• February 28, 2011 /  Advertising

    “Hey! What happened to the little girl on the right side of the shot?”

    I want to believe, for dramatic effect only, that there was a time when Hollywood talent agents would pray I wouldn’t cast with them, especially for children or old people. The reason: two incidents that happened quite close to each other during different TV productions.

    The first occurred at a Clorox 2 commercial I shot with director Victor Haboush on his Santa Monica Boulevard stage in Hollywood.

    Victor Haboush, as I remembered him. We became good friends over the years.

    The commercial starred a mother and her three young daughters. We cast a woman and three girls who looked similar enough to be from the same family. Coincidentally, two of the girls were sisters.

    We started rolling film around 9:30 in the morning. The scene was designed to show the mother and her three daughters in clean clothes standing in front of a 15-foot tall “before” photo of the four of them in dirty clothes. Looking from the camera, Mom was on the left and the three girls were step-laddered on her right starting with the youngest and ending with the eldest; the same positions displayed on the giant “before” photo behind them.

    The shot started with a close-up of the mom as she spoke one line and then widened out to reveal the four of them looking clean and happy in front of the enlarged photo.

    It was either the third or fourth take when it happened. The producer, the clients and I were watching the videotape-assist monitor as the camera widened out and held its position. As we watched, we could see the eldest girl start to waver back and forth and suddenly fall forward. Victor Haboush, who was operating the camera, turned to us and said, “What happened?” I looked to the stage and saw the girl lying face down.

    She passed out and slit her chin open on the concrete stage floor. She was given first aid to stop the bleeding and then a member of the crew drove both her and her mother to a nearby hospital emergency room.

    No one could understand why she passed out. It was early in the shoot, the lights were not hot and she was just standing. Perhaps the excitement of getting the part and being on stage overwhelmed her or maybe she forgot to eat breakfast. Whatever it was, we never found out.

    After the hubbub, the first thought was that we would have to cancel the shoot. However, Victor pointed out that luckily she was the furthermost person to camera right on stage and in the photograph. So by changing the shooting angle, we could effectively cut off the right side of the photo. After repositioning both the camera and the mother with only two daughters now, we continued to film.

    To add to the dismal start of the day, at dinner that night, Victor related another incident that happened to him while shooting a commercial by a hotel swimming pool a few months earlier.

    One of the hotel guests, an elderly man, came down for a late morning swim. Because they weren’t using the pool in the shot, the production crew told the man it was all right to swim.

    No one paid particular attention as he swam his laps. At one point, someone turned around and saw him floating face down. Crew members dove in and pulled him out. Someone performed CPR. When the paramedics arrived, it was determined he had a fatal heart attack and was dead before he was pulled from the water.

    Camera! Action! Cut!

    “Eight-six the raven!”

    About 6 months later, we were filming a Pacific Telephone commercial. The director was a Type A personality with a loud voice to match. He believed that the only way to get a performance out of his actors and his crew was to shout them into action.

    Professional raven preparing himself for the next take.

    To illustrate my point, the commercial called for a live raven. You’ll have to believe me when I tell you the raven was a Hollywood pro, who had done a number of films. Even with all of the surrounding activity and noise, it would sit calmly on its perch minding its own business, probably thinking up birdbrain ideas. However, each time the director would yell action at the top of his lungs, the bird would go crazy; flipping upside down on the perch, flapping its wings wildly and screaming. After a number of takes, we had two options: either get rid of the director or eighty-six the raven. As I look back, I think we should have chosen the first option.

    We used a wonderful old character actor with a very unique voice by the name of Lou Krugman for the principle part. For some reason, during the initial casting and call back session, the director had Lou read the copy as if performing a Shakespearean play. He never corrected Lou nor directed him to speak the lines less dramatically.

    Lou Krugman as he appeared in the movie “Irma LaDouce.”

    Lou continued this overly dramatic reading as we began filming the commercial. About half way through the scene, Lou was becoming visibly nervous and upset as the director, in a voice that continued to increase in volume, pushed him to speak his lines faster.

    Lou started to forget his lines. It happens; actors and actresses freeze. They concentrate so hard on their parts that they have a temporary lapse of memory.

    But it continued. Soon I began feeding Lou each line, which might have been only three words long. But as soon as the camera would start rolling, he would get the first word out and forget the next two.

    Lou claimed he was nervous because it had been a while since he performed on camera but wanted to continue on if I would help him with the lines. By this time the loud-mouthed director, who I believed at the time was probably the cause of Lou’s nervousness, had quieted down. It wasn’t until Lou finished his part that he confessed he wasn’t feeling well. He reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital and get checked out. A production assistant drove him.

    We continued shooting the other performers and their scenes. Towards the end of the day, we were informed that Lou was indeed ill during the shoot and would be staying in the hospital overnight for observation. Everyone felt terrible, especially because no one realized he was having a medical issue.

    Fortunately, Lou recovered completely. Over the years, I used him many times as a voice-over talent and often saw him in TV commercials and heard his voice on many radio spots. We corresponded regularly and would have an occasional lunch when I came to Hollywood.

    The last time I saw Lou was on stage at the Raleigh Studios where I was shooting some commercials with Vincent Price. Lou and Vincent did a radio show together back in the 1930s and Lou wanted to give Vincent an audiotape of the show. So I invited Lou to the set. He stayed the day. In between takes, he and Vincent spent hours reminiscing about the radio show and people they knew in the business at that time.

    Lou passed on a year or so later. A unique person and a unique voice, silenced.

    Animal Crackers

    Lou Krugman was cast to play the part of Boris, an old fortune-teller. Near the end of the commercial, Boris is seen dialing the phone and saying, “Hello daddy.” There is a cut to a white-haired, even older fortune-teller dressed in a tuxedo with cape sitting in a chair with a phone to his ear responding, “Boris.” An owl is perched on the back of his chair. As if on cue, the owl coincidentally, says “Who” immediately after the old fortune teller said, “Boris.” The actor, an old pro, looks over his shoulder at the owl and immediately ad libs, “My son.”

