International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Mad
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
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
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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