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, June 27, 2010


Not long after leaving the Catholic Communications Department, the pastor of a local Dutch Reformed Church decided to use advertising to attract more parishioners. My priest recruitment ad drew him to me, and, since he fashioned his protestant service to make ex-catholics comfortable, I created the theme that would appeal to that target audience: The kind of church you don't have to go to, you just want to.” Once again, a religious ad of mine got publicity. And this one actually increased Sunday service attendance for the local church.

But other parts of life weren't as successful.

Friday night, during the first act of Shakespeare & Co.'s “Women of Will,” the creator and star of the show, Tina Packer, was making a point about how people keep making the same mistakes throughout their lives, and that change comes through an encounter with another person. To illustrate her point, and to involve the audience, she asked if anyone present had been married three times.

I was the only one who raised his hand.

She looked up at me, as I sat in the stage right box seats, and asked if the second marriage was the same mistake as the first. I admitted it was. Then she asked about the third marriage.

I said, truthfully, “That was the one.”

She repeated that, and asked why.

I said I didn't remember who I was quoting, but that it had been said before, “It was the triumph of hope over experience.”

I think I helped Ms. Packer make her point about Shakespeare, and if Eileen was watching, as I suspect she was, there was a familiar hearty laugh in heaven.

(The quote, I subsequently discovered, was from Samuel Johnson, and was uttered about a man who had remarried soon after his first unhappy marriage had ended.)

And that brings me back to Madison North in the mid to late 1970's, where I met the woman who consented to join me in what turned out to be a most unhappy union. Blessedly, it was over in a year.

The agency, however, began falling apart much sooner. Madison North's fault lines began appearing before I showed up in 1976. Seems it wasn't enough for creative people to do good work – they have to be appreciated, and it has to be demonstrable.

It wasn't.

Last time, I talked about some of the creative work we did there. This time, the theme is departures.

First to Go

Jack Graber, a talented, good-looking artist, art director and illustrator was probably the nicest guy I knew.

He still is all of that, and I'm proud to say that we're still friends, and get together for lunch occasionally.

Jack was in his first marriage at the time, and was producing children regularly. In fact, his wife was quite pregnant when he left the agency.

We've never spoken about his reasons for leaving Madison North, but I suspect it was for what looked like a greater opportunity, with a more stable employer, for a man with a growing family. He was leaving to become the art director of the Albany Times Union, a newspaper in the Hearst chain.

The agency threw him a farewell picnic, so it wasn't a rancorous parting. The art department prepared a bogus newspaper, with all the stories featuring Jack, and I contributed a limerick. Writing a limerick is a challenge on many levels – it has a definite rhyme scheme, and it should also have something of a bawdy cast to it. I think the one I wrote for Jack is one of the best I've written, and I'm happy to share it with you here:

A handsome young artist named Graber,

is prolific with pen and with “saber.”

His wife's ready to burst,

He's working for Hearst,

Now they'll both know the meaning of labor.

The Great Leap

Mary Van is what we always called her. And as a lot of people in life do, she weaves in and out of mine, and makes a difference in the look, the feel and the heft of it.

Her thread entered the loom about ten years into my working life, when she was hired as one of my replacements at the upstate advertising agency that everyone wanted to work at in the sixties. I had been there about four years, learning the craft of ad writing from some excellent practitioners.

But it was time to run my own show, and a competing agency was looking for a Copy Chief. I was ready, and I went.

Mary Van moved in, recently college-degreed and eager. I didn't know her then, and it would be eight years before we'd work together, at the upstate advertising agency that everyone wanted to work at in the seventies.

After a series of personal disasters in my life, involving divorce, monetary self-punishment for a feeling of worthlessness, a depression that culminated in my walking away from a job, then leaving an apartment and a lover in New York, the ignominy of having to move into my mother's house and take a job with the local Catholic Diocese Communications Office which I managed to put out of business in just one year, when the call came from Madison North. As I've said, it had an incredible roster of talent, but seriously flawed management kept it from becoming the hotshot agency of the Northeast.

Mary Van had moved there, along with most of the talent from the previous hot agency of the sixties, and when I got there, she had morphed into an account executive, of all things!

