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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Mad Men memories

The Hyphernate
David Russell

Today, at most ad agencies, you're either a Writer or a Producer. But, in my days, being a Hyphenate was not unusual. In fact, it was preferred by the company paying one salary for two jobs and the Writer-Producer who could both start and finish a job. The writer part created and the producer part finished it as envisioned.

How do you get to be a writer-producer? Serendipity helps. Mine was responding to a radio school commercial hawking for future announcers. But my audition sounded like Mel Torme on a very, very foggy day. But, more serendipity, the school broadcast a weekly 8:30 Saturday Morning, 15 minute  drama,  Not being a voice potential,  yet  paying the desired monthly check, got me titled "Producer" with instructions to get us on and off in 12 minutes so the station could run some commercials. We were on and off in 12 minutes.Though s'tudents' weekly switched voice roles, the same script was performed every week. Wouldn't the two listeners we had become bored? Naively (never having written one), I volunteered to the school head, who was also Program Director of a NY Radio Station, to write a new script.
'Do it'. He didn't care.  Who would, other than our two listeners? Soon, we were performing the new script. Ta-Da! I was a Writer - Producer.

When the term ended, the school owner asked if I knew anything about music. Telling him I played clarinet and had that summer worked with a group, got me a gig programming for a DJ and writing local commercials.

I was now a (minimally) paid Hyphenate! Going way back, I believe my actual training began when 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Feldman, taught us 'On a Street named Bye and Bye you come to a house called Never'. Since then, I've always believed an obligation is an obligation.   A necessary Producer prerequisite. In 7th grade, the power of the written word dawned.  After stroking a late inning homer to win a class rivalry game, in the school paper my gloating report appeared. Noted by everyone. Loudly. But, what better preludes for a future Writer - Producer career than those 2nd and  7th grade experiences? They were next applied scripting and producing a 6:30 - 7:00 Music Talk Show at an FM station five nights a week. Before us was News and Sports from 6:00 to 6:30. Kevin Kennedy, later a NY TV News Anchor, was News, with Johnny Most, for years celebrated as the voice of Boston Celtic basketball, Sports. (More soon). Flash forward and for $37.50 a week, up from the FM $25, I was hired by Mutual Broadcasting's traffic department. With OT, it became $50.

Mutual was a National 24-hour broadcaster. Volunteering to fill a 6 am Sunday morning 15-minute slot no one wanted, my creation was  'Echoes of Saturday Night', with a junior announcer reading lofty words to stringy Backgrounds; my attempt at word picturing the dying echoes of a city whose night had just ended. Inspiration by Norman Corwin. Soon, as Department Head, my check rose to $50, but no OT. So, no OT. Instead, since our Channel televised Dodger Baseball and my boss had a Press Pass he never used, it became my ticket to free park entry and to free eats at the press Club. Where, who should I meet but old friends Johnny Most and Kevin Kennedy, both recently hired by Dodger owner Branch Rickey to air Dodger games outside Metropolitan New York. Rickey was first to realize the same broadcast could be sold as often as you could find buyers; the Mahatma was one smart guy.

When, Johnnie and Kevin invited, 'Come sit with us', I smiled my way to their third base overhang. Other than goffer-ing coffee, to keep busy I pitch counted balls and strikes, feeding info to Johnny for use in his game call. When a statistic was needed, I dug it out of the baseball fact book. It was fun and resulted in a nightly welcome. Soon, as a regular I added keeping the promo folder in order and providing interesting trivia to Kevin's color coverage. In a way the trivia was Writing and the pitch count and keeping things orderly was Producing. Though it was exciting fun, it really didn't meet my writing goal. What changed the equation was landing a scripting job at a Mid-West Radio Station.

