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 30, 2010

If at First You Don't Succeed, Go Home.

In the mid-1970's I had a “book,” or portfolio of ads, that was full of clever headlines for small upstate clients, like this early “high tech” ad for Dodge Fibers, introducing Teflon-coated industrial products. The problem was, there was a recession and nobody was hiring.

I followed my pattern of leaping before looking, because smart, sexy Sevan and I wanted to build a life together, and that meant I would have to make it in New York. So, there I was, going months without a job, hanging out at Sevan's TV production company, and it wasn't as easy as I thought. In fact, it was downright tragic. But, as Steve Allen once said, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

I guess I can laugh about it all now.

The Job.

It was one of the few help wanted ads for a copywriter all year. It was for an agency that was actually on Madison Avenue. I showed up for an interview. So did every other unemployed copywriter in the tri-state area. If I got the job, Sevan would buy that junk sculpture trolley we saw in the window. The good news was, I got the trolley. The bad news was, I got the job.

The name of the ad agency was Alan Wolsky & Friends. Honestly, I never met any people who called themselves his friends. If this were a Dickens novel, Alan Wolsky would have a more descriptive name – something like Snortly Grumpler, and the agency would be called Fairleigh, Short & Balding, none of the partners in existence, because Grumpler would have squeezed them out, destroying their hopes and dreams and picking over the remains of their honest work like a turkey vulture.

Get the picture?

I was a good – almost great – copywriter. I was inexpensive. He was impossible to work for, and, if I had really listened to him when he hired me, I would have understood. But I desperately needed a job, or I would lose Sevan. She really couldn't stand idleness – hers, mine, or anyone else's.

Snortly – I mean Wolsky – told me his rules. Work Monday through Thursday, 8:30 to 5, Fridays, 8:30 until he released you. Turns out, he was serious. He would often – almost always – make work for people so that he could exercise this abuse of power. Dickens would have pictured his home life in shades of gray and shadows of ebony, and pointed out that if Grumpler couldn't be happy, no one could be happy.

Everybody who worked for him followed those rules. George Romero couldn't have cast the Wolsky employees any better – dead eyes everywhere.

The work itself was okay – I managed to write some interesting billing stuffers for American Express – you know, those overpriced blankets, knives and whatnots that used to fall out of your monthly statement and be thrown away immediately, until the company wised up and attached the offers to the return envelope, so you have to tear it off, guaranteeing that you'll at least see it before you throw it away.

I had a half an hour for lunch, and luckily, I found Paley Park, a delightful pocket park with a waterwall that was only a few minutes walk from the office. I'd either bring a lunch or purchase a cream cheese and walnut sandwich at the little stand there, sit and enjoy the sound of the water drown out the noise of the city and the anguish of my situation.

One day, when everything else in my life was in a Dickensian funk, I decided I had no choice but to walk away.

The Apartment.

I guess being enthusiastically willing and readily able to re-enact scenes from erotic novels with your live-in lover isn't enough for a lasting relationship. Maybe for a long distance one, but not a live-in one.

It also doesn't help when the woman's parents are dead set against establishing a permanent, legally sanctioned relationship, their objections based solely on my ethnicity.

It seems that Sevan's Jewish parents forbid her to marry me, simply because Italians were part of the original Axis of Evil during most of WWII. Never mind that my grandparents (all four of them) came from Italy to escape that kind of tyranny. And never mind that, if they had asked, they would have learned that all of my eligible Italo-American relatives fought against the Axis – some of them in the very regions our ancestors came from. I was Italian, that was bad, and that was that.

So, it was time to find my own apartment in Manhattan. It was a studio in the fifties, on the east side, and it was noisy. Most apartments in New York are noisy, and you learn to deal with it. But this place was positioned perfectly so that even the sound that emanated from factories in New Jersey was beamed directly into my bedroom, and amplified by a factor of four million.

Nothing could cancel out the horns, sirens and screeching brakes on the streets outside, or the dancing, laughter and sexual activity from the inside of the building, none of which emanated from my space.

I was more totally alone, and forgotten in Manhattan than the guy who wrote “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

True, I had a found a job. But it was so unrewarding and painful to go to that job, I started to fantasize about sorting shirt fabric in a bleachery or delivering mail in blizzards – two jobs I had experienced between the few college semesters I had under my belt.