    Obviously, we edited this scene into the finished commercial and we didn’t have to pay the owl for the speaking part.

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  • November 28, 2010 /  Advertising

    While at Leo Burnett in Chicago, Glenn Fujimori and I created a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial that required using the KFC image store in Henderson, Nevada, just on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

    Unfortunately, the shoot coincided with Glenn’s vacation to Italy. With 90 percent of the work done, Glenn handed off the job to a junior art director before he left.

    Juniors, in those days, generally assisted art directors. They rarely, if ever, got out of the office. And if they did, it was most likely to pickup artwork from an art studio or to assist an art director on a photography shoot in town. So attending a TV shoot was a big opportunity that no junior would want to miss, especially if it was taking place out of town.

    I flew to Hollywood with the agency producer a couple days before the shoot to cast our principal actor and actress. The plan was to then fly to Las Vegas and cast the extras (we needed 25) from one of the local casting agencies.

    The junior art director remained in Chicago to get the various price and disclaimer information typeset and mounted on art boards. Rather than ship them directly to the editing house in Hollywood, he was to hand deliver everything to us at the shoot in Las Vegas. Since we were already budgeted for an art director, this gave him the opportunity to attend the filming of a commercial and get some so called “production experience.”

    We were staying at the Riviera. The director made arrangements to cast the extras at poolside at the hotel. So when the junior art director arrived later in the day, you can probably imagine what was running through his mind as he was led from the lobby to the scene of us sitting in our bathing suits at poolside, wearing sunglasses, cool drinks in hand while people paraded back and forth in front of us. To him, this had to be the epitome of the glamorous world of advertising and Hollywood commercial making. Actually, it was the first time I did anything like that. I have to admit it was a fun way to cast.

    That evening the production company took us to a dinner show at the Tropicana. Back then, I could handle a Tanqueray martini or two with no problem so I ordered one after we were seated. The junior did the same. We also had wine with the dinner.

    After the show at the Tropicana, we shared a cab back to the Riviera with the film director’s secretary and one of the production assistants. The Osmonds were playing in the main room at midnight and the two women from the production house invited us to the show because they didn’t want to go unescorted that late at night. I reluctantly agreed knowing that we had to be up early the next morning and would have a long day of shooting ahead of us.

    We sat down. I noticed the small placard on the table specifying, “Three drink minimum per person.” Since I didn’t want any more alcohol, I ordered orange juice. I half heard the junior art director order a Tanqueray martini.

    The lights went out. The show started. The waitress brought the drinks, three for each person. About a quarter of the way through I could hear the art director hiccupping. The Osmonds took a break after 45 minutes of song and dance. As soon as the house lights went up, quite a number of young girls ran to the stage to get Donny Osmond’s autograph. Where all these young girls came from at 1:00 a.m. is still a mystery to me, but as I looked up, there stood the junior art director in line with all the girls who were getting a kiss planted on their cheeks by Donny after he signed each autograph.

    Fortunately, the art director didn’t try to kiss Donny and staggered back to the table with an autograph on his cocktail napkin.

    The rest of us found this hilarious after realizing he had downed all three Tanquerays during the first half of the show. At that point, I called it a night explaining that tomorrow would be a long day. I suggested to the art director that he also return to his room, but he wanted to stay and the others promised to get him back at the end of the show. As I got up to leave, I made plans to meet him for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. so we could drive to the location together.

    The following morning, I grabbed a table in the coffee shop and waited for him. 7:15 a.m. No art director. I ordered breakfast. 7:30 a.m. No art director. I called his room. No answer. 7:45 a.m. I finished breakfast and went back to my room for my bag. I called his room again. No answer. Before heading to the car, I decided to knock on his door. As I knocked, I could hear a faint moan and a weak voice uttering, “I’m coming.”

    The door opened. He was still wearing the clothes he had on the night before, but all rumpled now. He was holding up one side of his eyeglasses because the arm of the frame was broken off. His hair was a mess and he reeked of stale booze. I asked what happened. In between long pauses and a still slurred voice he said the last thing he remembered was coming back to his room and looking at the bed. I surmised that he passed out and fell face forward on the bed, which could explain the broken glasses.

    I told him I had to leave and that he could cab it over to the location after he showered and shaved.

    About two hours later, he arrived at the park where we were shooting the first scenes of the commercial. He was so hung over he had to lie on the seat portion of a picnic table while the makeup person spent most of the morning applying cold compresses to his head. By noon he felt even worst and decided to go back to the hotel to sleep it off.

    He did show up the next day for the second half of the filming. But, by that time, he was pretty much out of the loop and didn’t understand what was going on. So this poor guy who never got out of the office, finally had a chance to get some TV experience, and ended up missing half the shoot. He returned to Chicago while I flew on to LA to edit the commercial.

    By the way, that evening at the Riviera in 1973, the Osmonds introduced the newest member of the singing family, their sister Marie.

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  • May 30, 2010 /  Advertising

    I like eating out.

    When I was working full-time at ad agencies, it was not only one of the fringe benefits of my job; it was how we did business and made connections. I was either being treated to lunch or dinner by a film rep or production company or using an expense account to take a client out. While I could probably spend hours regaling my dining experiences at many of the classic old time and hip ” in” restaurants in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I thought I’d share just a few unforgettable incidents that are as fresh in my mind today as when they happened.

    One night Chuck Sheldon, the Executive Producer at Foote, Cone & Belding San Francisco, and I made arrangements to meet for dinner at the Steak Pit on Melrose Avenue in L.A. I had never been there. With address in hand, I drove up and down Melrose neck craned looking for the restaurant, but I couldn’t find it. How hard could it be to find a restaurant called the Steak Pit? So I parked my car in the block where it should have been, found a pay phone (pre-cell phones in those days) and called the restaurant. They told me they were on the corner only a half block away. How could I have missed it?

