I Shut Down New York City

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traffic-jam-stock-image-1024x506

Television commercials require quite a bit of planning to come in on-time and on-budget. Television commercials shot on location require even more planning. But, no matter how well one plans, anything that can go wrong…will.

The 1982 Honda Accord was restyled and featured some new technology. Accords were now being built in the U.S. Auto writers were calling it an engineering wonder. The decision was made to produce a TV commercial having Burgess Meredith discuss the Accord’s ad_honda_accord_hatchback_blue_1982engineering mastery while the vehicle was filmed cruising past notable U.S. engineering wonders: The Hoover Dam, The St. Louis Arch, The Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

The shoot would require precise planning as the film crew and the vehicle would move the shoot across the U.S. Time was money even back then. A small group of agency people would accompany the flying circus. We would shoot one location for a day. We’d then wrap the location and put the vehicle on a car prep truck to meet us at the next destination. The agency was represented by the writers and art directors who conceived the spot, an agency producer who had worked up the budget and schedule with production company, and an agency technical specialist who made sure that the vehicle was properly prepped for each shot. The producer and production company were also responsible for getting all the necessary permits from the local governments for shooting and traffic control. I went along as the “designated suit.”  This was an account person who would have the opportunity to fall on his career sword if anything went wrong.

We left Los Angeles and headed to Henderson, Nevada, full of optimism and high spirits. The Accord looked smashing as it drove across the top of the Hoover Dam. The footage was “in the can,” and after a brief cultural visit to Las Vegas, we set out for St. Louis.

White, puffy clouds greeted us in St. Louis. The helicopter camera caught great views of the car passing the St. Louis Arch. We wrapped and took off for New York City.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, it was named after Giovanni da Verrazzano who in 1524 became the first European to enter New York Harbor USS_Leyte_Gulf_(CG_55)_under_the_Verrazano_Narrows_Bridgeand the Hudson River. He discovered a narrow passage that carried him from the Atlantic Ocean into the harbor. And, no, that’s not a typo in his name. For some strange reason, when they named the narrows after him, map makers decided to leave out the extra “z” in his name. The bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn and the rest of Long Island.

We landed at JFK and settled into our hotel in Manhattan, not noticing the gathering storm clouds. Being the last location, we decided to find out whether they sold steaks and Irish whiskey at The Palm on 2nd Avenue.  They do!

Our call was for 6:00 AM on the Staten Island side of the bridge. The heavens had opened and were pouring sheets of rain and showers of lightning down upon us. Visibility was very poor. We were all there, setting up all the equipment. Well, almost all of us were there. The car wasn’t!  A quick call let us know that the car was stuck in Pennsylvania. A quick look let us know the the Port Authority Police were setting up roadblocks to stop traffic on the bridge’s upper level. The truck drivers whose trucks were now backed up for a mile were becoming a bit choleric. One of the production assistants told us that it would be at least another hour before the Accord arrived. The backup at the entrance to the bridge horrible-traffic-jam-picturesgrew. Truck drivers and commuters were getting angry. A police supervisor walked toward us and asked, “Who’s in charge here?” I suddenly felt sixteen fingers pointing at me. The police captain wanted to know why we weren’t filming anything. I explained that the car was delayed. A great idea came into my head.  “Why don’t we let these folks use the bridge until the car arrives?” The captain reached inside his trench coat and pulled out a very official looking document. He perused it for about 15 seconds and said, “Sorry, pal, no can do. It says right here that we have to close the upper level off from 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Youse guys still got five hours of closure.” I protested, but the policeman said, “Orders are orders,” as he walked away. What the public servant didn’t catch was that the permit allowed the bridge’s upper level be INTERMITTENTLY closed between those hours. Our producer ran into the Port Authority Maintenance building, which sat next to us, to make frantic calls to some nameless bureaucrat who was in charge of traffic pandemonium permits and have him call the police captain.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 9.26.04 AMNew York City was effectively shut down. Well at least Brooklyn and Queens. Unfortunately, Chris Christie was only 20 years old at this time. It would have been easier to blame this “Bridgegate” mess on him.

To deflect blame, I told the production assistants to start the rumor that the bridge was closed because a despondent Boston Red Sox fan was threatening to jump off the bridge. The boiling anger was lowered to a simmer.

Finally! The police captain was summoned to the phone inside the maintenance building and was told to open the bridge until the car got there.  He told his men to remove the barricades.  It was just then that the car prep truck carrying the Accord arrived.

