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, August 29, 2010


A total lunar eclipse happens rarely. There was one in early July of 1982 that could be seen in the Eastern United States, and it played its part in a summer romance and an eventual long-term friendship.

The view of the moon from a first class cabin of an Air France 747 is another rare event, but I was fortunate enough to have experienced that, too.

Today, two stories from the early eighties that my advertising career made possible. You gotta love this business.

Truth in Advertising.

Being the advertising writer for Air France in the 1980's was one of the highlights of my career.

Here was an airline of the country that had created the words “cachet” and “ambiance,” and if any airline had them, Air France did.

Naturally, one of the features of the airline that we promoted heavily was their first class, called Premiere. I wrote about it in the most glowing of terms, promising a multi-star restaurant in the sky, an incredible wine cellar, classic European service.

But for years, the closest I got to experiencing the real thing was to visit the airport for a photo shoot of their chef at JFK International, which included a tour of the airline's actual New York wine cellar.

It took about three years before I was invited to take a “fam” (familiarization) trip. The company was generous enough to bend the rules and let me take a daughter on the trip. The rules were that only spouses could share in the perks, but I didn't have a spouse at the time, so my oldest daughter accompanied me, and we planned to meet my middle daughter, who was spending a college semester in London. We planned to spend a week in Paris, and a week in London.

As was customary for complementary flight passengers, we were placed on first class standby, and reported to the first class lounge to wait, as instructed. There were seats available, and my daughter and I occupied them.

The service was flawless. The food was incroyable. The wines were exquisite. Just as I had imagined them, and described them, in ads that ran in all the major magazines. Then, near the end of the flight, as we're approaching Paris, we were handed rating cards.

When it came to rating the overall experience of Air France Premiere Class, I thought of the most appropriate words their copywriter could write.

They were these two: 'As advertised.'

Truth in Seduction.

There's someone in another house I'd like you to meet.”

Those can be the most exciting words you can hear when the last date you brought out to Fire Island for a weekend of fun and sun turns out to be totally obsessed with her last boy friend and can't stand being in the same bed with you after the first night.

Not that I took it personally – the woman, named Susan, was an analyst in Manhattan who specialized in couples counseling, but couldn't counsel herself, or heed the counsel of her shrink. I should have known – I've had some kind of trouble with every woman in my life named Susan and any variation of that name.

Anyway, the previous weekend with Susan started out wonderfully, with a communal meal, a walk on the beach, and a warm and loving night. Saturday morning was a different story, however. She woke up and told me that she couldn't “do this,” and was taking the first boat back to Bay Shore. I walked her to the dock, said goodbye and spent the rest of that weekend pondering.

Resilient as I was back then, the next weekend, a housemate offered to introduce me to another woman who had recently become unattached. It was obvious that Jane and I had an attraction, and that she was attractive, intelligent and funny. I soon found out that she had a marvelous singing voice as well.

We got acquainted, and soon we were warmer than that, doing our best imitation of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach in “From Here to Eternity.” The clincher was a once-in-a-lifetime invitation, the night I told that there was to be a lunar eclipse and promised her that she could see it from my bed. And we did spend a little time watching it from there.

That was one great summer. But when it was over, that was another matter entirely. And reason enough for my experiences with a another analyst – this one on a strictly professional basis.

Next time: shrink-rapt New York.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Name Dropping

Back to SPAC.

One of my first assignments at Kenyon & Eckhardt was writing and co-producing a spot for Great Western Champagne. It was an amazing assignment, because it brought me back home! I was to write a radio commercial celebrating the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, an account I had worked on twice before – once for its premiere year, and again in 1976.

The New York champagne brand was part of Coca Cola's Wine Spectrum, and was sponsoring that year's New York City Ballet Gala at Saratoga Springs.

They sent me to Saratoga to interview a principal dancer. And not just any principal dancer, but the woman who was the last “prima ballerina” to be Balanchine-trained and choreographed for – Merrill Ashley!