Not a typical Empty Suit, she was as creative in pitching and servicing accounts as she was in writing ads for them. She called me into her office and showed me a telephone directory index -- the kind where you slid the tab to a letter of the alphabet, pressed the bar and it popped open to the page you wanted.

She handed it to me with a look of great anticipation, and I disappointed her, because I didn't see anything special about it. She was crestfallen. The telephone index had been mine, and she had saved it ever since she had moved into my old office in the sixties, and had taken it with her when she changed jobs.

Mary Van and I worked on accounts together, became good friends, and learned about each other's problems. At that time, hers were: a not so good marriage, and a not so good lover. One day, she asked me to meet her for lunch away from the agency. She said she had a problem she wanted my help with.

Frank, I've been offered a job as Account Supervisor on Miller Lite at McCann Erickson in New York.”'

Mary,” I said, “let me see if I have this straight: you want to get away from your husband, and your lover, and you can leap from account exec in Schenectady to Account Supervisor in New York – on a major account?”

Right,” she answered.

So what's your problem? This is your answer. Go!”

She took my advice, and became a success on Madison Avenue. This would become very important to me in just a couple of years.

Mass Exodus

Jack was gone. Mary was gone. And now, they started leaving in clumps. Just like the end of season three of “Mad Men,” four people left en masse to start their own agency. An art director, logo master, copywriter and an attractive blond female account executive with whom I was having a romance, gave notice together, and opened up a shop called “Communication & Design.” Having that romance is the important part of that sentence, for me.

Soon after they set up shop, the copywriter, Ellie, who I'm still lucky to count as a friend, left the area. I was recruited. And, feeling like I had been deserted at Madison North, I joined them, based on the promise of sharing equally in the rewards of the company. Soon, the blond AE and I were no longer having a romance, and, in fact, were barely speaking. And once again, promises weren't kept – the other three gave themselves company cars and raises, and left me out.

My relationship with the agency was as bad as with the blond. I couldn't work. They didn't want me there. I didn't want to be there. The head of the agency, the art director, was so tight-fisted that he actually asked me to quit so that he wouldn't have to pay unemployment for firing me!

At the same time, I had entered into that second, flawed marriage, and that wasn't going well either, to put it mildly. The best thing that came out of that marriage was another job I couldn't have dreamed up if I tried.

Next time: Unsettling News

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Great Expectations

They can lead to great advertising, as well as great disappointments.

Being invited back into the world of advertising in 1976, at at the hottest shop in the area no less, led me to expect heaven.

We made good, sometimes great advertising, like this one, using a New York City recording engineer to promote a local chain of audio stores.

Here were all the best local writers, art directors, designers, logo-masters and account people that had ever been assembled under one roof. And what a roof – Madison North was in a Victorian showplace in an area of Schenectady – the Stockade – that had existed since the 17th century!

I think this was when I learned a life lesson that it's better to have zero expectations, hope for the best and expect the worst.

The two women who ran the shop weren't exactly the best business people in the world. For one thing, they didn't have insurance on the building or its contents, and we were robbed. You would think that that lapse in judgment would be corrected after a theft, right? No, we were robbed a second time, and still had no insurance!

Promises were made and broken, and many people were unhappy.

And, eventually they started leaving. I'll tell you about that next time. But while we were all there, we did some of our best work.

Here's how some of it came about.

Back to SPAC

Working for an old friend

I had written and produced radio and print advertising for the first season of the prestigious Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1968. And now, 8 years later, I was happy to be working again on the new ad campaign for the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet, and the venue for some of the biggest and best popular music acts in America. (In 1975, Sinatra appeared there, and I made sure I had a great seat as close to the stage as I could afford.)

At Madison North, I found a common theme to capture the excitement of every kind of performance at SPAC – applause!

We made sure that the same wildly enthusiastic audience reaction was heard at the end of every commercial. And our print ads featured the stars of the classical music and ballet world in action, with headlines that expressed an attitude of “this is not to be missed,” combined with a wry little twist that would catch the eye and add a smile.

With a picture of Maestro Eugene Ormandy raising his baton, the headline read “More Great Music Than You Can Shake a Stick At.” And for a photo of beautiful principal dancers in mid-air, the headline was “Buy Leaps and Bounds.”