    I walked the half block and looked around the intersection. On three of the corners were three businesses that were clearly not restaurants. Across from me, on the fourth corner, stood a one-story building with no sign, blackened out windows, and a recessed red steel door illuminated by a bare light bulb. It didn’t look like a restaurant.

    I tried the door. It was locked. I stared at the piece of paper in my hand. I couldn’t understand how I messed up the directions. For some reason, I decided to knock. Nothing happened. I waited a minute and was about to leave when suddenly the door opened and a man in a red waiter’s jacket asked: “The name, please?” I said I was meeting Chuck Sheldon. He motioned me in.

    I entered into what I can only describe as someone’s Midwestern, knotty pine paneled, basement rec room with a bar along the wall. This was not what I was expecting, but apparently it was the Steak Pit. Since I was early, I sat at the bar where the owner Joe Gothard served me a drink. As we talked, I mentioned that I had difficulty finding the restaurant. He told me his customers seemed to like the discreetness of no signage and blacked-out windows. Made me wonder who his customers might be.

    The Steak Pit was located on the corner of Melrose and Sierra Bonita Avenues. I’m not sure what business occupies the space today, but it looks like the red steel door is still in place.

    After Chuck arrived, we were shown to the dining area. It was quite small, eight or ten tables at most. An original portrait of Amelia Earhart hung over the fireplace. (According to Chuck, Joel Squier, a producer friend of ours, tried to purchase the portrait from Joe on numerous occasions, but never succeeded.) Except for a couple at a table in the corner, we were the only other customers.

    The menu was simple: lamb chops, or a 16- or 22-ounce New York Steak. A salad, sliced beefsteak tomatoes and a frying pan of grilled onions unceremoniously dumped onto a large plate in the center of the table rounded out the dinner. Aside from some sliced French bread and butter, I don’t remember there being much else on the menu. The steak, just off the grill, continued to sizzle on the plate for at least 5 minutes after it was served. This had to be the best steak I ever tasted since moving from Chicago with its melt-in-your-mouth corn-fed beef.

    The couple left about a half-hour before we finished dinner. Joe joined us while we had coffee. He told us to always call and make reservations because the restaurant was open sporadically depending on the number of reservations.

    And he wasn’t kidding about reservations because the famous story about the Steak Pit concerned a music composer friend of mine. He brought his clients to the restaurant after an early evening music session. He knocked. The waiter, who happened to be Joe’s son, opened the door and said: “The name?” The composer, who was a regular, gave his name and asked if he could get a table for five. After greeting the composer by his first name, Joe’s son apologetically replied, “reservations only” and quietly closed the door.

    The composer’s clients were dumbfounded. The composer told everyone to just wait at the door. He walked a half block to probably the same pay phone I used. He dialed the restaurant and made reservations for five, in five minutes.

    He returned to the restaurant and knocked on the door. The waiter answered. The composer gave his name. The waiter remarked that they were a little early but could come in and wait at the bar until their table was ready.

    “That Toddlin’ Town”

    In the 1960s and 70s, Riccardo Restaurant and Gallery was probably the number one “Mad Men” advertising and PR luncheon hangout in Chicago. It was located on Rush Street almost in back of the Wrigley Building. Aside from ad people, the restaurant and bar were frequented by such Chicago newspaper and television personalities as Len O’Connor, Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet and Studs Terkel.

    When you lunched at Riccardo’s, you could over a period of time see and meet just about everyone in the Chicago ad business. In fact, it was so populated with ad people that no one dared talk shop because you could never be sure if someone from another agency was sitting behind you or at the next table.

    The bar at Riccardo’s was quite unique. It was in the shape of a painter’s palette with its narrow end facing a high curved wall. When Ric Riccardo, Sr. founded the restaurant, it doubled as an art gallery and gathering place for local artists. Riccardo hired six well-known artists to paint six over-sized, 4- x 8-foot high murals representing the “Lively Arts” to hang on the curved wall in back of the bar. He painted the seventh. (Riccardo also owned Pizzeria Uno where reportedly he and co-owner Ike Sewell invented Chicago’s world-famous deep-dish pizza in 1943.)

    Three of the seven “Lively Arts” murals grace the curved wall.

    Because of the number of ad people who gathered at Riccardo’s, it was a natural hangout for art, photography and film reps. One group of everyday regulars had their assigned places at the bar and more likely than not were either entertaining an agency art director or producer or sending drinks to someone’s table.

    The same reps sat at the same bar stools day in and day out. Nothing seemed to change. For example, after three years in San Francisco, I returned to Chicago on a business trip. I arranged to have lunch at Riccardo’s with Jack Sheasby, a director friend of mine. I arrived a little early, so I headed to the bar. It was as if I never left; all the reps were sitting in their appointed places. As I walked in, one rep turned, saw me and said, “Hey. Where have you been? Haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks.”

    Joel, Joel, Joel

    I was first introduced to Sal’s Martoni’s Restaurant in Hollywood after a late evening music recording session. I was told it was the only full-service restaurant in the Hollywood area that kept its kitchen open past 10 p.m. aside from Cantors Deli and some late night diners. It was located on Cahuenga Boulevard just across from the famous Wally Heider Recording Studio.

    My funniest evening at Martoni’s took place at the long table in front, just behind the green wine bottles.

    It was a Italian restaurant opened by Ciro (Mario) Marino of Marino’s Restaurant on Melrose and was now run by his son Sal. I didn’t know it at the time, but Martoni’s had been and still was a big hangout for singers and music execs, such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sonny Bono, Sam Cooke, Phil Specter, The Beatles, the Grateful Dead and many more. Unaware of its past and present star-studded history, I simply thought of it as a great place to go for delicious Italian food, especially my favorite Italian dish: Scungilli (an ocean mollusk) with penne pasta in a spicy marinara sauce.