We raced to unload it as traffic slowly began to move across the bridge again. The production company let us know that the helicopter with the cameraman was on its way. When it was ten minutes out, we closed the bridge again, further enraging the drivers who had been miles out in the back-up. The shot was to show the Accord driving across the bridge toward Brooklyn. The helicopter flew alongside the car and then pulled back when it reached the bridge’s midpoint to show the entire bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the background. Close the bridge. Shoot the car.  Open the bridge. Close the bridge. Shoot the car. Open the bridge. Repeat as necessary.

We were close to wrapping when something happened. Noon. It was time to feed our crew. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union, to which all of our crew belonged, required that we feed them after specified periods of time. They had been working in the cold and rain for six hours. The catering people had been setting up tables and chairs for the lunch. On-location catered meals rival those of the finest restaurants. We were trying to squeeze in one more shot before breaking for lunch. Everyone was starving. Someone shouted, “Oh no!” I turned around to see hordes of Port Authority mobmaintenance workers pouring out of their building and racing toward the food. For some reason they figured that the food was for them. We shouted for an assistant to go tell them to back off. The assistant quickly returned, being told by the workers exactly what he should do to himself. This situation was getting worse. Our guys were still working. The maintenance guys were feeding.  Think school of piranha and a cow. I then thought of the only thing we could do. I would have to speak “unionese” with them.  It would be the only thing they would understand.

I trotted up the hill. I needed to know what union they were in so I could speak their dialect. Then I realized that we probably had a mix of IBEW, Teamsters, SEIU, and IABSORIW (steel workers) gorging themselves. I needed to use the Esperanto version of “unionese.” This dialect was universally understood. “Hey everyone, this is IATSE food. You wouldn’t want them to file a grievance with the AFL- CIO would you?” They all looked at me, Coquille St. Jacques dripping from their lips. They immediately realized that they were all committing a cardinal sin: You don’t eat another union’s food! They backed away from the table like roaches from Raid. “Thanks guys, you can have anything that’s left.” They were all smiles as they ambled back to their pens.

We finished the shoot. Wrapped everything up. Left the food in foil chafing dishes and raced across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I looked out the rear window of our car and saw every piece of the food being devoured.Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 7.42.51 PM

 

 

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Rolling Coconuts and Footballs

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Deana Tiki

In addition to getting free cars, another great thing about being in advertising is the opportunity to meet fascinating people at free dinners in fancy hotels.  This was the case when an old friend of mine, George Burns (the mag rep, not the comedian), invited me to a David Gergendinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, located in Marina Del Rey, CA. George’s magazine, U.S. News & World Report, was always able to land some heavy-duty Washington, D.C., face to speak at their dinners. This year’s speaker was David Gergen. Gergen was considered to be an ultimate D.C. insider. He started out writing speeches for Nixon, and quickly became the head speech writer. He was Director of Communications for Ford and Reagan. After taking a few years off, he returned to Washington to become a key advisor to Bill Clinton. He is one of those people in Washington who knows where the bodies are buried.

 

Because the invitation was for two, I brought a longtime friend and former co-worker, Deana Linderholm. As we arrived that evening, I was immediately struck by two things. The first was that the hotel was populated by gargantuan men whoHigh Fashion Models were quite loud and had fingers that seemed to have been broken many times. A quick glance at the marquee explained it. The NFL and Fox Sports were having their annual Summer Meeting here. The other thing that struck me was that the lobby was jammed with very attractive women, wearing very expensive dresses, and ambulating easily on their very spikey high heels. The only other organisation mentioned on the marquee was the National Association of Kosher Butchers.  I had a hunch that these women were not part of that group.

We worked our way to the dining room that had been set aside for U.S. News. A number of familiar faces were already gathered at the bar. Another great thing about advertising was that you had the opportunity of drinking really great booze.

After all the booze was gone, we were asked to find our seats. I discovered, much to my surprise, that Deana and I had place cards on either side of Gergen!  I should point out that there is a great deal of stagecraft at work at any media event serving food.  The basic plan consists of four parts. #1: Serve booze before the dinner. This allows the mag rep and the magazine’s management to “work” the crowd.  #2: Sit down and greeting.  This is done to help the ad cattle-penpeople remember who is buying the booze and the food. #3: Follow the order. Make sure to have your guest speak, or pitch, or opine BEFORE you serve the meal. The ad people are only there for the free food and booze. Once they are done eating, they will stampede toward the exit.  #4: Serve dessert slowly. By doing this, the magazine is able to keep the ad people at their tables, waiting for the yellow sheet cake with white frosting.  This gives the magazine salespeople one last chance to work the room.