I struggled with an overall theme line, but it came, as the good ones usually do, after mulling the problem, then relaxing and waiting for inspiration.

The theme line that year was, “SPAC – the Center of Your Summer.”

It was a good campaign, and a good year for the Performing Arts Center.

Dancing Cookies.

My hometown becomes a TV star.

I wrote about our “Chocolate Chip Emergency” last time. Freihofer's, a bakery that started in my hometown of Troy, NY, when women started working in the collar and cuff factories and didn't have time to bake, was one of my favorite accounts at Madison North. The detachable collar idea was the brainstorm of a woman, Hannah Lord Montague, who tired of washing and ironing her husband's shirts just because the collars and cuffs were dirty. She started an industry, and put Troy and Arrow shirts on the map.

Freihofer's wanted to sponsor hour-long family specials on TV, and the agency sold them on the idea of not breaking the programs up with lots of little commercials, but to close up most of the commercial breaks, and just have one break in the middle, with one long-form video.

It was heaven to write and produce what amounted to mini-documentaries. One natural topic was the history of the company, using what has since become known as the “Ken Burns Effect” – archival photos from the history of Troy and the company, using appropriate music as the camera zoomed and panned the sepia-toned photos, and a smooth-voiced announcer related the story. The announcer choice was a natural – in the early, early days of TV broadcasting Freihofer's had created a fifteen-minute children's program with a bunny character, “Freddie Freihofer,” who was drawn by the station's artist, and appeared on camera as the host of the show. Several men had hosted, but the one who was still around and remembered most fondly was “Uncle Jim” Fisk. We brought him back as the on-camera host of the programs, and of course, the parents who had grown up watching him felt a close connection, and watched and listened to him with their kids.

I learned some interesting facts about the early days of the company. The Freihofer brothers who started the company were marketing geniuses – on their first day, they delivered a free loaf of bread to every home in Troy!

The company became noted for door-to-door delivery using horse-drawn wagons, a practice which continued into the 1950's. Where did those horses come from? I discovered that at their headquarters in the northern end of Troy, called Lansingburgh, Freihofer's actually imported wild horses from the west, and “broke” them right there. There were real cowboys in Troy, and they worked for the company that became famous for chocolate chip cookies!

Another fun long-form video involved the entire process of cookie-making. Thanks to the help of WTEN's late, great producer Gene Collins, also a Troy Native, we took a station cameraman to the bakery, filmed every stage of the making of their chocolate cookies, then edited it to a lively piece of music. An early music video, guaranteed to give you the munchies.

The only suggestion of mine that the company didn't accept was the talent of the TV specials. They chose a series of syndicated Julie Andrews shows. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted them to sponsor a contemporary music group, just because the headline would have been so much fun to see: “Freihofer's presents Bread!”

Setting Yourself Up For Success

You don't have to know the reason why you have to do something.

It wasn't easy convincing Richie Peterson, one of New York's best Audio Engineers and Consultants to be the spokesman for a Northeast chain of audio stores. But a lot of his friends and associates were counting on him.

I never get on that side of the mike or the camera,” Peterson told me early in my association with him. Which, of course, made him even more desirable as a commercial spokesman.

It took three of us, the head of the Schenectady agency, the agency's executive producer and myself to talk him into it. Richie would come up to the Albany area for a day, where we would photograph him at a local recording studio's mix board, film him and record his radio spots for Seiden Sound, whose slogan was, “People listen to us.”

Long before the multiple media recording session, I called Richie and asked him a few leading questions, such as, “If you were a recording engineer in the Northeast, what criteria would you use to choose an audio store for your home?”

As he came up with reasons, I took notes as fast as I could, then used his answers to create the print, radio and TV scripts. When he came to town and saw the copy, he suggested he take the credit for copywriting, too, because I used his words, his phrasing. Not only was it easier for me, it was intended to make it easy for him -- after all, they were his words.

But Peterson was very uncomfortable in front of the mike and camera, as he told us he would be. But he got through it all, and more than thirty years later, I still consider it one of the best campaigns I've ever been involved in. (Sony must have thought so, too -- a couple of years after the Seiden Sound/Peterson campaign ran, they used the same idea with different engineers for their audio component advertising.)

