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