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 2, 2010

Take Me Back

Before I take you back to the late 1960's when I was making Dairylea commercials and putting the make on the girl with the face of an Irish Catholic virgin, I'd like to offer my critique of a current TV campaign that in style is taking you back even earlier.

I'm referring to the new Toyota Avalon commercials, which are using music, fashion, color and style that recall the fifties and early sixties.

I'm hearing “A Summer Place” and “Mr. Sandman,” seeing women dressed in airline stewardess costumes of the era, a man in an usher's uniform and another with his hair well combed and greased.

Yes, the influence of “Mad Men” strikes again. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. For many, many years, I've had a professional ad man's opinion of Toyota as a company that made great cars and ordinary, forgettable and sometimes downright awful commercials.

Having owned an old, used and seemingly indestructible Camry wagon in the past, I chalked it up to Toyota putting all their creativity into their cars, and letting commercials just sit there and remind you of the brand.

But with the recent revelations and massive recalls, it's strange to me that all of a sudden, they're putting so much creativity into their commercials. It's sort of a reversal of what's gone before.

With their problems of uncontrolled acceleration, I thought it was strange that Toyota was retaining their corporate end line – the two word theme that signs all their advertising. Now, with this series of retro commercials for Avalon, I find it doubly strange that the spots end with “Moving forward.”

And now, back to my past, picking up where I left off with Andrea, and getting down to work, if work is what you call the fun of making advertising.

Later That Night

In Andrea's Apartment

After picking up the young girl with the face of an Irish Catholic virgin – or, more accurately, being picked up by her – I drove her to her apartment in Albany. It's of no significance, except to comment on my ability to remember insignificant details, that her “pad” was in a building that was later torn down to make way for a YMCA. Funny what you remember.

It was one of those high-ceilinged places, furnished with somebody's cast-off furniture. There was even a poster of Mao on the wall.

She put on a Moody Blues album, I sat in an old arm chair, she sat at my feet. We looked into each other's eyes and smiled and laughed.

I had one thought: “I'm going to get laid outside of marriage for the first time.”

I told her to sit on my lap. We kissed. I reached under her blouse and started petting.

There was no response. I put my lips to hers, and there was no response.

She was asleep.

I called her name. Nothing. Again, a little louder. And again, louder still. Nothing.

I sat there, with her on my lap, and all of a sudden she seemed like just another burden.

Well, I thought, that's the end of this ego trip. I stood up with her in my arms, and placed her as gently as I could on the bed.

I sat back down and lit a cigarette, and watched her. She pulled her knees up. She was cold.

I found her poncho and covered her with it. She mumbled something, but I couldn't get her to repeat it.

I decided I wasn't going to give up. She wanted me. She certainly had demonstrated that.

I found some typing paper, wrote a note wishing her a peaceful rest and telling her I'd be back, and pinned it to the poncho.

I got home at 3, woke up my wife when I got into bed, and lied about having to get up early to get to the office.

For somebody who was always late for work, this seemed like an impossibility, but I was up and out of the house by 6:45, drove to the nearest pay phone (there were a lot of them in the late sixties), and dialed Andrea's number.

Good morning. It's Frank. Tell me which doorbell to ring, and I'll ring it in about 15 minutes, okay?”

Yes – the third one from the bottom on the left.”

When I got there, she was dressed for work. Conservatively. A state worker. She over-apologized for falling asleep the night before.

It's okay, really. Don't worry about it.” I was sitting on her bed. “Come here and sit down.”

She did. We kissed. I put my hand on her leg and started moving it up, under her skirt. We fell back. I started working her pantyhose down.

No,” she said. “Don't start or we'll never get to work today. And I've got to get to work today.”

I tried to argue her out of it, but no go.

She gave me a cup of coffee for a consolation prize, and I drove her to work. I asked for her office number, so I could call and set up another rendezvous.

She leaned over and kissed me. I looked around to see if anybody saw us, then wondered if she caught that.