Unfortunately, for a New York kid that small town proved too small. But, my 'New York Television Experience' got me on board when the Better Homes & Gardens Broadcast Division organized a team to start up TV stations in Iowa and the Dakota's. If you've never spent summer in the mid-west, literally, you can fry an Egg on the sidewalk. What you can't do is get the Egg off the sidewalk (Both tried with a live camera). But my first National Award happened there; happenstance of the Missouri River overflowing its banks and moving towards mid-city. CBS covered it with film we sent while Edward R. Morrow read my copy, sent in part while the program was still on the air. The program won Nationally, I copped a local correspondent's kudu. At the station, a Kid's show including a daily animated 'Crusader Rabbit' segment, was my directing baby.  Our sponsor, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, hired us to write and produce the commercials. Since the episodes featured a 'Blue Bunny' so did the commercials. A guy in a Bunny costume was positioned against the far wall, sitting cross-legged on a black bench in front of a black backing. The camera taking him, with its lens covered with black paper, except for a pin puncture opening, which made the bunny a miniature so we could position him on the announcer's shoulder where they could talk to each other. With none of today's effects tools, it was accomplished by two camera operators simultaneously 'cracking' lenses half way, one to the right and one to the left. Voila! A man with a rabbit on his shoulder.

With that station running, we moved to City 2, only to learn of delays estimated to be two months. So the group moved on. But, I stayed, because a chance meeting with the owner of a local ad agency resulted in a Writer - Producer job offer. At last, a true Hyphenate.Taking one look at a Pontiac Convertible we were scheduled to film with its deep green leather interior and cream colored exterior, it was love at first sight. Getting a big discount because they were saved the cost of the commercial, I became a Hyphenate with wheels.'Make us a commercial', said a Bread Company client, 'but make it good'.  Our agency Art Director with his 8-mm wind-up Bolex, was recruited. Working day and night, we built and hand-manipulated, shot-by-shot, clay puppet characters against Papier Mache backgrounds, making four :60 commercials.  With recorded announce tracks,  my new Pontiac tooled me  to the sole area film lab, where they processed one print per spot, getting us on the air. The client sold a lot of bread. We did make it good-and cheap. Total cost - $100 per spot x 4. Take that you today million dollar ad spenders.

Another career move was to a Cincinnati ad agency with a solid client list including National Account Red Cross Shoes, Hudepohl Beer, sponsor of Cincinnati Reds Baseball, the Telephone, Gas and Electric Companies, Central Trust Bank and Gibson Winery.Early on, all agency Creatives were asked to meet to concept crash on a new Gibson product, Dry Vermouth. Back then, no mention of liquor was permitted on television. Our task was to sell Dry Vermouth without saying the word, Martini. As soon as suggestions began to fly, what flew from my mouth with no pre-thought was 'Gibson Dry Vermouth and "you-know-what", makes an extraordinarily dry "you-know-what!' Silence! The strangest looks! To his credit, the CD recovered with, 'We'll put signs in every bar and on billboards showing waitress pictures with a voice balloon, saying: Ask me about my "you know what'! Soon, you couldn't go into a Cincinnati bar not having "you-know-what" signage. Cincinnati was fun, but greedy me wanted bigger and better.I thought it came in the form of The Island of Jamaica, where at a Miami agency, we produced ads tempting wintering Northerners. With Batista's Cuba nearby and a weekendhad for under $150, life was good. But not bigger nor better. 3 years from leaving New York, thanks to a 'Head-Hunter', bigger and better happened at a Madison Avenue shop writing on Barney's, National Shoes, Elevator Shoes, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, Foot-Joy Golf Shoes, Ronzoni Spaghetti, Esquire Boot Polish and Manischewitz Wine.

Again, home was with my parents. Below them lived a teacher who taught at the same school as my future wife. She introduced us. We hit it off,  tying the knot shortly thereafter. Then, a married Hyphenate, I soon became a Father Hyphenate. Following three Mad Ave. years, a job paying double took us to Detroit.Detroit Creative Director Jack Eliot, when he wasn't making ads, had penned, 'It's So Nice To Have A Man Around The House', Sam's Song and Elmer's Tune, money makers all. Jack introduced me to marrying lyrics to ad concepts, resulting in this first effort, 'You can eat in your car or come inside, sit down, relax and enjoy, the delicious food and atmosphere at your nearby Big Boy. Hearing it played on the radio was heady stuff; it was the first of many lyrics that followed. But music wasn't all we did. Our Gasoline and Beer accounts sponsored Detroit baseball and football. Then sponsors, not networks, owned the Broadcasts. Producing them, put me back in the Sports business.Advertising, though, had its ironic moments, here's one I lived through. On our account, Hygrade's Meat had bought the business of Mrs. Grass Soups and I was asked to prepare commercials.That night, thinking back to Brooklyn days when mothers leaned out their windows to call their kids to dinner, what appeared on my yellow tablet was WOMAN'S VOICE CALLING: 'Irving, time for Dinner'. Next, MAN'S VOICE: 'Momma was so smart, she used to say, Irving, practice a little more and I'll make soup for dinner. SOUND EFX: VIOLIN PLAYING SCALE EXERCISE.   MAN¸S VOICE CONT'D: 'No one could resist momma's soup. Neighbors were always saying, Mrs. Grass your soup is so good, you should open a business. And she did. Mrs. Grass' Chickeny Noodle Soup...etc... to the last line, MAN: 'Try Momma's soup, You'll know why everyone loves it.