Our campaign ran for a few years, in all the Northeast markets Seiden Sound moved into. Then, as campaigns and electronics stores do, both faded into oblivion. But about five years after the spots ran, Rich Peterson was faced with another task he didn't relish: location recording for a TV spot. It was to be a corporate spot for an insurance company headquartered in Springfield, Massachusetts, involving all the employees gathered together in the entry of their office building, singing the company song.

A friend of Peterson's had hurt his leg and couldn't take the job, and since Rich owed him “a large,” he had to do it. Especially since everybody else who could handle the job was either busy or out of town. So Rich took the assignment.

Back then, audio for a film commercial -- especially the kinds where people have to sing -- required a particular kind of tape recorder so that the music can be synchronized with the singing. The recorders, usually the Nagra brand, contain a crystal that permits this kind of “sync sound,” and they were rare and expensive machines.

Richie recorded the employees singing outdoors, then set up his Nagra with the pre-recorded music in a corner of the insurance company's hallway, and waited while the crew lit the employees. There were so many of them that there just wasn't enough light. So they kept adding lights, and more lights, and more lights. The high powered lights didn't just generate light, though, they generated a lot of heat. So much heat that the sprinkler system was set off. Disaster!

As the dirty water poured down, everyone grabbed the expensive equipment they were responsible for and scurried out of the building. Richie managed to save the tape, but the Nagra was ruined. And there wasn't a back-up tape recorder that could do the job.

Peterson called all the electronics retailers and wholesalers in the area. No Nagras. He called the local TV stations and actually located the machine he needed. He talked to the sales manager at the station, explaining his plight, and asked to borrow it. The sales manager said it would be all right with him, but it was the brand new toy of his chief engineer, and that man, he was sure, would never let it out of his sight.

Richie asked to talk to him. He came on the line. Nothing would loosen his grip on that Nagra -- no amount of money, credit cards, nothing. Not one to give up without a fight, Peterson asked if he could just come to the station and talk, face to face.

Sure, come on over, but it would take a miracle to change my mind.”

Peterson made his way to the station. The chief engineer came out to the lobby. The instant he saw Peterson, he said, “You're the engineer.''

Yes,” Richie said, “I just called you and told you about the filming --'”

No, no, you're the engineer. The one in the commercial for Seiden Sound.''

Yeah, that's right -- you saw that spot?''

Saw it? We ran it. You want the Nagra -- you can have it, just bring it back when you're done.”

He went back to his office, brought out the precious machine and handed it over to Peterson without asking for a receipt, a deposit, anything. The power of that one commercial convinced the station engineer that Richie was something of a god.

That's when Richie figured out why fate had had him put up with the ordeal of being on camera years before. It was necessary for his work on this particular day, years later. Any other engineer, any other place on earth, and the job probably wouldn't have gotten done that day.

Next time: will I ever settle down?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's In A Name?

Madison North was calling me. No, not the “bad girl” character in All My Children, played by Stephanie Gatschet. I'm talking about an ad agency that began in the 1970's in Schenectady, New York, that had the reputation as the hot shop in the area.

When I searched the internet for something about that agency that peaked early and slid out of existence fast, nothing but some ancient news items showed up. Pictures of this daytime drama character did show up, so, as misleading as it may be, I decided to post a pretty picture. I could have used a picture of Rod Serling, creator and host of “The Twilight Zone,” because one of today's stories really involves him.

Actually, I did meet another beautiful “soap opera” actress in the 70's, and that story will show up in a future post, I promise.

But for now, a story about my first trip to Italy, and two more about my re-entrance into the wonderful world of advertising.

Ethnic Pride Goeth Before a Fall

A little learning is a funny thing.

While I was working for “The Church,” a wave of ethnic pride came over me, and I changed my name back to my grandfather's name – Visco, and at the same time, took my maternal grandfather's name for my middle name – LaPosta. So, I changed my name from Frank Anthony Christopher Visk to Frank LaPosta Visco, and even enrolled in an adult education course to learn basic Italian.