I picked her up at the Center, drove her to my favorite recording studio, Cathedral Sound in Rensselaer, and sat with her for an hour, asking her questions about her profession and her teacher. What I was after was a short but meaningful quote I could use in the commercial. I knew I had it when she described ballet this way: “We love to dance, to create beautiful lines and designs in space, in time to music. It's visual, musical and physical art, all together. It's like – living sculpture.”

I hired my friend with the classical and classy voice, Rich Capparela, as the announcer, and the spot ran that summer in the Albany and Syracuse markets. I was sent back to Saratoga to represent the agency at the SPAC Gala that year, which featured Merrill Ashley in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and played the spot for the client. Next day, I visited Merrill at her family picnic in the Saratoga State Park and presented her with a bottle of the bubbly for a promotional shot.

Merrill Ashley wasn't the only “summer celebrity” I was lucky enough to see back then. There were some unexpected encounters, albeit much briefer.

The Witch, the Actress & The Funnyman

She came to the beach covered from head to toe, allergic to the sun, I assumed. I later found out that witches have trouble crossing over water, and that was virtually the only way to get to Fair Harbor.

I was reminded of her watching a documentary of The Doors, when the narrator mentioned that Jim Morrison, the poetic singer of the group who died in his 20's, had “married” a woman from New York in a Wiccan ceremony.

The woman hiding from the sun on the beach that Summer weekend claimed to be that woman. She was one of the first rock music critics, then wrote what I take to be fantasy novels, and eventually wrote a book about her relationship with Morrison. She goes by the name of Patricia Kennealy Morrison. A friend of Jane, of the previous story, who is still a friend, told me that Patricia was in Oliver Stone's movie, "The Doors" as the Wiccan priestess who marries Jim Morrison to the actress who is portraying her. She was also an advisor on that film.

It was later that same summer when I was walking along the nearly deserted beach with my youngest daughter, Suzie, on a Monday morning, after most weekenders had left, when we passed by an older couple, strolling in the opposite direction. As the woman branched off from the man, looking for shells, stones or polished glass, she glanced at us and smiled. Recognizing her, I nodded and smiled back, and continued on.

When Suzie and I reached the house, I told her that we had shared the beach that morning with the beautiful and talented Anne Bancroft and the funnyman who won her heart, Mel Brooks.

Next time: Lunar Oddities

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fair Harbor

Getting Away From It All. Or Not.

Summer Time Shares on Fire Island.

Johnny Carson used to use Fire Island as an easy reference to homosexuality when he was the king of late night TV, and there is a gay community there, called Cherry Grove.

To me, the most interesting thing about Fire Island is that while it's a long, lean spit of land off the south shore of Long Island with a lot of summer homes where people go to get away from it all, it's broken up into little towns of like people, who don't get away from it as much as they all go to it together. (Like in this photo of me and some of my housemates -- Michelle, Marti and Marla.)

With some overlapping, there's the gay community, a lawyer community, an author's community, and the “creative” community for directors, producers, editors, copywriters, designers and such, called Fair Harbor.

All summer, ferry boats leave from different Long Island towns, depending on the destination, and Manhattanites usually get to the ferries by taking the Long Island Railroad or shuttle vans. The really well-off fly in.

If you don't own a home, you audition to become a time sharing member of a summer house at gatherings in Manhattan before the season begins.

Nothing's easy in New York.

I learned about Fair Harbor back in the seventies, when Annette Bachner, the director of the commercial I produced without spending any of the “under the table” cash, invited me and Sevan, the producer I was dating, to the home she owned there. More about that in a minute.

But now, in the early eighties, I was ready to be a Fire Island weekender. The first audition I went to was at a fabulous SoHo loft on Spring Street, owned by an account executive type and his wife, Steve and Heather Madoff.

There were people who had been part of the group in previous years, and they had voting privileges on the people who would fill the empty slots. I'm a personable guy, and although I was forty and at least ten years older than the rest, they let me know I was in. The fact that I wanted a double share, or to be there every weekend instead of every other, didn't hurt my cause.