I hope the statute of limitations is in effect, because, just as I disappeared from the job, I disappeared from the apartment. My friend John Caldwell came down to the city and helped me load up my few meager possessions, and I skipped out on the lease, although skipping is the wrong word, intimating as it does a kind of free-spirited, carefree attitude. I was full of care. And my spirit was in hock.

The Hegira

Where does a man who runs out on his lease, his job and his dream run to? Mom, of course. There was no place left to turn.

So, failure of failures, I returned to Troy, to a not-too-happy-to-see-me mother, who had to re-convert her sewing room back into a bedroom for her penniless son.

It wasn't like it is these days, when college graduates who can't find work are expected to return to the nest. First of all, I wasn't a college graduate. I had flunked out of college. And I wasn't a kid – I was in my mid thirties, a divorced father of three – the first divorced member of the entire extended Italian family. On both sides. I had no money, no prospects, and there were no jobs in my chosen field.

If ever a mother was entitled to say 'I told you so', my mother was. But, God bless her departed soul, she never said it.

She took me in and helped me out, along with my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law lent me his car so I could go out into the boonies where my three daughters lived with their mother, step-father and his brood, and bring them back for Sunday dinner every other weekend. I'm eternally in their debt.

After being turned down by every ad agency in the area, one ray of hope shone through – a job as assistant communications director for a very well-established outfit – The Albany Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

As unlikely as it may seem, promoting the agenda of the church I rejected was the only job that was offered to me, and although I felt I would be punished for it as a blasphemer in Dante's farthest infernal ring, I signed on.

And I met a cast of characters and situations even a fiction writer with the greatest of imaginations could not – would not – have created.

Next time: I'll be damned.

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.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Last night, I watched “Art & Copy,” a documentary from the “One Show” featuring ramblings from some of the big “Hall of Fame” names in advertising. It tries to explain what makes great advertising – and while it has a few clues, the explanation still pretty much comes down to “hit and miss.”

One thing the documentary makes clear is that advertising that stands out usually takes on the personality of the person creating the ad – and that personality is formed by many influences, from many experiences. That thought, in turn, started me thinking about some of my influences and experiences, and from that musing come this week's postings.

A Great Man

Meeting A Man Who Met Mark Twain.

It may seem impossible, or at least improbable, but in the 1970's it could happen, and it did. Below my garret in the brownstone on Albany's State Street where I lived after my divorce were a retired doctor and his wife – the Southwells. He was frail, she was as spry and active as a woman in her later years could be. She traveled the world with women friends, ran an herb shop up the street, and cared for her husband.

On weekends, I often sat on the stoop of the apartment house, reading a Mark Twain work, and so would see them – usually her – coming and going.

We exchanged ordinary pleasantries, but never much more.

The doctor passed away that year, and although Mrs. Southwell was still spry, there were chores that needed assistance. One Autumn day, as I was helping her change from screens to storm windows in her apartment, she mentioned that her husband had commented to her on my reading habits.

Yes,” I said, “I read a lot of Mark Twain.”

She casually mentioned that her husband had met him one summer in Dublin, New Hampshire.

I was amazed, and disappointed that I had never had the chance to talk to him about the meeting, and I told her so.

She put my mind at ease, however. “Remember,” she said, “that Mark Twain said that he came in with Halley's Comet and would go out with it?”

Yes, and he did. That's one of his most famous quotes.”

So, he passed away in 1910. My husband was a little boy in the the early 1900's, and Mark Twain was an old man, so the doctor didn't have a very long conversation with the great man.”

What did he remember?,” I asked.

That Twain seemed like a nice old man. And that he liked cats,” she told me. That was it. A little disappointing, but it was something.

At the time of Twain's death, poet James Whitcomb Riley confirmed the doctor's boyhood impression, saying, “The world has lost not only a genius, but a man of striking character, of influence, and of boundless resources. He knew the human heart and he was sincere. He knew children, and this knowledge made him tender.”

So, I had a true connection to an influential hero that I never imagined possible.

A Great Business.

Solving problems for clients

One of advertising's stock jokes is: “This would be a great business without clients.”

Of all the facetious, ironic and contradictory statements in the jargon of ad-making, that's one of my favorites. It's usually said when a client rejects something that the “creatives” are really proud of.

What we tend to forget is that it is the client's money, and the client has every right to reject what she doesn't like. The real truth is contained in another of our cliches: “great clients make great advertising.”