Like a lot of first and second generation immigrants, my grandparents and parents used the language to hide “grownup” talk from their kids.

Maybe women know this better than men, but things change when you change your name. You change. In this case, life changed for me. It seemed to just keep getting better and better from that point on.

For one thing, Sevan and I re-started our long distance relationship – although it was me going to the City, since I didn't have a place of my own for her to visit upstate. Mid-thirties and living with my mother!

For another thing, I had earned vacation time from my year of doing penance. That was pretty much how I thought about my service to “The Church” – doing penance for all the missteps of my life up to that point.

Sevan had been planning a solo trip to Tuscany for a while, and just two weeks before her scheduled departure, she casually asked me if I'd like to go. Surprising both of us, I said yes, and it started a whirlwind of activity. I didn't even have a passport. It was the perfect project for a producer who could handle the dozen little details of an impossible emergency. Our trip became her obsession, and she got it done.

I had just read a dog-eared copy of a later John Steinbeck work, “Travels With Charley,” a cross-country trip he took with his dog, trying to recapture his familiarity with America. In it, he makes the observation that trips have a schedule of their own – they start when they want to start, and they end when they want to end, even if you're hundreds of miles from home.

I took that to heart, and was very relaxed about my first trip to Europe. My first big trip anywhere, for that matter. The fact that it all happened so fast and that I didn't have time to worry about didn't hurt my casual attitude, either.

Well, my laissez faire demeanor paid off. Sevan and I got to JFK International in plenty of time, had all our papers in order, and were settled in to the Alitalia waiting area, casually playing a game of Scrabble on a great little magnetic travel edition Sevan had bought. We weren't playing our erotic version of “strip Scrabble,” of course, but just thinking about how, in the privacy of her upper east side apartment, we would remove an article of clothing each time the other accumulated 50 points was a thrill.

It got closer and closer to boarding time, and no announcements were forthcoming. It got past boarding time, and still nothing. People around us began stirring. We could feel the tension around us. Then the announcement came – it was like the breaking shot that sends a neat triangle of billiard balls into a chaotic universe of wildly careening mini-planets. Everyone around us seemed to jump up, bump into each other, grab their belongings and rush somewhere, anywhere.

Sevan was ready to join them, until I calmed her down. Stay calm, I told her, this trip will start when it wants to start. People were panicking – crowding around anyone unfortunate enough to be wearing an Alitalia insignia. We sat and finished our Scrabble game. As we were putting it away, we thought we heard our names over the PA system. Our names, and one other. It repeated. Yes, someone was paging Sevan, me and one other passenger, asking us to report to a particular Alitalia counter. We gathered our things and went there. A friendly Italian informed us that of all the passengers on the cancelled flight, we were the only three who were destined for Milan, the rest were headed for Rome. There was a flight to Milan in an hour, there was room on it for us, and would we follow him to the baggage area to remove our bags from one cart and place them on the one that would be loaded on our new carrier.

We did just that, left and landed in Milan just one hour later than scheduled.

From Milan, we transferred to the train station, and enjoyed the high speed train, the Rapido to Florence, where we experienced another potential problem. Sevan had reserved a single room, but we obviously needed a double. This seemed to pose a gigantic problem for the hotel clerk, who agreed to let us stay for one night, but would have to see about the rest of the week.

We were too exhausted to argue, so we went to our room and zonked out. An hour or so later, the phone rang. Having learned a few basic phrases from my beginning Italian class, I answered, “Pronto!”

The clerk on the other end, hearing my perfect pronunciation, began speaking Italian as Italians speak it to each other – rapidly. When I made absolutely no response, the clerk switched to perfect English and said, rather imperiously, “Perhaps I should stay with English, Mr. Visco?”

I agreed that would be best, and he informed me that the room was ours for the rest of our stay.

Chocolate Chip Emergency

An Example of How Seriously Advertising People Take Their Jobs.

After contributing to the demise of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany Communications Department, I didn't know what I would be doing, but for some strange reason, I didn't worry about it. I had learned by this time -- the mid seventies -- that things would work out.