Spending every weekend in the getaway beach community, I guess I've accumulated twice as many summer stories than normal. I'll start with these two.

Teddy Will Fix It.

Some people really did get away from it all.

Annette Bachner, the first female director of TV commercials and former stage manager for the Howdy Doody Show, loves telling this story. I hope she doesn't mind my retelling it here, but it's a good opportunity to drop a name of somebody I wish I'd met and never did. This is how Annette met him.

When she became the owner of her house in Fair Harbor, which is situated halfway between the bay and the ocean, her neighbors welcomed her. And when a problem arose with the house, they told Annette that there was another resident nearby, that everybody called Teddy, who would come and fix it, because he was really handy, and that was his hobby. She hadn't met him yet, but they told her that didn't matter, and gave her Teddy's phone number.

The problem arose, and she called. He told her when he'd be over, and sure enough, he showed up with his toolbox and fixed the problem expertly.

While he was working, it slowly dawned on Annette why Teddy was familiar.

He was Theodore White, author of the definitive book on the 1960 presidential campaign, “The Making of The President.”

Annette's Confusion

Who's that girl with Frank this weekend?

I've always been attracted to women younger than myself, a trend that gets easier and more ridiculous as I age.

The strange thing is that, until I was 40, I only married women older than myself – but only by a few months. And I'm only talking about two women, because all together, I was only married three times. So far.

Maybe those first two were supposed to replace my mother and give me advice about staying away from younger women. That only worked for a little while in each marriage.

But in the early eighties, I'm a successful bachelor in Manhattan, and I'm dating like crazy. And in some cases, crazy is the exactly right word. But that's another story, for another time.

The summer that I was one of just two people renting a Fair Harbor house was a busy one for me. I had lots of guests. Some weekends, it would be one of my three daughters, then in their teens to early twenties, and on others, an attractive date, somewhat older than my daughters, but not by much.

The house was on the same street as my friend Annette's, and when I walked past her house with my guest of the week, Annette would always guess wrong.

Invariably, when she would ask, “Daughter?” I'd say, “No, girl friend.” The following week, she asked, “Girl friend?” I replied, “No, daughter.” The next time, as I passed by with another pretty young woman, she wised up and asked, “Daughter or girl friend?” She even got that wrong, because I answered, truthfully, “Housemate.”

She gave up trying to guess after that.

Next time: A Witch & A Spell

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Some Overdue Thanks

I have no insight into what "Mad Men" will be doing tonight, but I doubt that a copywriter on that show will write a wine ad for a boss that every writer but him argues with, or run into a one-eyed man he met in college and thank him for advice that helped the copywriter succeed. Those are my stories today.

The reason I bring this up is because I've recently re-established contact with my friend, Jane, who I met in the '80's during one of my summers sharing a house in Fair Harbor, Fire Island.

She has begun following this "memoir blog," and has pointed out some of the coincidences between some of my stories and the events in the fictional but accurate "Mad Men" 4th season episodes in the last couple of weeks. Both the episodes and my weekly blog entries begin on Sunday; mine in the morning, theirs in the evening.

First, it was that we both mentioned "Kenyon & Eckhardt." Next, it was a story of the old pro and the newbie. Today, I'm betting against any more similarities.

Levels Of Quality In The Pan Am Building

In the early eighties, I found my job: New York City Copywriter.

It was a goal I had often fantasized about, and even more often, had feared. But it happened, without any struggle, and it was good. Mostly.

Because of the accounts I was assigned to, as a sort of pinch hitter copywriter, I soon found myself in two different groups.

Here's how it happened. A group was made up of an Associate Creative Director (ACD) overseeing teams of writers and art directors. One of the most wonderful aspects of advertising agencies is their ability, even their desire, to adapt to the creative people in their fold. That's the way things worked at Kenyon & Eckhardt, which had three floors in what was then called the Pan Am building. The first thing they discovered was that I could write about motor oil, so I was in the group that had the Quaker State account, on the 17th floor.