We sat down on either side of David Gergen.  I discovered him to be a very affable gentleman. He wanted to know what each of us did for a living. Each person around the table spoke in turn: Ad guy, ad guy, ad girl, spouse, ad guy, spouse, ad girl, ad guy. Perhaps to change things up a little, and because it was true, Deana said, “I teach Hawaiian and Polynesian dance.” This caught David’s attention. As this was the seventh dinner on his grueling cross country mag rep dinner circuit, he had become used to the litanies of “ad guy, ad girl, spouse.” “My, that’s an interesting occupation,” he said. “Did you ever have something embarrassing happen to you while you danced?” Interesting question.  Deana thoughthawaiian_hula_dancers_2_by_thetomatohead for a moment and said, “Well something happened to a friend of mine as we were in line doing a very spirited Tahitian dance. I heard her squeal, then heard a “clack” and saw half of a hollowed out coconut shell hit the stage and roll away. My friend had lost half of her top!”  David then asked, “Did anything ever happen to you?” She thought and then said, “One time, as we were exiting the dance floor, I passed too close to a candle on a table, and my grass skirt started to go up in flames. Fortunately, the dancer behind me saw it and immediately tore my skirt off.” There was stunned silence at the table.

It was time for David to speak. He opened his talk by saying, “Thank you very much for having me with you here tonight. Quite interestingly, I just met a woman who teaches Hawaiian dance. I’ve never met one before.  Deana can you stand up? (Polite applause) I thought MY job was exciting. Deana was dancing one time when half of her coconut shell bra fell off while she was dancing on stage. As she tried to run off, her grass skirt somehow caught fire, and she had to rip it off.” (Polite laughter) “Wow!” Deana slowly sat down.  After his speech, David came back and sat down at our table. When he was made aware of the factual mistakes in his story, he apologized profusely to Deana. I think that this may have been the reason http://www.factcheck.org was founded.

After the dessert had been consumed, George Burns came over and said, “Hey. Do you guys have to leave? Why don’t you meet me in the lounge for a nightcap?” Goodie, more free booze!  Just as we were being seated in the stock-footage-happy-attractive-woman-talking-on-cellphone-in-cafelounge, I noticed the gargantuan men had been seated on one end of the lounge, and the attractive women, who were not Kosher butchers,  were seated across the lounge from them. The only difference in their appearance was that now the ladies were all carrying their cell phones. As each one got a call, they would talk for about thirty seconds, write something down, then leave the table and saunter toward the guest elevators. Then it dawned on me! The NFL was here, and I was looking at the paid escort staging area!

After a few minutes, George departed, telling us that he had opened a tab for us in his name. More free booze.  About three drinks later,  Deana looked over my shoulder and shouted, “O my gosh!”  I asked, “What?” She whispered, “That’s Terry Bradshaw over there! My brother is a big fan of his and he’d kill me if I didn’t get his autograph.” She grabbed a pen and a cocktail napkin and went over to the table with Bradshaw and several other ex-NFL players. I ordered another drink. About fifteen minutes later, I realized that Deana had not returned.  I peered over the back of my chair and saw that Deana and the guys were having quite a good time telling stories and laughing. Oh well, that just means more bar nuts for me.

A few minutes later, two giant hands reached over the back of my chair and grabbed my shoulders.  I turned to see Terry Bradshaw smiling down at me.  “Hey hoss,” he said, “we’d like tuh apologize for keepin’ your lady friend so long.  Please come on over and join us.” I got up and followed him to his table.  I could feel the sixty eyes of the not-a-Kosher-butcher ladies boring into the back of my skull. In addition to Terry, I saw that Howie Long and Ronnie Lott were also sitting at the table.

Terry immediately asked, “Whatcha drinkin’?” Realizing that the NFL was buying drinks, I blurted out, “I’d like a triple Johnny Walker Blue Label…neat.”  Everyone was having a wonderful time. Terry was telling a lot of jokes. After one of them, he gasped and said, “Ronnie, was that joke offensive?”  Lott answered, “Of course it was Terry!”  Then everyone would break out in laughter.  I guess it was a shtick they did. More jokes followed.  Howie Long and I started some small talk about where we had grown up.  He in Boston, IHowie-Long-Terry-Bradshaw-Fox-Pregame-2-300x171 in Detroit. We talked about what it was like growing up in an Irish family, and how the family traditions carry on. I found out that his grandmother and my grandmother both had the same picture of Jesus over the fireplace mantle in the living room.  I had just finished reading “Angela’s Ashes.” I told Howie the story line.  We both laughed at how many things in the book were familiar to both of us. He took out a pad from his coat and had me write down the name of the book and the author.  He promised to read it when he got home.  While we were still reminiscing, two ladies from the staging area came up behind his chair and put their hands on his shoulders. Not missing a beat, Howie kept talking to me while he slowly raised the back of his left fist to the eye level of the ladies.  He then put his left thumb into the middle of his clenched fist and slowly pushed up his ring finger, revealing a very nice gold wedding band.  The ladies made a hasty retreat back to their staging area.  “Well done!” I said.  He chuckled and said, “I don’t like to talk to them, and the ring finger/wedding band thing keeps them away better than Deep Woods OFF.”  Soon, all the jokes and stories had been told.  Ronnie Lott said that it was late and their first meeting was at 8:00 the next morning.  Terry and Howie agreed. Hand shakes and hugs were exchanged with us before they walked off through an exit that didn’t go near the staging area.  These three guys were no longer knuckle dragging gargantuan men to me.