And when I returned from my first vacation in years -- as a last minute addition to a girl friend's week and a half in Florence -- there was a job waiting for me -- at the then hottest ad agency in the area -- one that was trying to be what Fallon McElligot actually became a decade later -- a hot national agency not in New York.

There's a saying in advertising, that it's a good thing we don't run an airline, because when we make mistakes, no one dies.

Anyway, the hot agency now wanted me as a sometime writer and sometime broadcast producer, and they doubled my Catholic salary and gave me a company car to drive.

So, naturally, I moved to an apartment within walking distance of the agency, overlooking the Mohawk River, in a beautiful, historic part of Schenectady called The Stockade, because that's what it began as in the 17th century.

One of our accounts was Freihofer's Bakery, then a local, family owned enterprise whose chocolate chip cookies were legendary. The firm has since been sold to a national corporation, but they've stayed close to the original recipe.

One beautiful summer Friday afternoon, when everyone else in the creative department had either taken off early or had taken that week for vacation, I received an interoffice call from Claudia, our media buyer. She was obviously upset, because she started the conversation, in a voice that reeked of panic and worry, with the words,

We have a chocolate chip emergency!”

That is not a phrase you expect to hear in the course of a normal life, unless you bake cookies for a living, or, in our case, you sell cookies for a living. I asked her to explain the nature of this emergency, and she told me that the agency had scheduled chocolate chip cookie commercials to start on Monday, and that while we had produced a TV spot, we had somehow neglected to write and produce a companion radio commercial.

The solution was easy, and I took care of it -- taking the sound track of the TV spot to a recording studio and, with a few tweaks here and there, turning the track into a radio spot. They made the dubs (the radio station copies of the taped spot), I delivered them to the local stations, and another advertising disaster was averted.

And no one died.

Rod Serling And The Door That Goes Nowhere

Wherever you are, you can be in the Twilight Zone.

One of the best commercial recording engineers in the advertising business was Rich Peterson. I've known him since the mid seventies, and like many of my friends, they became friends because of mutual respect from first working together professionally. This starts out as Rich Peterson's story, but ends up being all Rod Serling. You'll see what I mean.

Rich had been the favorite recording engineer of many commercial radio talents, including Bob & Ray and Rod Serling himself.

Serling became a commercial voice over in self defense, sort of. Other people were imitating his style and making money, so, why not offer the original? He did, and since ad people like to work with famous people, once they knew Serling was available, they used him. A lot.

According to Peterson, Serling liked to work early in the morning. And Peterson was at National Recording studios in Manhattan when this story occurred. The studios were in your average midtown office building, but recording studios demand a construction all their own. The doors to these studios were along a normal looking corridor off the street, except that the first door, which had been the door to a mezzanine, was now called “The Door That Goes Nowhere.”

It was called that because it didn't go to the mezzanine, or anywhere, anymore. It opened on the few steps that used to lead to the mezzanine, but then ended abruptly at a wall. On the other side of that wall was the actual announcer's booth.

You couldn't get there through that door -- you had to go to the second door down the corridor, into Peterson's studio and then into that booth. Well, you see what's coming, right?

Showing up for one of his early recording sessions, Serling forgot about that first door, opened it and started up the stairs. As the door was closing behind him, he realized his mistake, turned around and came down the stairs and opened the door. That was precisely the moment that the building's janitor came around the corner, pushing a broom, and saw ROD SERLING COMING OUT OF THE DOOR THAT GOES NOWHERE!

Serling, loving a practical joke, saw the stunned expression on the now frozen-in-place janitor, sauntered past him with a “Good morning,” and went matter-of-factly into the correct door.

When Serling told Peterson what had happened, Rich went out in the corridor to find the janitor totally still, although metaphorically very moved. The janitor kept repeating, “Rod Serling came out of the door that goes nowhere,” while Peterson kept trying to explain how it had happened.

Now, jump ahead a few years. I'm having lunch in Manhattan with another friend in the business, Bill Onderchain, and he starts telling me this story. Naturally, I stopped him, and since I'm always sure I'm right, told him that I had told him the story that Peterson told me. Bill insisted that I hadn't told him.

In that case, Peterson must have told you,” I said. Bill insisted that Peterson hadn't told him, either.