Then, the client at Air France developed a dislike for their copywriter, and I was put on that account and deemed satisfactory. The airline moved into another group, which was on the 18th floor. I was kept on both accounts, and found myself the only writer in two groups at the same time. This gave me the opportunity to compare.

To me, the floor each group occupied indicated its level of quality. I thought the ACD of the 17th floor group was a hack. The ACD of the 18th floor group, Monte Ghertler, was something of an advertising genius, but he drove everyone crazy. Every writer in his group fought with him over every word. When he would go on a shoot, he would change everything at the last minute, driving budgets, producers and accountants through the roof. But everything he touched was great advertising.

I decided that I couldn't be split like that anymore, and I made a decision. I had been writing for twenty years, albeit in a small town in upstate New York, so I knew that the only one of my two supervisors I could learn from was Monte. I made my case to him, and really surprised him. It seems he had frustrated so many writers that most of them were asking to get out of his group.

Now, being the only one who asked for it, I was assigned to Monte exclusively. If I really could learn from him, then it was my job to learn how to write so well, and so like him, that he wouldn't have to change a word. It took more than a year, but I finally did it. The copy I wrote and presented to him on that great day was for our wine account, and I had to create a first person ad for the owner of a great restaurant in New Orleans, Commander's Palace, praising their house wine, Monetery Vineyard, which was one of our brands.

Monte read the copy, handed it back to me and said, “Visco, you're coming along.” It didn't sound like it, but I knew it was high praise, because he didn't change a word. I was never happier doing my job. Thanks, Monte.

The One-Eyed Man Is King.

A follow-up to a previous story. It was about twenty-two years after my one semester at Ithaca College, and my up and down career was now really up. It was 1980, and I was a New York copywriter at Kenyon & Eckhardt, a real ad agency with national and international clients.

As I walked down Second Avenue from a dinner with friends in midtown Manhattan, toward my 28th Street apartment, I saw a familiar-looking man approaching. He had an eye patch. Could it be -- the man who taught me how to get my first job? It was. I stopped him. “Excuse me -- aren't you Joe Culligan?”

He said yes and looked a little wary -- I was, after all, a rather big, hirsute man. I tried to take his fears away as quickly as I could.

“I want to thank you. I was a student at Ithaca College when you lectured there and told us how to get a job or at least some experience, by offering to work for nothing for a specified time period. I did it, and it led to my present job -- copywriter at Kenyon & Eckhardt.”

He looked relieved, and invited me to meet him the next day so we could talk. We met at the Sky Club, which happened to be at the top of the Pan Am building – the very building I worked in.

He told me he was looking for someone to write his biography -- actually ghost-write his autobiography, so we met a few times and I started working on it in my spare time.

It didn't come to fruition, but that's another story. This one ends here, with a grateful student being able to thank his teacher for the one lesson that set his life on a wonderful course.

Next time: Fire Island stories.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A No Account Writer

Before I take you back to 1980 and how I became the Quaker State copywriter because I had nothing else to do in my new job at a major Madison Avenue ad agency, I want to comment on another "Mad Men" coincidence. In the first episode of the 4th season, which premiered last Sunday evening, the new agency was competing for new business with three others -- and one that was mentioned was none other than Kenyon & Eckhardt, the agency that had hired me, and that I also had mentioned here last Sunday morning.

Come in Late, Take Long Lunches, Leave Early.

Sometimes, it's your job and nothing can take it away from you. Two weeks before, I had gotten the job of my life: copywriter at a big New York ad agency, the head writer on a new account. I found an apartment, a one-bedroom with a working fireplace, on the third floor of a converted brownstone -- with the smallest elevator -- in the twenties on Manhattan's east side, a couple of blocks from the East River. I could - and did - walk to work, as I had in Schenectady, when I lived near the Mohawk River.

