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, April 24, 2011

Troy to Frosolone

I recently came across LaPosta wines -- some Argentinian-Italians' creations that are highly rated.

It sparked a lot of memories of my mother's family, so I decided to recount the story of how I managed to visit the tucked-away little town they came from. Here's the first part of the story.

When Frank and Rose LaPosta opened their confectionery store in 1924 at 34 Fifth Avenue, on the southern edge of Lansingburgh, New York, just across 101 st Street from Troy, they didn't have to look far for scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon. They had a pair or two of forbici (the Italian word for scissors) that were forged in Frank’s hometown of Frosolone, Italy, with the name La Posta stamped in. Where those scissors are now is anybody's guess, but now I know there's another pair on display in Frosolone's cutlery museum. I know, because I, a grandson of those LaPostas, managed to get there and see those scissors in March of 2007.

Family stories are often hazy recollections of things parents say when the children are too focused on the future to care much about the past. But this much we know about the La Posta side of the family – sometime in the late 1800's, Frank left Frosolone, a medieval town in the southern central part of the Apennine Mountains for Hartford, Connecticut, to find work in a city that was as famous for making cutlery in America as Frosolone once was in Italy.

Frank and many of his townspeople eventually settled in Troy, a city that was famous for the bigger products of its iron foundries – bells, stoves, valves and of course, plates for ironclad ships that first did battle in our Civil War. We know there were many Frosolonesi in Troy, because Frank La Posta was a charter member of the city’s Frosolone Social Club, a fact proudly stated in his obituary notice in the local paper in late December of 1944.

He died when I was just two days shy of my sixth birthday., so I didn’t know my grandfather very well, but I remember sensing my mother’s sadness at the passing of her father. I grew up knowing Grandma better, because a couple of years later, my mother, father, sister Rosanne and I moved from our cramped quarter of the Visk home on Liberty Street to a two-family home my widowed maternal grandmother owned near her store. (My father’s family name was changed from Visco to Visk, probably due to the lazy pronunciation my family used, usually dropping the final vowels of Italian words. Although for a couple of years, the Troy City Directory listed my father’s mother’s name as Florence Wisko. Go figure. I reclaimed the original family name in the 70's.)

A few years later, we moved to the third floor of the building that housed La Posta’s. By then, everybody who came into the store called Rose “Gram,” just as her real grandkids did. But I regret not asking her about Grandpa and Frosolone and what was so special about the town that caused these Italian immigrants to form a club around it.

For a long time, I’ve wondered about that town, not even knowing where it was. I once asked an Italian student who I was helping to learn English about it, and he said it was an area near Rome. I found out recently that he was thinking of a place called Frosinone – which has no relationship to the town of my ancestors, even though of all the Italians I asked about Frosolone, only one – a rental car agent in Pompei – didn’t confuse it with the similar-sounding Frosinone, which is both a province near Rome as well as its capital city, with a population 16 times greater than Frosolone.

But, first things first. This is the story of how, to my surprise, I went to central Italy at all, about the amazing things you can see and do there in a week, and topping it all off, how an offhand comment to my traveling companion a week before we left found us planning a trip to Frosolone on our last full day in Italy to look for La Posta-made scissors. And how that quest became the high point of the entire trip.

Some background:

Rich Capparela has been a friend of mine for twenty-seven years and counting. Many of my friends become friends through our work – I’ve been an advertising writer and broadcast producer since I was nineteen, and I met Rich because he is a classical music announcer with a mellifluous voice, and I was one of the first in the business to hire him to add gravitas to radio commercials for banks and other retailers.

His “day job” back in the seventies was as a deejay at public radio station WMHT-FM in Schenectady, and as often happens with talent like his, he was offered a similar job in a much larger broadcast market – Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1980, a few weeks before he was to drive his little yellow Honda across the country, he was complaining to me about having to drive alone. I had taken a one-year-only job, as Communications Director of New York State’s Commission on the International Year of the Child, and it was winding down, so I was about to be free, without employment prospects. I said, “I can go with you.” I thought it would be fun. He thought so too, and we made our plans for our own, not very Kerouac-ian, “On the Road.”

We shared the driving, we found great hotels at half price AAA specials, ate well and saw some of the country, got into a little trouble around the Grand Canyon, avoided big trouble in Amarillo, and became good friends. Through many ups and downs since, both his and mine, we remained friends, even though he’s stayed on the West Coast and I on the East. I even timed a cross-country trip on Amtrak with my wife, Eileen, in order to arrive in time for his wedding reception in the early nineties. And he and Marcia occasionally come east to visit.

After several years at the public radio station in LA, Rich eventually found a better niche at a commercial classical station, and established himself as a commercial classical host of several symphony orchestras and has a successful recording studio and website (

So, now it’s 27 years later, and once again, he’s complaining to me about traveling alone, this time to Europe. It’s late in my career, I’m now semi-retired and working in an Albany advertising agency just two days a week, for a friend who’s flexible about my hours, and she encouraged me to say to Rich, as I did back in 1980, “I can go with you.”

Next: On our way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How Do You Get To Madison Avenue?

No, it's not a twist on the old Carnegie Hall joke.

Whenever I've talked to college undergraduates about the advertising business, there's usually a question like “How do you get into the business?”

That's probably the toughest question I'm asked. And the easiest.

Toughest because I can't predict the path that will get you there. And easiest because it gives me a chance to talk about ME – and how I got there.