I lied to my wife about having to work late that day, called Andrea and suggested a picnic. She liked the idea.

To be continued.

Making Commercials.

More pretty women and a very ugly Baby New Year.

I had written and overseen production of commercials in Albany – some filmed and edited later, most recorded in the studios of local TV stations. But I had never been this involved in the finer details of production. Here are just some of the categories involved, and what we did within them.

Technique. Being a fan of movies from the age of seven, I was eager to use some of the techniques I had seen on the big screen. One of my favorites was the use of “subjective camera,” in which the viewer becomes an actual participant in the scene. One spot was filmed from the perspective of a hungry infant, so when the father feeds the baby, the bottle of milk comes right to the camera. Besides being visually effective, the technique also eliminates the cost of an actor.

Casting Calls. Looking for a wide variety of characters and models can be exhausting, confusing, and even boring. You think you're going to enjoy days of looking at beautiful people, but it becomes a job. Nicer than running a check-printing machine, to be sure, but still, a job. And having to reject most of them was not a pleasant task, for them or for us

It all worked beautifully, but I remember one misunderstanding. For Dairylea Egg Nog, I had written a TV spot that was the ultimate winter holiday party, and it included every fictional character I could think of, including Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Dickens's entire “A Christmas Carol” gang, Father Time, and of course, Baby New Year.

Somehow, the casting director thought our little person was supposed to be a gnome, and HervĂ© Villechaize, later Tattoo of “Fantasy Island” fame, showed up, and the only costume for him was a diaper and a “Happy New Year” sash. He was the ugliest New Year baby you can imagine, and the director did his best to keep him hidden in most of the shots.

Auditioning actors and voices is also exciting, because you are often surprised at the familiar faces from TV and motion pictures who are willing – sometimes eager – to do commercials. (For union members, the income and benefits are good.) We chose top talent, and great voiceovers – our female announcer was a wonderful woman with a great voice and delivery, named Lovelady Powell. Lovelady owned a club and helped give a young actor his start as a Mark Twain impersonator – an unknown named Hal Holbrook.

Slice of Life. I remember another spot, which I left kind of loose. Dialog isn't easy, especially when you're trying to cram a list of selling points into a 30-second TV spot. We selected a trio of young, beautiful women for a spot featuring Dairylea's low calorie products, and it was, for me, the first time I attempted to do a “slice of life” – a simulation of a real conversation, working in the products. We gave the actresses the gist of the idea, and let them improvise. It's very difficult to do and have it sound real, but I think ours was just all right. Several years later, I would use the improvisation to much better effect, employing the members of a theatrical stock company.

In this case, however, what was wonderful was spending a day having the attention of beautiful young actresses in skimpy attire, even if we were surrounded by an entire crew.

Location scouting. It's a very specialized job, and finding real physical places that match an art director's story-boarded ideal is difficult, to say the least. And extremely satisfying, when they're found. One of our commercials was in a ski lodge, and we were amused to realize that we traveled more than halfway back to Albany from New York to shoot it.

This spot, with the subjective camera playing the part of a waiter, featured a popular TV actress from the time, Eileen O'Neil, who had co-starred with Gene Barry on “Burke's Law,” (see photo above) and was now cashing in on her fame and making a slew of commercials.

In the spot, O'Neil, in a curve-revealing outfit, descends a circular staircase and distracts a husband (named Frank, of course) from paying attention to his wife, who decides to order skim milk for lunch. I based the interaction on a brief beach scene from my favorite movie, Jacques Tati's “Mr. Hulot's Holiday.” The spot won a 1969 Art Director's award.

I just discovered a 16mm print of the 30-second commercial, and I'm having it transferred digitally, so I can include it here. I haven't seen it myself in decades, so when it's up, it'll be interesting to see if the quality of the spot matches my memory of it. I'll tell you what I really think, and I'd like to know your comments, too.

Next time: Jumping, dumping and bumping.

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