Within fifteen seconds, the recently vacated chairs were filled by three twenty-something FOX Sports production assistants.  They quickly affixed NFL lapel pins to their blue blazers.  The pins must have been laced with mating musk oxen pheromones, because 5 White-backed vultures at a carcass (note the yellow wing tags)about twenty of the not-kosher-butcher ladies were now stampeding toward us. I grabbed Deana’s wrist and screamed, “Run for the exit before it’s too late!!!” As we ran out into the lobby, I looked back. It was a terrifying sight. Oh well, at least I got a lot of free booze and food…and had met some very interesting people.  

 

 

 

Hanging With The Rich And Famous

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The-Rat-Pack

One of the great things about being in the ad biz, in addition to the free cars, was the opportunity to get lots of free stuff and meet famous people who would act like you were actually someone who they would ever hang with.  One such event was the annual Time Inc. La Quinta Golf Tournament and Lupercalia. It was held every year at the La Quinta Golf Resort near Palm Springs. There’s no strong evidence to support my theory, but I believe that Time Inc. held the event every year to coincide with the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia. The Time Inc. event certainly had its own share of wine-sodden people running around naked. In addition golf-3to the three days of golf, drinks, cigars, drinks, food, golf, drinks, all-night gin rummy games, and drinks, the event provided a special guest speaker who would appear at the Saturday night steak-fry and awards dinner. This is when I first realized that these rich and famous people would become my friends and stop by at my house for dinner.  Although none of them ever returned my calls.

One year, as dozens of sunburned ad people staggered their way, drinks in hand, to the banquet room, we were informed that we could only enter through one door, that door lined with men in dark suits and speaking into their cufflinks. A large metal detector had been installed GFordin the doorway. I correctly guessed that the speaker tonight wasn’t going to be Pee Wee Herman. In fact, it was former President Gerald Ford. We were in a smallish room, about eight tables of ten people set in two rows of four in front of the podium. Stationed on either side of each of the rows of tables was a Secret Service agent. President Ford needed and deserved protection.  Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore had seen to that. It must be an awful feeling knowing that there were crazies out there who wished you harm.

We were all just finishing our desserts, gigantic slabs of key lime pie, when President Ford was introduced. I’m sure that he was an honorable man who ran our country during a very tough time, but when he started talking about his days as a football player at the University of Michigan, and the glories of Wolverine football, I as a Michigan State Spartan, began to tune out. It was if Ford was speaking Portuguese in a very low whisper…I wasn’t interested, and couldn’t hear it anyway.  My mind started to wander. This was a small room. There were only four Secret Service agents. What if some crazy person wanted to hit the former President with a still untouched piece of key lime pie? I pie-in-facestarted doing the math in my head. I was 10, maybe 15 feet away from the podium. The agents were at least 25 feet away from the podium. If a crazy person were to charge the podium, he most likely would crouch, using his shocked friends as human shields. Leaping at the last second, the pie would easily reach its mark.

Wow!!  This is too easy. I cased the room again. Everyone was listening to President Ford. The Secret Service agents were all scanning the room for crazy people. Good luck with that! The four agents had stone stares as they stood positioned too far away to stop a pie. Wait! There were only three agents now. Probably the fourth agent went outside for a smoke. Suddenly, I panicked. What if they had devices that could read your mind? I should have worn my aluminum foil helmet to the steak fry. It was then that a feeling of dread and utter despair overcame me. The fourth agent wasn’t outside.  He was standing behind me!!!!! I slowly turned in my suit-manseat to find the fly of a man’s pair of trousers a foot away from my face. I slowly looked up, to be met by agent #4’s eyes looking down on me. “Do we have a problem here, Sir?” I was immediately thankful that I’d worn a dark pair of pants to the dinner.  “Uh, no. Why?” I asked. He squatted next to me. “Well, you see, everyone in the room is watching the President. We noticed that you were busy looking around the room. Everything OK here?”  I told him, as my throat began to close, “I’m sorry. I never voted for the guy…and I went to Michigan State.” The agent laughed, “I hear you.” He rose and gave a subtle signal to the other three that I wasn’t crazy.