Two like scripts followed. Next morning they were on my boss' desk. He asked, 'What took so long? Where do you want to record them? ' My suggestion was at a regular Hollywood source. 15-minutes later, he called saying, Go for it. I phoned our Hollywood friend to set the session, faxed the scripts, went home, packed and flew West arriving in time to hear the mother line recorded. Next morning, Herschel Bernardi recorded 'Irving', 6 months before appearing on Broadway as Tevye in 'Fiddler On The Roof'.  With his wonderful voice, Hesh milked all the Schmaltz out of Irving's words.  When the spots hit Chicago Air, sales went through the roof. From #3 position, Mrs. Grass passed Lipton to become #1. Hygrade was ecstatic, right? Wrong. What we didn't know was they actually bought Mrs. Grass as a tax loss against their huge meat sales profits. Kill the spots. Quick. Do something else, not so good .We did, bringing in a famous industry comic. Instead of warm from the heart fuzzy, the spots were suddenly funny. Sales fell immediately. Hygrade was happy and all was well with the world, except, I felt like an idiot. But my boss, so wise, handed me an envelope with a check for $1000, saying, those were good words, great advertising. Keep it up.

I did, but from our Baltimore Office when the agency moved our family there, so I could to produce Baltimore baseball and football games. But more so because Baltimore's accounts used a lot of music and needed a lyric writer. My first lyric effort was for Commercial Credit, sung by a young, left-handed guitar playing singer, one Glenn Campbell, a month before 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' hit. He sang the heck out of From here to Eternity, I bear the weight of three, wonderin, worrryin for my wife, my son and me. How to get out from under. How to break away. How to get out from under and begin a brand new day. An announcer added, Commercial Credit, that's what we're here for. To help you get out from under. Campbell closed it, echoing and begin a brand new day. That won an NAB first in category.Typically, recording music for our 6 beer brands was done in London to avoid U.S. residual payments.  On one session, a Ringo starred on drums and a Clapton strummed guitar. One spot, a slow blues voiced by a male basso against broad organ chords, was: Sittin' on the front steps, just too hot to move. Sippin on a cold one, I've got nothing to prove. This is the life man, the way it is. What I got is mine, what he got is his. An announcer then voiced how our beer fit in with life ... on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

So many challenges, so much fun with so many award rewards. But, 20 years, of commercial hyphening was enough, so this time I moved the family, five of us by then, to So. California. The next two years were spent writing and producing Educational Films, including work for the U. S. Office of Education, plus recruiting projects for the National Guard and U.S. Navy which featured my song about Brandy, a girl on a distant shore., which, believe it, hit the charts in Denmark. But by then the Vietnam War dried up Ed film funds, so it was back to Commercials.Part of a trio, we opened a Hollywood Animation, CGI and Special Effects House, where we enjoyed 8 solid years before being bought by a close competitor. With more bodies in the combined shop, I began showing samples of our Efx and CGI techniques internationally,  to Canada, South America, Mexico, Japan, Korea and England. Good billing followed.

After fulfilling a three contractual agreement, having had enough politics, I opted out. What came next was a period of personal partnering, centering on Mexico, where a growing reputation garnered sufficient accounts and friendships to justify opening a Mexico City Office.Then, serendipity once again. In my second year of commuting, a States friend opened the door to work from the Ford Motor Company, which lead to an 8 year involvement, eventually broadened to include their Hertz division.

For sixty years, proudly my sign read Hyphenate Too bad, today, few newcomers will know that privilege nor enjoy the challenge or have the fun experienced along the way.

© David Russell march 2009

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