    The evening I remember most at Martoni’s was a dinner with a group of people, which included myself, a producer friend Joel Squier, and Joel Goldsmith from Glenn Swanson Studios. Aside from a hilarious evening of all three Joel’s not being sure to which of us any question was being directed, it was capped off when the waiter came to the table and announced a phone call for Joel.

    The waiter had no idea why everyone at the table simultaneously burst out laughing.

    Please Eat Somewhere Else

    Another Chicago restaurant that I frequented was Louie’s Cantonese Restaurant on Rush Street toward the south end of the nightclub area. Agency people, film directors, art reps, music composers, musicians, nightclub entertainers, singers and actors at one time or another ate at Louie’s. It was a Rush Street institution made so by Louie himself. With the wink of an eye or a turn of a phrase, his wry sense of humor could quickly transform his stoic look into a beaming smile.

    I remember on a particularly slow restaurant day asking Louie if he wanted to join us for lunch at our table. He quipped in broken English, “What? Eat here? You think I crazy?”

    The restaurant was a favorite of music composer and arranger Bobby Whiteside. I used Bobby quite often to compose music for the Kentucky Fried Chicken jingles I wrote while at Leo Burnett. He recorded almost exclusively at Universal Recording Studios on East Walton, which was around the corner from Louie’s. Needless to say, we ate many lunches and dinners there.

    One afternoon Bobby, my art director partner Glenn Fujimori, and I were having a late lunch at Louie’s after a morning recording session. As usual, a big part of lunch was joking around with Louie and the one-upmanship involved. Bobby was feeling smug because he believed Louie had no retort to his last joking remark.

    When we were ready to leave, it seemed to take longer than usual for the check to arrive. Normally the check came on a plain white saucer with fortune cookies on top. This time, however, we each received our fortune cookie on individual saucers.

    A narrow strip of paper hung out of one end of Bobby’s cookie. Curious, he pulled the paper out. Carefully hand-printed on the small strip were the words: “Confucius say: Please go eat somewhere else.”

    Louie peered from behind the circular window of the swinging door that led to the kitchen, his eyes laughing in back of his thick, black-rimmed glasses.

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  • February 14, 2010 /  Advertising

    I always felt one of the important steps in producing a TV commercial, albeit one of the least time consuming, was the post-production audio mix.

    Maybe it was because I wrote the words and the lyrics and helped develop the music that I had such a vested interest in the intricacies of the final sound track: voice levels between scenes, volume of the music, and lip sync with the sound track (an art that seems to have eluded a lot of commercials and TV programming these days).

    So I thought I would relate some of my experiences while mixing sound tracks. But before I do and to put it into perspective, you should understand that I’m about ninety percent deaf in my left ear, and have been that way since I was six years old. But rather than being a hindrance, I believe it had helped because for some reason I was able to distinguish between audio level changes that most people with normal hearing would have difficulty detecting.

    My funniest experience, which happened to involve my hearing problem, was during the production of a Kentucky Fried Chicken TV commercial with Steve Kelly, a producer at Leo Burnett. It was probably sometime during the middle of the filming when I discovered Steve was stone deaf in his right ear.

    Great.  You couldn’t find better comedy fodder: a partially deaf writer and a partially deaf producer trying to do an audio mix. I don’t remember the name of the mixing studio, but I do remember Steve and I sitting together with our deaf ears facing each other. As each scene would roll, our conversation went something like: “How did it sound in your good ear?” “Great. How about yours?” “Great. Next scene.” And we continued mixing the TV spot.

    Once, while mixing audio at the Todd-AO Sound Studio in Hollywood, I kept hearing a chirping. I was sitting up front watching and listening to the commercial on the theater-sized screen. The producer, art director and sound engineer were in back at the mixing console. At first, I thought the chirping was a glitch in the sound track or in the electronics and couldn’t understand why they continued the mix without first correcting the problem. Finally, I asked about the chirping sound. They played it again and said they didn’t hear anything. And on that occasion, neither did I. We continued mixing and suddenly I heard it again. Of course, no one else did. Finally the art director walked to the front and sat with me. Then he heard it. In disbelief, both the producer and engineer joined us. Suddenly: a chirp, then another. We all looked at each other and began to laugh. Somehow, a cricket got into the room and was simply doing what crickets do.

    On still another occasion, I was part of the team pitching a piece of new business for Foote, Cone & Belding. We were producing audio tracks in Los Angeles for the presentation and were down to the wire with last minute delays, okays and changes. It meant we would be recording and mixing into the wee hours of the morning to meet the deadline. To accomplish this feat, we split up. Chuck Sheldon, the executive producer and Ken Sale, one of the creative directors, were recording the voices of different men and women at Buzzy’s Recording studio, while I went off to another studio to record variations of the announcer track. When I finished, I headed back to Buzzy’s where we would edit the voice tracks with the announcer tracks and do our final audio mix.

    It was well after midnight when I arrived. Ken and Chuck had just finished recording the last talent track. Over the next few hours, we mixed and matched and edited several variations for the presentation. At some point, the audio engineer told everyone to take a break while he cleaned up the sound tracks and edited for time, which entailed removing pauses, breaths, etc. There was a comfortable couch in front of the mixing console, so I mentioned to Chuck that I was going to grab a quick 15-minute snooze.

    Sometime after I nodded off, the engineer began experiencing interference with his audio equipment, which manifested itself as some kind of buzzing sound. He kept fiddling with the levers and dials trying to determine the source of the interference, but to no avail. This went on for about a half hour. Everyone in the booth could hear the sound coming through the large studio speakers. The engineer was beside himself until Ken Sale walked around to the front of the console and found me, mouth agape, peacefully snoring away on the couch.