Each year, after the guest speaker was done, we all retired to a large banquet room for an evening of drinks, card playing, drinks, cigars, food, drinks, and drinks. The game of choice for 90% of the group was high stakes gin rummy. Another 7% (those who had their names on ad agency front doors) would play even higher stakes poker. Three of us, Bill Hagelstein, Mike Parker , and I would rather go back to our rooms and flush $200 down the toilet.  We weren’t good at gin rummy, and this saved us a lot of time. We were fans of the most cerebral, nuanced, Euchre-Handsophisticated, and exciting card game ever played: Euchre! The three of us would play a three-handed version of the game, unable to find a fourth. We play ferociously until 2 or 3 in the morning, and then tally up. The biggest loser of the night could be on the hook for maybe $8. And so it was one year when columnist/humorist Art Buchwald was the speaker. 

After his hilarious talk, Art followed us all into the Hall of Sorrows to kill some time. He strolled between tables, watching the giants of the ad industry gamble away their children’s inheritances.  I’m sure he was gathering information for a book or column. He walked by the three Art Buchwaldnaïfs playing a game that was definitely not gin rummy. He pulled his cigar from his mouth and shouted, “You guys are playing Euchre! Can I join you.” “Of course,” we said. Art immediately sat down in the empty fourth chair. After introductions, Art told us that he loved playing the game as a kid growing up in New York, and thought that nobody played it any longer. For the next four hours we were regaled with incredible stories and cigar smoke. Actually, all of us were smoking cigars, gifts from our new best buddy Art. Finally, he said, “Well, my friends, what’s the damage? I should go.” I spent the next minute slowly tallying the score. Art already knew that he and Bill had won.  I finally was able to announce, “OK. Bill and Art, you won $24.” Art was dumbstruck. “$24?” he croaked. I said, “Well, actually that’s split between the two of you, so that’s $12 apiece.” Mike and I were already fishing our losses out of our pockets when Art exploded with feigned shock and dismay. “I just spent over four hours with you f#&*ing mopes and all I have to show for it is 24 f#&*ing dollars? He laughed and shook our hands as he walked over to join the poker table with the guys who had their names on their agency front doors. As he scuttled away, I shouted after him, “Art, call me. I want to know if we’re still on for dinner at my house next week.”

a_friend_in_need

Next: Rolling Coconuts And Football

These Guys Are A Lot Different From GM!

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teaHippie

I landed at LAX at 3:30 PM, and it already felt different. This was to be my new home. There was no thought that someone would walk into my office and tell me that I was being transferred back to Detroit. I was filled with giddy anticipation, looking forward to working with new people, new clientsTown House  new cultures, and…a new FREE CAR! Even though it was a bottom-of-the food-chain Mazda GLC (the Great Little Car), it was free. FCB/H put me up at the Sheraton Town House Hotel. A beautiful, faded-glory hotel situated next to Lafayette Park, on Wilshire Blvd. The Town House was declared a historical landmark in 1993, and is now a low-income apartment building. Upon checking in, I received a note from FCB/H, welcoming me to LA. Classy! Having no idea where to grab a bite to eat, I ordered room service, kicked off my shoes and turned on KABC News and Jerry Dunphy. At this time, FCB was located at 2727 West 6th Street…right across Lafayette Park from the Sheraton Town House.  It is now the home of South Baylo University (not to be confused with the school in Waco, TX) a school teaching acupuncture. It was maybe two hundred yards away.  A simple walk, or so I thought. I would discover that getting across the park was a little more challenging than driving down Woodward Ave.

Dawn dawned. I was showered, shaved, and English Leathered. It was 8:45 AM when I strode out the door and into the park. I had to diagonally traverse the park to get to the front door of FCB. As I left the safety of the sidewalk, I immediately encountered three young men sitting on a picnic table, smiling at me.  Being a good son of Michigan, I smiled back. The largest of the three got up and approached me.  A lot of non-verbal cues told me that he was not part of the agency welcoming committee. He slowly opened his left hand to show me several one inch by one inch plastic packages that seemed to contain some kind of white powder. Sensing that it might not be Bromo-Seltzer, I quickly moved on. A few yards later I heard some shouting that seemed to be getting closer. A woman was screaming at a man who was carrying a purse while he ran away from her. Maybe he’d dropped his wallet.