I think the problem starts earlier – that the creatives and the client did not come to a meeting of the minds, and did not hammer out a strategy that they could agree on. If they had, and if the proposed execution stayed on that strategy, then there'd be a valid complaint.

That's why I like to start every new client with a ten-part questionnaire, “The Visco Creative Strategy Brief.” By filling it out, the client is forced to think about the project in a particular way, to explain to the creative team the “who, what, when, where and why”, leaving the “how” to us.

(The “how much” should be determined before anything else.)

These are some of the points I've made to marketing students when I've guest-lectured at Skidmore, SUNY Albany and St. Rose College, and in the Advertising A to Z class I co-taught at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

But the most important point I make is this: my respect for, and awe at, the willingness of clients to spend their money for such intangibles as creative advertising.

It's a big responsibility, and I've never taken it lightly. That doesn't mean that creative advertising always works. It doesn't. It's not a science. And yet, it's not an art, either. It's a craft.

And the end product isn't a chair or a table, but an ephemeral promise that depends on the reaction of the viewer/listeners.

The better we are at understanding the mindset of the audience, the better the advertising results will be. There are many other variables, of course – the price, the location, the limits of the media exposure, even the mood of the country can affect the result.

There's a famous old pro-advertising ad where the client says “Half of my advertising budget is wasted. I just don't know which half.” With that preamble, I submit a few examples of advertising I created for trusting clients.

In the seventies, it may surprise you to know. banks were heavily regulated. Especially savings banks. They all had to offer the same return on savings. For a couple of banks, I tried an honest approach, and based their ad campaigns on the only differences they had: location and reputation.

For one, I took a cue from David Ogilvy's rule that outdoor advertising should be a “visual scandal,” that is, that the billboard only had your eye for a second or two, so it had to register quickly. One message was just three big words on a black field above the bank's logo: SAVE MORE EASIER.

By not putting the comma after “more,” the sentence looked ungrammatical. I liked it so much I paid for a full-size copy of the board, intending to use it as wallpaper in a room. I never did, and my landlord never knew how lucky he was.

Another bank had more locations in better spots in the area, so my art director and I conceived of a campaign that would emphasize that. It was Mechanics Exchange Savings Bank, and for quite a while had been established as “The ME Bank,” and that lent itself to clever lines like, “If it matters to you, it matters to ME.”

I think we reached the high point with a campaign that used honesty as a gimmick. We created an ad with a beautiful illustration of peas in a pod, and on each pea was the actual logo of each savings bank in the area. The headline was “They all look the same to ME,” and the copy stated that yes, all the rates were the same, so you should save at the bank that was most convenient. We were confident that we would get our share. That led to creating an animated character for TV, a pea. With the help of a local TV station, and the artistic ability of my long-time friend, cartoonist John Caldwell, we produced one of the first video-taped animation spots. To make it stand out even more, we had the one of the most outstanding character actors in the world as the voice of our pea – Sterling Holloway. If the name doesn't sound familiar, his most famous role will – he was the original voice of Disney's “Winnie the Pooh.”

Around the same time, we used another honest approach for the opposite problem – a Ford dealer whose location wasn't as convenient as his competition.

In that case, we actually filmed our spokesman at each competitor's location, where he would announce the actual driving time from there to our client's showroom. It was pretty effective, and I came up with a double meaning tag line, promising a short drive and a bargain. The line was “We're easy to get to, and, we're easy to get to.”

It's all in the delivery.

It was problem-solving like that that made me think I could get a job on Madison Avenue.

A Great Mistake

My first grab at The Apple

Sevan called. She had broken up with her director boy friend, and suggested we get together. All of a sudden, I loved the seventies. She lived in a glass and chrome-furnished fashionable upper East Side apartment, I lived in a cold water walkup in Smallbany. But she must have liked roughing it, because we soon fell into a long-distance dating routine, where she would train up to Albany one weekend a month, and I would train down to New York one weekend a month.

The in-between weekends were when I would see my young daughters, take them to my mother's for a good old-fashioned Italian Sunday dinner, and to weekend father things like museums and such.

For Sevan and me, the contrast in living styles was nothing compared to the difference in the activities we engaged in. Together, we found a way of relating sexually and psychologically that was, for us, a new and exciting exploration into unknown territory – you could call it a bonding – but that's a story for a different time. And place.

It was a strong enough connection that we wanted to keep it going – and actually discussed marriage. Before that could happen, we'd have to see if we could live together. And since she would never leave a successful career in New York, and I was without prospects in Albany, it seemed like the right time for me to move in with her.