    This obviously had nothing to do with my deaf ear, but not wanting to lose the humor of the situation, I quickly quipped, “So why do you guys think they call this place Buzzy’s?”

    I immediately exited the booth and headed to the kitchen area for a cup of coffee amidst the booing, hissing and cries of “off with his head” from the others.

    Thoughts on the Super Bowl commercials

    Maybe I’m too cynical but on a scale of one to ten when comparing this year’s commercials to really funny, unique and memorable commercials of past years, I’d give what I saw on Super Bowl Sunday a “one.” I forced myself to sit through bathroom humor, badly written contrived comedy, and endless network promotions of its own shows. (I guess they didn’t have a sell out.) Did I hear that it cost 3 million for a 30-second spot? Wow, a lot of advertisers wasted a lot of money because I saw nothing there that would make me want to buy their product or even remember their name. But that’s just my opinion.

    What do you think about this year’s dog and pony show? Just go to the top of this page, click comments and let me know.

  • November 30, 2009 /  Advertising

    On every film shoot, set off from all the activity, there’s a table with food and drink for the crew, cast and clients. It’s called the Craft Services table.

    In the mornings, you would usually find coffee, juices, sweet rolls, sometimes lox and bagels and so on. It is kept supplied the entire day with cold drinks and all kinds of snacks and munchies.

    If a full breakfast, lunch or dinner were required, a catering company would be called in and they would set up their tables next to the Craft Services table.

    I remember filming a commercial for Mervyns at one of their stores in the Los Angeles area. Since Mervyns would not close the store for an entire day, we were required to shoot while customers were shopping. The Craft Services and catering tables were set up on the sidewalk next to a side entrance to the store. Along with the coffee and sweet rolls, there were scrabbled eggs, bacon, sausage and toast for breakfast and later, hot dishes, sandwiches, tossed salads, coleslaw, potato salad and so on for lunch.

    We ate well.

    Some Mervyns’ customers who used that side entrance thought the store was giving away free samples of food, so they just went up to the tables and helped themselves. I watched as a mother fed breakfast to her two children. She sat on the curb with two plates of food and fed the kids as they sat in their double stroller. One woman asked me the brand name of the product she was sampling. I even noticed a couple of Mervyns’ sales personnel helping themselves during their break.

    Rob Thomas, a Foote Cone & Belding producer, told me that on some of his shoots in Los Angeles, homeless people would come up and ask what they could do to earn a breakfast from the Craft Services table. Usually, they would be given a menial cleanup task and then allowed to eat as much as they wanted. Unfortunately, if the studio happened to be shooting at that same location the next day, there could be a line of homeless people looking for a meal.

    Another time, while shooting a commercial with New York director Murray Bruce at a three-story walkup in Hoboken, New Jersey, I experienced an entirely different help-yourself-to-the-Craft-Services-table experience.

    Normally, when shooting on location, you are required to hire the local police for traffic control and basic security. Usually these are off-duty cops who can earn some extra pay. On this shoot, however, we had none other than the Hoboken Chief of Police providing security.

    The Craft Services table was set up on the parkway at the corner, a couple buildings down from where we were filming. It was easily accessible, yet out of way. While taking a break between scenes, I noticed the Chief loading up a paper plate with bagels and sweet rolls and fruit slices. He placed another paper plate on top with napkins as a squad car pulled up. He handed the plate through the window to the cop inside, along with a steaming cup of coffee.

    I didn’t think much of it, until I watched him load another plate with food and hand it through the window of another squad car that pulled up along the curb.

    It finally dawned on me when I saw the same thing happening with lunch: the Chief was spending the day feeding the entire Hoboken Police Department.

    As I continued to shoot commercials in different locations and with different film studios over the years, I learned a couple valuable lessons about the Craft Services table.  First, if there was a 7 a.m. crew call, make sure you showed up at least by 8 a.m.; any later and the crew would have already polished off the lox, bagels and cream cheese. And second, the film crew and cast were not the only ones eating the food at the table.

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  • October 31, 2009 /  Advertising

    As many of you know, a lot of careful planning goes into the production and filming of a television commercial. But, sometimes, even the best laid plans . . .

    As a writer on the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) account at Leo Burnett in Chicago, I was privy to and sometimes involved in KFC’s experiments with new food products and new ideas for expanding their operations. Many of these efforts were directed at gaining market share from McDonald’s, their biggest competitor. During my time on the account, KFC was in the process of not only testing the competitive waters with a combination takeout/sit down restaurant (they only had takeout facilities at the time), but also with a restaurant-style menu that included a hamburger.

    They built an experimental restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona called “The Colonel’s” where they could test market the takeout/sit-down restaurant concept, along with the menu items.

    My art director partner Glenn Fujimori and I were involved with the project from the get go. We not only created an introductory television commercial, but Glenn was also involved in suggesting color schemes and interior design ideas for the new restaurant. After months of prep work, we flew to Arizona for the commercial shoot.

    Kentucky Fried Chicken brought in home economists from their headquarters in Louisville to work with the food stylist contracted by the film studio. The KFC home economists brought along one-of-a-kind food products such as onion rings, French fries, roast beef, milk shakes, the new hamburger and so on. All were specifically developed for the sit-down restaurant menu and were not available at any KFC takeout. The KFC home economist and “The Colonel’s” restaurant staff were to prepare everything on premise for the film shoot.

    The idea of the commercial was to announce that something was changing at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The commercial opened with a trio singing and strutting in front of a KFC takeout restaurant that would magically transform into “The Colonel’s” new sit-down restaurant. Once inside, the singers would introduce and serve the never before offered food items.

    Singers getting ready for next take
    in front of “The Colonel’s” sit-down restaurant.