I come from a stage-struck, star-struck family. My father, along with his three older brothers, were mightily influenced by show business. Uncle Jimmy (Vincenzo) wrote and produced local shows in Troy's Little Italy, based on the vaudeville and minstrel shows that came to the area in the early years of the 20th century. Although politically incorrect today, ethnic stereotypes and minstrel shows were still popular back then, and Uncle Guy (Gaetano) was in a large black-face group called the Georgia Honey Boys. He proudly displayed a group photo of the men, in costume and makeup, which I always thought was rather odd, not only for its blatant racism, but for the fact that you can't recognize any of the people behind the burnt cork.

Uncle Tony was in every production, but as I recall, he didn't contribute much to the creation of the shows. He was usually the mysterious tall dark and handsome stranger.

My dad, Frank, was usually the naïve boy in the production, and later, the romantic lead.

Eventually, they licensed more professionally-written plays and performed them in local venues, helping to bring the community together and raise money for local churches, schools and organizations.

They welcomed the next generation, and soon my double cousins Anthony and Guy Junior were writing and performing sketches, cousins Mickey, Mary Anne, Diane and Marie were singing, dancing and doing impressions of popular entertainers like Al Jolson. We were all involved in putting on variety shows to raise money for the USO during World War II.

After the war, two things continued my interest in the entertainment field. My father, who had settled down with a wife and family and a job in a local factory, took his family to Manhattan for occasional weekends of seeing live Broadway shows, and movie premieres at Radio City Music Hall.

Also, cousin Anthony returned from the war and studied comedy writing on the GI Bill, wrote gags for people who appeared on Groucho's “You Bet Your Life” and even had a western comedy sketch stolen outright by Milton Berle. He eventually got a job as a radio writer at a 50,000 watt top 40 station. And when he left, when I was 19 and still not out of college, I talked myself into the job. I learned by doing, and from there, the move to ad agency writer, and the opportunity to expand into writing commercials for TV and ads for newspapers and magazines seemed logical.

There's more to the story, of course – a love of words, of movies, a desire to be behind the scenes.

So mine was unusual path to the ad business, to be sure. But that's the point I always make to students – there are many paths to where you want to go, and in the ad business, you can get to use everything you experience along the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


You never know where inspiration will come from. At some point in the recent past, after I had moved back to the Capital District from Manhattan, and rented a post office box for my free lance business address, its location necessitated a daily drive past a “gentleman's club,” to put it nicely.

Let me state unequivocally here that I have never entered the place, having gotten enough of an idea from that kind of establishment, which shows up in movies and TV shows, especially the Bada Bing from The Sopranos.

But one day, the local club posted a sign whose slightly prurient double meaning made me laugh, and then got me thinking. Phrases like this one are what make the titles of country and western songs stand out.

So, what was I to do? Write a song with that title, of course. I just changed the plural to singular. Here's how the lyrics came out.

Girl Wanted (For Various Positions)

by Frank LaPosta Visco

They told me you answered a help wanted sign

But it wasn’t what I expected.

It was at a bar at Twelfth & Vine.

I walked in, hoping you were rejected.

But they couldn’t turn away a woman so fine,

When they were givin’ out auditions.

And you were just what they had in mind with the sign

That read: Girl Wanted for Various Positions.

Girl Wanted for Various Positions --

And none of them are for me.

Girl Wanted for Various Positions --

Not one of them for me.

I sat at the bar and watched you dance,

Remembering the night we got married

While other men dreamed of future romance,

I saw ours was dead and buried.

You bent over backwards for me back then,

But you never got recognition.

Now you’re so forward with other men,

The Girl Wanted for Various Positions.

Girl Wanted for Various Positions --

And none of them are for me.

Girl Wanted for Various Positions --

Not one of them for free.

I know too late if I treated you right

I’d have what I hope for most:

You’d be home in our four poster tonight,

stead of workin’ at your post.

Give up this job & I’ll provide for you --

I’ll make your happiness my mission.

I’ll be flexible, I’ll be true

To The Girl Wanted for Previous Position.

Girl Wanted for Previous Position

If only I could make you see.

Girl Wanted for Previous Position --

The one you had with me.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Man, The Myth

How many times have you heard it: “Don't believe anything you hear, and only half of what you read.” Well, after spending ten years in New York, I came back home to where it all began. And discovered how true that can be.

I was at a favorite spot for lunch with cartoonist/humorist John Caldwell and some local advertising people. John introduced me to them, including Rachel, a young artist who was working as an illustrator for a department store. As soon as she heard my name, she said, “Oh, I know about you.”

What do you know?,” I asked, intrigued.

I know about how when you worked at Madison North, and you couldn't come up with an idea, you used to disappear for days, then come back and have the solution.”

Like most myths, this one had a speck of truth, around which a pearl of impossible proportions had been layered on -- and in just a little over ten years! At the risk of dimming the stars in her eyes, and losing a little personal luster, I had to turn this myth back into reality.

Any kind of creativity is work, even though it's fun work. What really happened way back when in the mid-seventies, was what happens to writers -- blockage. You can't think of an idea, a way to make a strategy come to life in a way that will make the ad stand out. When that happened, I would simply take a walk. Luckily, the agency was in an historical and beautiful section of Schenectady (yes, there are such things) called the Stockade, recalling the original Dutch settlement.

I would walk out the door, around the corner and the one block to my apartment, whose backyard sloped down to the Mohawk River/Erie Canal. I'd sit there for a few minutes, maybe even a half an hour, clear my mind and go back to my office in the third floor garret, and try a new approach.

Rachel's version was a lot more interesting than the truth. And even though Rachel was disappointed, and maybe you are too, I think the lesson is more important than the myth.