My first day at Kenyon & Eckhardt (K&E) was a revelation. Judy Southard, the creative director's assistant, met me, and apologized that there were no windowed offices available. It was 1980; the tail end of advertising's golden era. The agency's policy was that every copywriter and art director got a windowed office. It wasn't difficult in the Pan Am Building, since most of the offices were on the outside perimeter of the building, with the service modules in the core. But it was a busy time at K&E, and all the good offices were occupied. Judy assured me that as soon as a windowed office became available, I would be moved in there. In the meantime, I was shown into a small, windowless space with two doors on facing sides, which connected two corridors.

Since one door was right across the hall from the men's room, and because the office had been unoccupied recently, the male employees of K&E were in the habit of using the office as a shortcut to the men's room. This is how I came to know many of my coworkers.

I had a chair, a desk, a typewriter and a phone. What I didn't have was an account. I reported to my immediate supervisor, the Associate Creative Director, and he told me that there was no travel agency account, after all. It had somehow de-materialized.

“But don't worry, we'll find something for you to do. In the meantime, come in late, take long lunch hours and leave early.”

I didn't want to do that. But I didn't have anything to do, so every day, I read the New York Times from front to back, and completed the daily crossword puzzle. Eventually, I started writing things for myself, just silly exercises to keep my mind and fingers nimble. A month later -- yes, a month! -- and there still was no assignment.

My friend Mary Van, who had recommended me for the job, was getting worried. I really wasn't. I figured that this was my job, and that it would work out. Things usually do. Things did.

The Quaker State Motor Oil account, which had been at the agency for almost fifty years, was having a sales meeting and wanted the agency involved in helping to script it. The Quaker State sales manager wanted K&E to write his speech. Since my resume listed my most recent job as being Communications Director of a New York State Commission, they must have figured I had written a lot of speeches. I had never written one.

And I didn't know anything about motor oil. Larry Mulhearn did. He wasn't just the agency's chief writer on the Quaker State account; he was the account historian. Luckily for me, he had no problem sharing his vast knowledge and fat files with me. When he was through with me, I knew everything I needed to know about the account, and a little bit more.

I wrote a speech. I looked at it, hated it, tore it up and wrote it again. I liked the second one, handed it in and discovered that everyone else on the account liked it too. I was invited to a creative brainstorming meeting to help plan the Quaker State sales meeting.

I went where I thought I was supposed to go for the meeting, but I walked into a poker game. Yes, it was an office on the seventeenth floor, it said Andy Doyle on the outside, but inside was a man with an eye shade and sleeve garters sitting not at a desk but at a genuine poker table.

Andy was the Quaker State broadcast producer, and he was a gambling man. Meetings in his office started with poker. I was invited in, but I chose to sit out and watch. After a few hands, the topic of the meeting began to be discussed.

Quaker State was changing, and the sales meeting was supposed to help present those changes to the sales force in the most positive way possible. I helped to come up with a wonderful format. Between each major event at the meetings, speeches, recognitions, new commercial presentations and the like, we devised a continuity ploy. (My first job title, after all, was Continuity Director. )

There would be two main characters carrying on a dialogue throughout the several days of the meeting. One was an old time salesman who had been with the company for years and had seen it all, the other was a newly hired salesman full of enthusiasm. We scripted their exchanges so that in the beginning, the old timer wouldn't have anything to do with new ideas, and the new kid totally discounted all that had gone before him.

Little by little, they would start to see each other's point of view, and by the end of the sales meeting, they would come together in the middle ground, agreeing on keeping the best of the old and trying the best of the new -- in other words, both of them taking the company's point of view. It worked wonderfully, made the client happy, and got me on the Quaker State Account.

It turns out that someone was really needed on the account, because Larry had developed quite a problem with alcohol and his lunch hours were lasting from noon to five every day.

As I think back on it now, the gimmick for the Quaker State sales meeting in 1980 really was the personification of Larry, the old pro, and me, the new kid (even though I was forty years old at the time), sharing information and attitudes and coming to an understanding. I didn't get to thank Larry as profusely as I wanted to. He passed away a few years ago, thankfully before the account was forced out of its fifty-three year home at K&E due to merger-mania. I hope this makes up for my oversight.

Next time: Catching up with the past.