Well then, who did tell you?”

The answer should have come with those eerie, repeating opening notes from Twilight Zone -- go ahead, whistle them here.

It was Rod Serling who told me,” Bill said. And it was!

Bill had gone to Ithaca College, where Serling lectured, and told the same story to his classes.. So there we were, two people who had nothing to do with the story, having heard the same story from two different people who were in the story. What was that? Did you just hear Rod Serling laughing?

Next time: Trouble in Paradise

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Divine Comedy

I believe I'm living proof that God has a sense of humor.

For one thing, She allowed my priest recruitment ad to run in college newspapers and on billboards in the early seventies. It took what is usually a blasphemous phrase, took away the blasphemy and pointed out the desperate need for more good priests in the Albany Catholic Diocese and beyond. It didn't solve the problem, but it got plenty of attention.

Even earlier, when I was an altar boy at St. Patrick's in Troy, teamed up with a little red-haired classmate serving the 9 a.m. “Children's Mass,” God showed Her humorous side. After mass one Sunday, the pastor, Monsignor Hunt, approached my mother and told her, “Your son will make a wonderful bishop someday.” Naturally, my religious mother was thrilled. It was one of her favorite stories.

Of course, I never became a bishop. But the other altar boy did – he's the current bishop of the Albany Diocese. Did the good monsignor have the wrong boy in mind? Or talk to the wrong mother? Or was it a cosmic joke?

I turned my back on “The Church” at the end of the sixties. But it wasn't through with me, as you'll see in the following stories.

Holy Bordello, Father!

An unusual suggestion for the Bishop's residence

I came back from New York City in 1975 depressed in the middle of a recession.

Thirty-six years old, failure on every front, no money, forced to move in with my mother. No advertising agency jobs available.

The only offer I had was from the priest who was the head of the Communications Department of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. He wanted an assistant. He knew me in high school, where we were classmates, although not buddies.

He also knew me from a public service campaign I had written for the diocese a few years earlier, trying to help recruit college men to the priesthood with the tag line, “For Christ's Sake, Be a Priest.”

He offered me the job, and I took it. I didn't have much choice. It didn't pay a lot, and I didn't have a car, but I got to work taking three buses every morning, from Troy to Albany.

As I learned the routine of the job, my boss and I spent lots of time together, and early on, he invited me to dinner at his residence, which happened to be the Chancery, also the home of the Bishop of the Diocese. It's a beautiful, early 20th century mansion overlooking Albany's Olmsted-designed Washington Park. We dined, with the Bishop, in the formal dining room, where we were served by a woman of a certain age who was summoned by the ringing of a bell. So much for being the servants of the flock.

The next day, when I expressed my awe at the surroundings and the treatment, my boss told me of a plan to raise money – a lot of money – to pay for his dream of expanding the communications department.

His plan, and to this day I don't think he was kidding – was to turn the Chancery into a house of prostitution! I don't know how he knew it, but the place would have had the perfect layout, so to speak, for a house of ill repute: Formal rooms on the first floor, lavish bedrooms on the second, and maid's quarters above that.

Of course, the plan never got to fruition, but he may have actually proposed it, because shortly after our conversation, he was whisked away to Rome for what was called a “theological update.”

When he returned, he didn't talk as much as when he left, and when I asked him what he learned, he only said, “We have to start from the beginning.”

Whether he was talking about the department, the Diocese or the Roman Catholic Church, I honestly don't know. I didn't push for any more answers.

Sister Margaret Hottie

Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

I believe that's an accurate quote from St. Augustine's racy “Confessions,” and it probably crossed my mind when she walked into my office at the Catholic Communications Department in Albany.

I know you want me to describe her, but first I have to tell you about the office that I was assigned to. The entire building had been a Catholic maternity hospital, and my office had served as the chapel. The transom over my office door hadn't been changed – it was a modern stained glass creation, rife with religious symbolism. I sat facing the door, and every time I glanced up at the “God rays” coming through the transom, I thought of the Supreme Being's sense of humor.