    The greater part of the first morning was spent filming the opening sequence on location at the takeout restaurant. Just prior to lunch, we moved with the crew and equipment to the sit-down restaurant location on the other side of town for the outside shots of the new restaurant. The next day, the singers would be filmed inside the restaurant as they served and introduced the new menu items. We would also film close-ups of customers eating and enjoying the food, idiomatically known as the “bite and smile” shots.

    On the second morning, we arrived around eight. The KFC home economists and local staff and cooks, who would eventually operate the new sit-down restaurant, had been at the location since 6:00 a.m. preparing the new food items. The next few hours were spent rehearsing the singers and actors and filming close-ups of the food. We planned to film the food being served and eaten in the afternoon. About 1 p.m., the Assistant Director called lunch.

    A bunch of us, clients, account people, the director and the creative staff, drove off to a restaurant for lunch. We returned about an hour later. I was sitting in an out-of-the-way booth watching the cinematographer set up the first shot. Suddenly I noticed an unusual amount of activity around the kitchen area. I wandered over.

    As I walked up I could see Glenn, the agency producer Don Simmons, and the film director in an animated conversation. Members of the crew surrounded them. I wedged my way into the circle. Don informed me that the KFC staff ate a majority of some of the new menu items for lunch.

    Director Steve Dollinger explaining to agency producer Don Simmons and art director Glenn Fujimori how they could juggle the shooting sequence while waiting for the replacement food to arrive. The writer is the handsome guy on the right.

    My mouthed dropped in disbelief. I think I mouthed the words: “They ate the food?” I remember people shaking their heads in agreement.

    If you ever worked with food in a commercial, you know it involves a lot of takes and a lot of food to get that perfect bite and smile shot. And then multiply that by at least three food items being eaten by three different people and . . .

    Panic time!

    Fortunately, we had a prop master by the name of Romero working our shoot. I’ve worked with him before. If you were shooting in the middle of the desert and decided you needed a set of bagpipes, Romero would drive off and return fifteen minutes later with bagpipes. I’m exaggerating, but it was pretty close to the truth. If you needed anything, you could count on Romero to find it.

    Romero quickly dispatched a squadron of production assistants and crewmembers into Phoenix. In about an hour, they came back with food items from various grocery stores and specialty shops that matched the original products so closely in size, color and texture that even the KFC home economists couldn’t tell the difference.

    The filming continued without a hitch.

    Since the client at headquarters in Louisville was pleased with the commercial and we didn’t incur any additional money outside of normal production costs, this faux pas was never brought to his attention. And as far as the KFC personnel on the shoot go, I’d say they gave a whole new meaning to the KFC tag line “Finger Lickin’ Good.”

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  • September 30, 2009 /  Advertising

    The San Francisco office of Botsford-Ketchum was located at 55 Union Street in 1976.

    You will still find a lot of unconventional people working in the advertising business, especially on the creative side. There was one art director I met at Botsford-Ketchum who happened to lean just a little further off the wall, but in a good way.

    He had a long ponytail, wore loose fitting pullover tops, string-tie pants, and sandals most of the time. Your immediate thought would be here’s someone caught in a time warp, a leftover hippie from the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love although he was from the East Coast. More often than not, I’d find him meditating in a crossed-legged yoga position on top of the built-in desk in his cubicle — sticks of burning incense surrounding him.

    He lived in his Volkswagen bus.

    He proudly showed it to me one day. The rear and side windows were covered by the standard issue khaki-colored curtains with their red and black plaid design. A narrow bed in back of the driver’s seat ran the length of the van. The floor was covered in a plush pile rug. There was a small dresser in the rear and a place to hang clothes. It was neat as a pin, even to a pair of slippers carefully placed next to the bed.

    His daily routine consisted of leaving the office after work, driving to and parking wherever he felt like sleeping that evening — usually somewhere by the bay or the ocean. Early the next morning he’d return, shower at the agency, and then breakfast at a cafe down the street.

    Although we never worked together, I would occasionally get a glimpse of an ad or brochure or design project he had in the works. He was a tasteful art director and his work reflected it.

    We would go to lunch occasionally. Once we got into a conversation about how we each got our starts in the business. He told me he put together a portfolio of stolen ads to get his first job in New York.

    I began to laugh until I realized he was serious. He explained that he knew he was capable of doing excellent work, but didn’t want to start as a junior and work his way up. So, he clipped out ads from magazines and put together a portfolio of what he considered great print advertising. Because these were not consumer ads from major accounts, but rather industrial and trade ads from small or little known agencies and companies, no one bothered to verify or question whether he did them.

    It worked. He landed his first job at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach in New York as a full-fledged art director. Because he was capable of creating ads comparable to those he used to get his foot in the door, he quickly built a real portfolio of his own Doyle Dane work. He continued to move on and up from one agency to another.

    By the time I met him, he had become disenchanted with the business — the internal politics, the constant fight to produce good creative and so on. He wanted out and was just biding his time awaiting an inheritance that would allow him to quit.

    I lost track of him after I left Ketchum. About 10 years later, I ran into him at a restaurant in Mill Valley. He finally got out of the business, lived in Hawaii, spent his days playing golf.

    As we said our goodbyes, he handed me his card and said if I needed any art direction help to keep him in mind. I didn’t look at the card until the following day. His name was printed above the words “Advertising Art Direction.” There was nothing else on the card — no address, no telephone number.

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  • July 27, 2009 /  Advertising

    There was a lot going on in the world in the early 1970s, the continuing conflict in Southeast Asia, civil unrest in the U.S., growing disillusionment with the government, the beginnings of the Watergate scandal. But amid war, social realignment, and presidential impeachment proceedings, American culture still flourished.

    I worked on Libby’s Foods at Tatham-Laird & Kudner in Chicago at the time when the “Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s” theme was created. I wrote TV and print for their entire product line from canned vegetables to fruits to meats.