But in 1975, there was a recession. Companies were cutting back on advertising. Agencies weren't hiring. So, naturally, I moved to Manhattan. And while I lived with her and looked for work, I filled in as an extra hand at her TV production company.

A comedy of errors ensued.

Next: A Gopher in Manhattan

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Confessions of a Retrosexual

Retrosexual is a recent neologism that can have many different meanings. I'm using it today to headline what, for me, sex was like ten years after the day“The Pill” was approved, which, incongruously, is exactly fifty years ago today, Mother's Day 2010.

Take it from someone who was married in 1960 and divorced in 1970 – it took a while for the Pill to have its effect.

As I've said, the Sexual Revolution started without me, but I caught up. It wasn't easy, being raised Catholic, and having been indoctrinated into believing that sex was only for married couples, and only for procreation.

All of a sudden, the world changed, and sex was supposed to be for fun, for personal fulfillment, and all because it was now child-proof.

This came as quite a shock, and it took a lot of getting used to. All of a sudden, women could explore their sexuality without the consequences of conception. And men like me had to get used to the idea that women actually wanted sex.

Many times during the seventies, I had to be convinced that a woman really wanted me to do to her what I wanted to do. I didn't even think of it as “with” her. But I was willing to learn.


The New York City Dairylea “shoot” was a wonderful experience, but when it was over, I was still a hick copywriter from upstate, with an unhappy marriage, a girl friend who would soon disappear, and no concept of what to do or where to go next.

Living with a wife and three young daughters in a second floor flat “on the hill” in Cohoes, with a city park abutting our backyard didn't seem too bad to me, but I let myself be persuaded by my in-laws that we should have our own house in the suburbs.

And so we moved, into a development in lower Saratoga county, where the back yard abutted Interstate 87 – the new superhighway from Albany to Canada.

A home can seem like a dream, or a trap, depending on your situation. For me, it symbolized everything I didn't want, and crystallized my terror. Of course I loved my daughters. But I had fathered them without understanding the responsibility I was taking on. Now I was turning thirty, and I was just starting to grow up. I agonized about leaving. I knew I had to. But I kept putting it off.

I wasn't one of those man-boys who constantly leave one woman just to go to another. I knew I had to learn how to be on my own. And besides, after some wonderful – and tearfully honest – nights and weekends with young Andrea McCabe, she had taken off for her backpacking tour of Europe, and I wouldn't hear from her for many, many months, after she had re-settled in Washington, DC.

It was agonizing, but I finally told my wife and children what was inevitable. When our families were told, the very people who were against our getting married were now totally opposed to our getting divorced. I was despised.

My wife, with her strong Catholic upbringing, claimed her life was over. That wasn't true, of course. In fact, within a few months, she was asking for the divorce to be speeded up, so she could marry a man she had met at Parents Without Partners. I complied, they combined families and have been together ever since. I'm glad of that.

But I felt worthless, and took steps to insure that I was. I left Barlow-Johnson, the agency that had given me the opportunity to create award-winning commercials, and joined the spin-off agency with an alcoholic account man and a one-armed art director that was doomed to fail.

With the help of a beautiful, buxom young department store model, Ginny Gosziewska (I don't think that's how she spelled it, but it's as close as I can come), I found and furnished a third-floor walk-up on Albany's State Street, a few blocks from a beautiful park and around the corner from her apartment. We got involved briefly, at her suggestion, but not seriously. Not only was I not ready for the sexual revolution, I was so nervous in bed and so convinced that sex was wrong, I didn't perform well.

She left, too. I remember her sending a letter to me that she had written while she was sitting in London's St. Paul's Cathedral. In it, she extolled what she considered my virtues. I didn't believe I had any, and cynically told her so in a rather cold note. Never heard from her again, of course.

I was getting what I believed I deserved, which wasn't much. But I hadn't hit bottom. Yet.

I'll get back to the fun of advertising soon, but today is a day for some inspirational stories and life lessons.


One of the repeating patterns of my life seems to be a building up of pressure, and a sudden release. It happened at WPTR in 1964, when something about the job of Continuity Director rankled me and I walked out without a plan.

It happened again a few years later, at Barlow/Johnson, the agency that gave me the opportunity to write and produce real, “New York style” radio and TV commercials for Dairylea. I was headquartered in the Latham office, near Albany, and the main office was in Syracuse.