Lafayette

I quickened my pace.  I could see the safety of the 6th Street sidewalk just steps away. I turned quickly and headed down the sidewalk for the crossing signal. An elderly lady approached me from the other direction. She stopped directly in front of me, screaming “You can go to Hell, Lewis!” She then moved her legs apart, bent her knees slightly, and relieved herself on the sidewalk and my new Thom McAns. She was definitely NOT from any welcoming committee.  I crossed the street and made my way toward the FCB front doors. There is a long hedge in front of the building. While passing it, I Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 12.07.16 AMheard a noise come from the bushes. I stopped, stupidly, to inspect it.  From within the bush came a voice, “Sir, keep moving. You’re interfering with an LAPD drug action.” Suddenly, his radio crackled…”It’s going down. Go! Go! Go!” The hedge gave birth to an LAPD undercover officer dressed as a homeless person. He raced across the street as other undercover officers emerged from trees, dumpsters, and out of cars. As they ran into the park, I could see that they were chasing the three young gentlemen selling Bromo-Seltzer. I’m going to love working here!

I entered the lobby and introduced myself. Denny Remsing came out, greeted me, and took me to my office…which had a glorious view of Lafayette Park. I told him about my park adventure. He said, “Stick to the sidewalks.” He then began to explain the Byzantine organization of our Mazda client. In the beginning, there was Toyo Kogyo of Hiroshima. They started out as a rock drill company at the start of the 20th Century, but began manufacturing motor vehicles. Toyo Kogyo came to North America riding on the success of rotary powered cars. In the U.S., they established three importing/distribution companies. One in Jacksonville, FL. One in Chicago. And one in Compton, CA. When the first gas crisis hit, the not so fuel efficient rotary engine cars suffered.  Toyo Kogyo was going broke. They sold the Jacksonville importing company to the C. Itoh Trading Company.  Toyo Kogyo’s bank, Sumitomo, took over Chicago. Toyo Kogyo held onto Compton. There was a slight gordian_knotproblem. C. Itoh and Sumitomo were major competitors. They had different ideas on how to package, price, and market Mazda vehicles. To compound the issue, Toyo Kogyo had to shut down their Compton operation, with Sumitomo taking it over, and moving the executives to Southern California from Chicago.  In the U.S. , Mazda was now really two companies: Mazda Motors of America – Central (Sumitomo decided not to change the name of the company when it moved to the West Coast); and Mazda Motors of America – East headquartered in Jacksonville and owned by C. Itoh. Toyo Kogyo still made the cars, but sold them to Sumitomo and C. Itoh to market in this country. MMA – C covered two-thirds of the country, MMA – E the East and South. 

Denny asked, “Are you still following me?” I lied and nodded my head. He continued on to explain that the two importers had different base prices and option packages. This pretty much eliminated any network television ads featuring price. Also, Toyo Kogyo, Sumitomo, and C. Itoh all contributed to the ad budget, requiring three separate sets of budgets. Ads had to be approved by representatives of each company, requiring frequent trips to the dank heat and humidity capitol of America, Jacksonville, FL.  I was also informed that I would be in charge of providing budget information to the clients. Yippee!!

Denny then asked me a question that would change my life. “It’s almost noon.  Do you like Mexican food?”

Next: Pink Margaritas in Beer Flutes

The Bloom Starts To Come Off Of The Rose

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Wilted rose

Don’t get me wrong, I had the world’s greatest job. Lunches at Chasen’s and at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, dinners at Perino’s and The Brown Derby, Preferred “client” seating for tapings of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and the Tonight Show. Visiting relatives thought I was a god. When things got slow in the office, I’d go make dealer calls in San Diego, Palm Springs, or Las Vegas. Sometimes I would go into our small projection room and watch old Chevy commercials that were in our TV vault.  The commercials, stored on tiny 16mm reels, were classic examples of the days when you didn’t have to talk about your latest lease deal, your MPG numbers, or let the public know that they were seeing “professional drivers on closed roads.” There was Dinah Shore telling me to “See the USA in my Chevrolet” because “America’s the greatest land of all…Mmmwahh!” Pat Boone, the teen heart-throb, pitching Chevys on the Pat Boone Chevy-Showroom. Doug Mahoney was one of our West Coast TV production people. He came in while I was watching the classic 1964 “Castle Rock” Chevy commercial where the agency had perched a Chevy and a very terrified model on the top of Castle Rock, 1500 feet above the Utah desert floor. Doug worked on the commercial.  As the helicopter flies over the top of the rock,

we see a model, Shirley Rumsey, smiling at the camera. The dulcet tones of Joel Aldrich, Chevy’s long time announcer, telling us that “Chevy stands alone.” What you don’t see are the high winds blowing around at that altitude (notice Shirley’s hair and her dress), the harness that Shirley wore under her dress which was bolted to the frame of the car (preventing her from being swept over the side), or Doug, hidden in the trunk with a walkie-talkie, holding on to her legs through a hole in the back seat. Shooting finished late in the afternoon.  The helicopter pilot said that the winds had picked up and flying Shirley and Doug off would be too dangerous.  His suggestion was that the two of them spend the night in the car.  Doug was all for that.  Shirley said that she’d rather jump over the side than spend the night in the trunk of a car with Doug. They brought them down. In college, I did a parody of this spot for a mattress company as part of an advertising assignment. The professor gave me a C-, saying that it was “utterly unbelievable.”