    Libby’s was continually experimenting with new food products in those days, including snacks and desserts. One of the products was a new dessert called Fruit Float. It finished the final development stage and was ready for test market.

    We created an introductory advertising idea that revolved around having fun with the “Fruit Float” name itself. It manifested itself in someone challenging someone else to say the name “Fruit Float” three times, real fast; knowing full well that people would flub it, sort of like holding your tongue while trying to say “loose lips, sinks ships.”

    The first commercial we produced starred three little girls demonstrating for their father how easy it was to make the dessert and then challenging him to quickly say “Fruit Float” three times. The commercial ran successfully in test market and would most likely be the lead commercial if and when the product went national.

    Shortly thereafter, I partnered with Al Weninger, the senior art director in our group, to create a follow-up commercial. We hit upon what we considered a funny and truly memorable family dessert-eating situation: let’s use the ultimate American family – the First Family, the Richard Nixon family.

    Knowing we could never get the Nixon family to do it and not wanting to use look-a-likes, we designed the commercial so the viewer would never see faces or bodies on camera, but only hear voices. We accomplished this by setting the scene in the dining room of the White House, sitting the actors in high-back chairs, and shooting from behind.

    The commercial ended with hearing the sweet, high-pitched voice of Tricia Nixon saying: “Daddy. Bet’cha can’t say Fruit Float three times, real fast!” The camera focused on the high-back chair at the head of the table as you heard a deep male voice say quickly, precisely, and without mistake, “Fruit Float, Fruit Float, Fruit Float.” Then a hand rose from each side of the chair with the fingers forming the trademark Nixon “V” for victory sign.

    Libby’s was a great client, always open to new ideas and willing to take a chance. We presented the commercial and they thought it hilarious. Because of the political climate in those days, however, networks were extremely uptight about airing any kind of satire involving the President, so we knew their censors would in all probability turn it down. Rather than fight the censors, we concluded we could avoid any kind of network confrontation if the President, himself, approved the commercial.

    With that in mind, we helped the account staff compose a cover letter, made copies of the storyboard and scripts, and sent it to the White House. Our cover letter ended by stating that our purpose was to merely portray the First Family as a typical American family in a typical fun dinner situation.

    About a week later, the account management director called a meeting. He held up a letter on White House stationery from an aide to the President.  He read aloud to us. The first thing that caught our ears was the statement that although the Nixon family and the White House could not prevent us from airing this commercial, they strongly (my underline) suggest we don’t.

    The closing statement, however, was the clincher.

    It said that in no way do the Nixons want to be portrayed as a typical American family.

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  • June 30, 2009 /  Advertising

    In 1969, the Chicago office of Tatham-Laird & Kudner was located on the top floor of the Lyon & Healy Building at 55 East Jackson.

    In my years in the advertising business, it wasn’t unusual to grab a friendly drink or two at a bar to discuss an idea or project with fellow creative people, to smooth a ruffled feather or two, or to get to know your competition in other agencies. But sometimes there was a little more to the story than that drink revealed.

    When I first joined Tatham-Laird & Kudner in 1969, I wrote copy for the Continental Bank of Chicago.

    During my time on the account, I created a TV campaign using the veteran news anchor and commentator Alex Dreier as the on-camera spokesperson. Dreier was a recognizable, respected personality in Chicago known for his unique, staccato, baritone delivery.

    While filming the first commercial, Dreier and the cinematographer Lutz Hopke started conversing in German. Dreier would be on stage, Lutz behind the camera, as both jabbered away and cracked jokes in German.

    In a conversation I had with Dreier between scenes, he divulged that he grew up speaking German. His fluency in the language got him a job as a U.S. foreign correspondent stationed in Berlin during the early ‘40s. He was expelled from Berlin along with other foreign journalists just one day before the Pearl Harbor attack. Dreier went on to explain that Lutz was originally from Germany and that they met and knew each other from previous television work in Chicago.

    Alex Dreier as he looked in the ‘70s.

    It was during another break that Dreier related a story about the time Lutz was filming a commercial in a small Midwest town that enforced the Blue Laws – no liquor on Sundays.

    According to Dreier, Lutz had a fear of flying and since the production started on a Monday, Lutz took an afternoon train from Chicago to arrive early Sunday evening. After checking into his room, he went to the hotel bar only to discover he couldn’t get a drink on Sunday.

    Lutz walked outside and flagged the same cab he took from the train station, probably the only cab in town. Experience told him a cabbie was the one person who would know where to find a drink, which happened to be the VFW Post about ten miles out of town. So off they went.

    At the VFW Post, Lutz was informed he had to be a member. Lutz said he was a veteran and he’d be happy to join. It was obvious that Lutz was only passing through town and just wanted a drink, so the post commander had Lutz fill out an application in the event the local authorities happened by.

    When he finished the application, Lutz made a small donation to the post kitty and enjoyed several drinks and a number of hours talking with post members before returning to the hotel.

    Dreier ended the story by telling me with a chuckle that when Lutz left to go back to the hotel, he took the application with him. And although he spent several hours conversing in a noticeable German accent, no one ever questioned for which country Lutz had fought – that’s NCO Lutz Hopke, of the 12th Panzer Division.

    Feel free to add your story about the advertising business or the creative people you knew as a comment to this blog. I’d love to read them and share them with others. My only requests are that you sign it with your full name, agency affiliations.

    A Postscript to the Above Story

    About three years later while working at Leo Burnett Advertising, my wife, children and I along with her siblings and their families took a cruise up the St. Lawrence, stopping at various Canadian islands and cities, and then out to Bermuda for a couple days before returning to New York.

    The event was the fiftieth wedding anniversary of my in-laws. One afternoon while cruising the St. Lawrence, we were all invited for cocktails in the Captain’s cabin to toast the couple.

    After various toasts, the Captain announced he would also like to toast the occasion of his second trip to Canada, but the first time as a free man.

