?

First thing that went wrong: I wrote an opening monologue for the emcee, Dick Shawn. If you're a Mel Brooks fan, you'll remember him as the actor in “The Producers” who plays a hippie Hitler in the play within the movie “Springtime For Hitler,” turning the “Heil” salute into the first ever “high five.”

Shawn saw my first draft of the monologue and bowed out of the job. Whether or not it was my fault, he is quoted on as saying “I can't work places like Vegas or the Catskills where people are belching. Maybe I belong in colleges. At least if I die, I die in front of intelligent people who know what I'm talking about.”

Eerily, years later he literally did die in front of an audience, in the eighties, and because his act was so spontaneous, weird and funny, everyone thought it was part of his act. Always leave 'em laughing.

Another thing that went wrong: the dress of the bimbo who bumped and ground across the stage to deliver the judges' results was so revealing, the director had to avoid shots of her bending over to pick up the score sheets, or WPIX might have had the first “wardrobe malfunction.”

Oh, and the day before the taping, there were the personal interviews I conducted with the contestants. The producers and I were set up in an office, and the young women would come in, one by one. I would explain that I wanted to get some background information for the banter part of the show.

The contestants were obviously well-coached on how to walk, dress and apply make-up. But thinking was not part of the curriculum. One pretty young thing came in, and I invited her to sit down. She said she preferred to stand. I said okay, explained what the interview was for, and asked her to tell me something about herself. She said, “Well, I've been dancing since I was three.”

I said, in my best Groucho style, “Then you better sit down, you must be tired.”

She declined again, and by the blank look on her face, I knew that she would never understand why the producers were laughing.

Next time: Boy gets job and trolley, loses girl.

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