How did a fallen-away, or recovering Catholic, manage to find a job selling Catholicism? It had to be a great, celestial joke. Or, I thought, maybe I'm just getting back all the money I had dropped into the thousands of collection baskets in all the churches that I faithfully attended Sunday after Sunday and Holy Day after Holy Day, from kindergarten to young adulthood. If that were it, then when the karmic books were balanced, I'd be out of there.

But now, standing in my office doorway, under the holy transom, was the sexiest woman, in the hottest outfit, that I had seen since my last casting session of knockout New York models. Remember, this was in 1975, and the fashion for young women was “I've got it, I'm flaunting it, and you can't do anything about it.”

Well, I couldn't do anything about it – not voluntarily, anyway. Involuntarily was another matter; so I stayed seated to hide my interest.

She was so buxom, so beautiful, with a skirt that, were it an inch shorter, would have been a belt, and she said, “I thought I should introduce myself. I'm Margaret Takemehererightnowonyourdesk.” That's what I thought I heard, or wanted to hear, anyway.

I don't know what – or who – possessed me, but I looked her in the eye, trying not to drool, then silently and slowly – painfully slowly – slid my eyes down her body, and just as slowly back up.

She stood there the whole time. And when our eyes finally met again after I had sucked in every delicious curve and line, she said, “That's Sister Margaret Takemehererightnowonyourdesk.”

And I said, dejectedly, “I know.”

That was the last time I remember seeing her. She never came back to my office, although I did start receiving “From your secret friend” greeting cards, which Barbara, our office manager, said came from Sister Hottie, but I refused to believe it. It was better for all concerned that I believed someone else in the office was just teasing me.

Unfortunately, unless Sister Hottie is reading this, we'll never know.

God Forbid.

How I Put A Catholic Communications Department Out of Business

After just a few weeks at my new job at the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, my boss told me he was being sent to Rome for a three-month theological update, and I was to run the department by myself. I panicked. I still had mike fright from impersonating John Lennon on a 50,000 radio station twelve years before, and it would be my responsibility to voice a weekly religious radio program for the Sunday morning “religious ghetto” slot on a local radio station, interview teenagers on the moral (or immoral) meanings of popular songs, edit their comments into one minute radio spots, and record a brief “Religion in the News” program and distribute all of these to local radio stations every week. I had never done anything like this before, but I did what I could.

To begin, I had to sit in the recording booth with the tape running, and talk into the microphone in a continuous cold sweat until I was over my mike fright.

It took several days, and even then, I was not comfortable. I gathered the news, recorded the programs. I was still so nervous that between the time I started recording the religious news program and the time I ended it, I would forget that I had just changed my name back to the original family name. So, I would start the program as Frank LaPosta Visco, and end it with my birth name, Frank Visk. If anyone was listening, they never noticed.

I found a way not to sit in the studio with the teenagers. I would play the popular songs for them, then tell them to just discuss the lyrics among themselves. Later, I edited their comments into an abbreviated version of the song they were discussing, and had a lot of fun doing it. A very creative experience.

But my liberalism started to show through, especially in a series of programs I wrote and produced for the Sunday morning slot, and I think it was just too much for the institution. It was a simple idea: humor in religion.

I took one of George Carlin's early routines about people blaming disasters on God, a parody of the lives of the saints called “Saint Fidgeta, Patron Saint of Nervous Children,” and a reading from Catholic author C.S. Lewis's “Screwtape Letters,” and produced a series of programs. They aired at about 5 to 6 am on local radio, and believe it or not, they started to get response from people who had been out partying on Saturday night – probably the very people we should have been trying to reach.

But that, plus my irreverent attitude in general, put an end to things. The day I came back from my first vacation, my boss and our secretary were looking very glum. I pressed them for what was wrong, and they finally told me that the Diocese was taking our funding away and giving it to the Ecumenical Communications Office. My response surprised them. And me.

I was actually relieved, and downright happy that it was over. I had done what I thought was right. And maybe I had an effect on some souls out there. And then, as if by magic, the hot local ad agency of the mid-seventies called and wanted me -- enough to double my salary and give me a company car.

During the last weeks of the existence of the Communications Department, visitors were surprised by the additional two letters I added as a prefix to our front door sign.. Until we left for good, the sign now read, EXCommunications Department.

Next time: Back in the ad game.