    SS Hamburg of the German-Atlantic Lines.

    He explained to the puzzled group that he was a U-Boat Captain during World War II and, after his submarine was damaged, he and his crew were captured and spent the remainder of the war in a Canadian POW camp.

    I mentioned this story only because when we went to stake out some chairs on the aft sundeck the first day aboard, I found the name Alex Dreier taped to the back of two of the chairs. It seems the ship, the SS Hamburg, had just returned from a two-month cruise to South America and Dreier and his wife were passengers.

  • May 31, 2009 /  Advertising

    Late one Chicago summer morning in the early ‘70s, Al Weninger, an art director I worked with at Tatham-Laird & Kudner on the Libby’s Food account, poked his head into my office and gestured to follow him. He also motioned to Bill Klimas and Dennis Takata, another writer and art director in our group, as we passed their offices. He led us to his office. On his drawing board was a large brightly colored box with a picture of a model airplane flying high above the landscape. With a big grin on his face, Al removed the lid and revealed a yellow and blue plastic airplane with a 22-inch wingspan that he had just purchased. It was an engine powered, control line “Flight Trainer.” A trainer is specifically designed for people who have never flown a model plane before; it is held together with rubber bands so if it crashes only the bands would break – not the plane.

    Al invited us along to help him fly his plane at the park near Navy Pier during lunch. On the way out of the agency, he ducked into the art supply room and grabbed five or six art boards and some masking tape. I must have looked puzzled because he smiled and said, “runway.” At the park, we taped the boards end-to-end to form a smooth takeoff surface on top of the grass.

    Al put fuel into the engine from a small tin container, attached the wire clip from the battery case to the glow plug, and flipped the propeller a few times with his forefinger while Bill gingerly held the tail section of the plane. There was a small knurled adjusting screw that Al fiddled with as the engine would start and then sputter to a stop. Finally, the tiny engine roared to life with an annoying high-pitch sound. Al grabbed the control handle and walked the length of the strings. He moved his wrist from side-to-side so the handle would pull the strings that raised or lowered the flaps. Then he signaled Bill to let go. The plane roared down the makeshift runway and lifted off the ground on the first try. We all watched as the plane made a few wild up and down moves and uncontrolled loops before coming in for a crash landing – snapping the rubber bands and breaking apart. We reassembled it with new rubber bands and fired it up again.

    Once Al got the hang of it and could land the plane safely, we then each began taking turns. Within a couple hours, there was absolutely nothing left of the plane except a large quantity of broken plastic parts and snapped rubber bands. I don’t think the engineers of this breakaway plane had us in mind when they designed it. Al threw the mess into the box and lugged it back to the agency. Later that afternoon, he attached strings to the broken parts and hung them from his office ceiling as a “memorial” mobile.

    The flying bug immediately bit the four of us. The following weekend we purchased our own planes – and not trainers either because we each assumed we were past the major crash stage.

    As I remember, Al bought a bright red and white, bi-wing stunt plane. I found a black Stuka dive-bomber sporting a red plastic bomb underneath its belly. Bill and Dennis co-incidentally purchased P-40 fighters or something similar.

    My Stuka minus the red bomb and a few other parts.
    I can’t believe I’ve kept it for 38 years.

    The following Monday we brought our new planes to the office and headed to the park at noon, except for Dennis. He stayed behind claiming he wanted to customize his plane first.

    We continued our flying escapades almost every afternoon for a couple weeks without Dennis. Curiosity finally won out and we asked him what was taking so long. He explained with a smile that he wanted to duplicate the paint scheme of a WW II Japanese Zero in honor of his ancestry, so he had been spending his time airbrushing the fuselage and hand painting various parts.

    A few days later he unveiled his work. It was absolutely beautiful. The light olive green paint on top slowly faded along the sides into a dull white on the underbelly. Small details on the wings, tail, and body were deftly painted by hand. Even the plastic pilot inside the cockpit appeared in authentic Japanese aviator colors.

    We all wanted to contribute something to this piece of art and the spirit of Dennis’ pursuit. I found some round red stickers used by my local Jewel Foods store that were the perfect size for the circular red Japanese wing and fuselage insignias. Al found a photographer’s promotional wall poster that was so apropos to Dennis’ endeavors; you would think Al designed it himself. It was a color poster of a Japanese man in WW II aviator’s coveralls, leather pilot’s helmet, and white flying scarf with his arms folded in front and a smile on his face. A Japanese flag hung in the background. The headline proclaimed “Fly the Friendly Skies,” an obvious spoof of the tag line for United Airlines.  I didn’t know at the time that the person on the poster was Glenn Fujimori, a Chicago art director, who would soon become my art partner when I joined Leo Burnett a couple years later.

    The big day arrived – the poster was hung, the red insignias were carefully applied. We headed for the park. While the rest of us took turns flying our planes, Dennis fussed over the fueling process to make certain nothing spilled on his beautiful paint job.

    Finally, he was ready. One of us flipped the propeller to start the plane. Dennis grabbed the control cables. The plane roared to life. When it was released, it sped down the runway, swooped up into the air making one gigantic loop and then crashed full force, nose first, straight into the ground. Pieces flew. I could swear a wisp of smoke drifted up to complete the scene.

    None of us moved. We just stared at the shattered plane – our mouths agape. Dennis stood motionless, his face expressionless, his hand and arm frozen straight out in front of him grasping the now limp control lines. We tried to comfort him with words of sorrow and regret as we picked up the broken pieces and handed them to him. He stared blankly ahead holding the broken plane against his chest as we gathered in a semi-circle in front of him. Then with a sigh and slight smile he quietly and slowly remarked, “I guess, it‘s just the Kamikaze in me.”

    Feel free to add your story about the advertising business or the creative people you knew as a comment to this story. I’d love to read them and share them with others. My only request is that you sign it with your full name and agency affiliations.