But everything wasn’t food, fun and games. GM, and the other Detroit car makers, were becoming slightly annoyed with what they thought was a passing fad…Japanese cars. After a bumpy start with the Datsun Bluebird, and the Toyota Toyopet, these companies, along with Honda, offered products that became hotBluebird sellers in California. Chevy’s response was the Vega. Instead of building a small car from scratch, take a big car and shrink it, they thought.  To stem what was being called the Japanese invasion, Chevy started the California Marketing Project. They assigned a department head level manager to run it out of the Regional office in San Francisco. In addition to my regular weekly report, I was assigned the responsibility of writing weekly reports for the California Project. What kind of ads were they running? How heavy was the media spend? Did their engines, like the Vega’s, blow up? I even mentioned a blatantly xenophobic memo that was now circulating in the West Coast zone offices, written by a Zone Manger in the Cincinnati Region. He sent it to all of his dealers, decrying the fact that even though America had won WWII, the Japanese were again attacking the good old USA by “lobbing thousands of tons of steel onto our cities.” I received a call from someone in Detroit.  “Knock it off!” I was told.  “Your reports are too negative and they are upsetting a lot of people back here. Can’t you talk about anything positive?” I was going to mention that new “import fighter,” the Chevy Monza, that couldn’t be designed and engineered for California without having to choose between the Vega engine, and a monster 350 cubic inch car-fire(5.7 liter) V-8 that was designed to go into cars weighing a ton more.  I loved LA restaurants too much to bring that up. Also, GM was getting bad press in Southern California.  To comply with California’s tough emission laws, GM’s post combustion catalytic converters would heat from 750 to 1000 degrees. This made parking your car in any dry grass during the SoCal brush fire season somewhat problematic. The late Kenny Hahn, an LA County Supervisor at the time, invited the press to a demonstration. A GM car was parked, with the engine running, near some dry grass. Within minutes, the reporters got their stories.

I’d write reports talking about the great price/value story the Imports had. I’d be scolded and told that their value story was only due to an undervalued yen. I would say that the mope from Culver City who’s shopping for the best deal doesn’t really care about the yen/dollar exchange rate. Detroit made a lot of money on option packages. They also offered a fistful of trim levels.  The dealer was quite happy if you drove away in a new Impala Luxus Elite Brougham Tourismo SS Squire Spyder Custom Towne Car.  The Imports were offering an average of three trim levels, all fairly well-equipped. Usually: L, S, and LS. I was smart enough to realize that, like a Great Lakes ore freighter, GM couldn’t turn around on a dime. The models coming out the next year had been decided upon almost three years earlier.

The ad agencies handling the Imports weren’t slouches either. When Chevy or Ford would drag their heels on renewing a California sports buy, the Imports, with fewer layers of people who could say “No” at the client, would pick them up.  The same was true when Chevy got out of outdoor.  All the franchise freeway and airport signs they had were picked up by Datsun and Toyota.

See-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil-monkeys-14750406-1600-1200When clients came out to the West Coast, they were surrounded by people who didn’t want them to think that anything was wrong.  Not all Regional and Zone people were like this, but the few who weren’t were easily shouted down. The general feeling was that consumers would come to their senses and return to the True Faith. Even if it meant playing the “Buy American” card.

Next: “You’re Here To Do What?????” 

The Rocket Car

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Rocket

Here’s my story it’s sad but true, it’s about a car I once knew.  It took my love then ran around, through every light in town…Hayp, Hayp. Bumda hady hady hayp hayp… Well, most of you know the lyrics to the rest of the song.  This is the story of a car that was born too soon.  If Charles Dickens were to write a story about an orphan car, battered by cruel fate, and then cast aside, he would write about this car.  Except, in this story, there is no heroic redemption as in “Great Expectations.”  Our story begins in 1969 in the top floors of the GM Building. GM was looking for an alternative power plant to the internal combustion engine that would provide great low-end torque, and a true sporty car feel.  NSU, of Germany, had developed a rotary engine, the Wankel engine. Felix Wankel was a brilliant engineer.  He was also a high ranking SS officer during WWII. During the war he developed a revolutionary rotary 1974_GM_Rotory_engineengine.  After doing his prison time following the war, he went to work for NSU Motorenwerke AG. The modern Wankel was shown to the world in 1960.  Mazda, seeing its benefits, bought a license to manufacture it. GM saw that Mazda had a hot little number with the technology. In 1970, GM paid NSU $50 million to license the rotary engine.  They were going to put it in the Vega. BUT…the GM version had durability problems. They went back to the drawing boards and decided to use it in a model, still in development, to be launched in late 1974.  They went back to NSU and paid another $10 million to re-up the license.