Our office was overseen by Ned, something of a martinet, who seemed to become more rigid as the mores of the country became more permissive. He was in control, and dammit, he would run the office his way. By now, I had joined the rebellion in fashion, had let my hair and beard grow ever longer, and (gasp!) stopped wearing a necktie.

That was the proverbial straw – he insisted on neckwear for the men under his command – me, Richard, an alcoholic account man with “hip pocket” accounts, and Nunzio, a mysterious but extremely talented one-handed art director.

Ned didn't realize it, but Richard and Nunzio had been scheming to break away and start their own ad agency, and because Richard's accounts would go wherever he went, would have a client base to start with, right out of the gate. Nothing as dramatic as the weekend raid at Sterling Cooper at the end of “Mad Men's” third season, but the effect was the same.

They, in fact, carried it off, and shortly thereafter, I departed and joined them, sacrificing a half of what I was making in hopes that we would become wildly successful.

We didn't have a lot of accounts, but those we had, we tried to make the most of. One way to get more accounts is to get attention with the ones you do have. I remember writing a headline for an upscale furniture store's mattress ad that I expected would get lots of reaction. It was a double entendre I heard on David Frost's TV show – “For the bed you can be proud of, every time you make it.”

The ad ran. Nothing happened. People either didn't read it, or didn't get it, or didn't care.

It turned out to be just another reason for me to feel worthless.


It was one of the worst days of my life. It was 1970. My first marriage was over. I had left three beautiful little daughters, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. Even I didn't know why.

I was thirty years old, making less than ten thousand dollars a year working for an alcoholic who only dreamed of matching his father's advertising greatness, but who was incapable of achieving it. I was giving half of my meager take-home pay in child support, living on peanut butter sandwiches and milk, in one-half of a third floor walk-up.

Only one electric outlet worked and, on the worst winter days, I had to use the kitchen oven to heat the place, because the old furnace couldn't push enough hot water into the ugly, icy radiators. It was the first time I had ever lived on my own, and I didn't have enough self-esteem to ask for the needed improvements.

My third floor neighbors were an incongruous couple, a bright, well-scrubbed elementary school teacher named Pam, and her drugged-out boyfriend, Willie. I gave them a key to my apartment, in case -- I don't know in case of what, but I did it.

It was a cold, dark, sleety day, I had no car and had to take what passed for public transportation in Albany – a noisy, smelly bus that only ran from the suburban office once every two hours, and didn't even get me home, but to a corner on the edge of the most depressing part of the city, seven blocks away from my apartment.

As I trudged home in my Gohn Brothers black coat, with my long-haired, bearded head bowed down to avoid the sting of sleet and the eyes of strangers, I felt like I was in an unlikely painting that had come to life, a collaboration of Munch and Hopper. I plodded up to the third floor, unlocked the door to my apartment, and in the dark, without wanting to turn on the lights to see my living room with its few pieces of other people's cast-off furniture, I walked into the bedroom, threw my coat on the bed, and returned to the front room, sat on what passed for a sofa, and with head down, tried to think of a reason not to kill myself.

It was then that I started smelling something you shouldn't be smelling in your living room. It was unmistakably the smell of excrement.

Am I that depressed that I shit my pants and didn't even know it?,” I asked myself. I didn't think so. I reached over and turned on the room's one lamp. I looked at my shoes. I had stepped in a dog's leavings, and left a trail. But the trail came not from the front door, but from the bedroom. And I didn't have a dog. But Pam and Willie did. I changed my shoes and went next door.

Pam and Willie were home. I asked them if they had let their dog into my apartment. No, they hadn't, but there was a stray dog on the street and they took him in. Trouble was, the two dogs didn't get along, so they put the stray in my apartment for a while.

Well,” I said, “that dog shit in my bedroom and I tracked it in to my living room. I'd appreciate it if you'd clean it up.”

And they did. And I sat there, actually laughing. Here I was, at such a low point, trying to find a reason not to commit suicide, and God, or The Mistress of the Universe, or whatever you call what got us here and keeps us here, had given me an answer.

The answer, the way I interpreted it was: just when you think things can't get any worse, something's going to happen to make you laugh. Even if it takes dogshit in your bedroom, it will happen. And if you don't like that reason for living, read Hamlet's soliloquy. That's what I did that night, and found a reason to go on.

Soon after that, Sevan called. And life got very interesting again.

Next time: A long distance relationship with a city woman and the big city.

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.