The model in development was a sporty 2+2 hatchback based on a Vega frame. It was going to be called the Chevy Chaparral.  Jim Hall Racing of Midland , TX., had long partnered with Chevy to supply him with engines and parts.  Chevy made a deal with him to use his Chapparal name.  Then, two things happened that would doom the as yet unborn child.  GM couldn’t solve the durability problem with the Wankel, and the Arab oil crisis made the Wankel’s mediocre MPG numbers problematic.  GM dropped the Wankel. The other was that Jim Hall Racing decided that they wanted more money for their Chapparal name. GM had already spent more than $60 million on an engine they weren’t going to use, they weren’t going to spend more money on a name. Chevy needed a name. And it had to be about 5 inches long, as the dies for the sheet metal forms had already been made. Someone in Chevy Marketing suggested that they let customers name their purchase, providing them with sheets of stick-on letters. That idea died when management begin coming up with some of the possibilities. Then, someone realized that they still held a license for the Monza name.  Monza being a trim level name for the ill-fated Chevy Corvair.  The unborn child would be christened Monza.

Only one hurdle remained.  How would the child be powered? The base engine would be the Vega inline 4-cylinder aluminum block engine. The upgrade would be a V-6 that Buick offered.  There was one, teensy, tiny, microscopic, picayune problem with all of this.  California,car_exploding where GM was hoping to repulse the Japanese car invasion, had air quality requirements much more stringent than federal EPA standards.  At the time, GM’s solution was to strap on post-combustion air pollution devices.  This caused nasty back pressure problems.  The Vega for sale in California had a unique problem.  They tended to blow up. The aluminum block engine would heat up and expand, causing the cylinders to jam in the combustion chamber, causing the rods to bend and blow. Not good.  What about the V-6?  Again, Fate had dealt a cruel blow to young Pip.  The engine was “dirty” in the state of California, and couldn’t be sold there.  What was a mother to do? Again, American ingenuity came to the rescue. A GM engineer had measured the square foot area of the Monza’s engine well.  The GM plant in Tonawanda,NY., had excess capacity. They built the monster 5.7 Liter, 350 HP, V-8 engine that went into Corvettes and the Chevy Caprice.  The engine developed 250 HP. GM discovered that this engine (clean in California) would fit, just barely, into the Monza engine well. Chevy made it a California-only engine option.  There were a few problems to this, however.

The Monza had been designed to accommodate a much lighter Wankel engine. It could handle the inline Vega engine,35150-SuperTomcat.tif but the huge V-8 weighed hundreds of pounds more than the front end was designed to support. A Monza with the big engine looked like it was always driving downhill, as the weight forced the rear end into the air.  This was an engine that was built to power cars weighing almost one ton more than the Monza.  Because the car was so much lighter, it was only available with an automatic transmission. Revving it up with a stick, would have torn the gears apart. Being the savvy auto consumer that I was, I bought one!

What a car!! Pulling up to muscle cars at stop signs, knowing that I had a comparable engine, but weighed as much as a ton less, challenging them off the stop light was child’s play. I didn’t drive this car, I aimed it.  Being a rear wheel car with it’s butt up in the air was no handicap.  Pushing the accelerator sent 250 horses into the back seat. I was the King of the Road until one day I heard a fwap, fwap, fwap. TireThe front tire treads had been worn off on the inside, exposing the steel belts. The car had less than 10K miles on it.  The Firestone dealer honored the warranty and gave me new tires. Six thousand miles later, the same thing happened.  I went to a different Firestone dealer for new tires. I figured out what was going on.  Since the front suspension was burdened with hundreds of pounds of extra weight, it sagged and pushed the front tires into a bowed position.  I was only driving on the inner six inches of tread! No wonder the tires were failing so quickly. I also discovered that the engine’s radiator, designed to cool a much smaller engine, was the size of a small Frisbee.  Another vestige of an earlier incarnation.  Maybe Dickens shouldn’t have written the story of the Monza. Maybe Mary Shelley should have.

Next:  I Visit Sin City