Recently, my story, “My Black and White Dad”, was published in Flash Fiction Magazine, a literary journal out of the UK.
My saga begins in Chicago’s O’Hare airport in 2008. Mom and I were on our way to London to see her favorite opera star, Bryn Terfel (pictured below), in “Tosca” at Covent Garden. We were slated to meet a group of people from the fan club, the Terfeliads, a group of ladies who caravan around the world to see this dashing Welsh super star fill their hearts with bass baritone splendor. They are, as I like to say, the Dead Heads of the opera world and we fit right in.
Icy weather had delayed us out of Dallas so we knew we would have a miniscule window in which to make our connecting flight to the UK. So here we come, down the wide, cavernous, echoing main promenade at O’Hare, running as fast as our non-sensible shoes with spindly, ankle-breaking heels could take us to our gate. We show up staggering and sweaty, hair flying in every direction (except for mom’s), dragging our over-packed bags behind us like body bags.
And then we see it – the plane slowly pulling away from the gate.
“Aaaah!” we both say, and look at each other with utter despair, dropping our bags with overly dramatic flair and flinging our hands in the air, saying, “We were sooooo close!” (I don’t know why I say “we.” I was the only one doing this. Mom was her usual elegant, dignified self.)
With crestfallen hearts, we start wringing our hands and worrying about what we might do next. How would we make it to see Bryn?
As we are doing this, I notice a man to our left. He, too, had missed the connecting flight and was less than enthused. He mentioned he had hoofed it all the way from his gate, a flight from LA. Only thing was he didn’t look disheveled or rattled in any way. No hairs out of place. No sweat around his collar. No, he was hip and cool in his dark leather jacket, toting a black carry-on and interestingly, a giant film reel the size of a dinner plate charger (but thicker) on a small trolley.
He looked familiar, but not immediately so. He was definitely Captain Hunk – tall with dark, distinct eyes and perfectly arched brows. He had an elfish, mischievous grin. And killer dimples. His voice slayed me. Very deep, resonant voice like an FM radio announcer. I knew he was “somebody”, but I didn’t know just who.
We struck up a conversation with this friendly, handsome man. He was out of ideas, too, about how we were going to get to London. We talked to him for a few minutes, sharing our mutual irritations about the plight of air travel while we all droned on, frowning and fretting with disappointment.
In a few minutes, an American Airlines gate attendant in her red and blue scarfed, official self appeared and told us we’d be on the next flight. Not to worry. It would depart about midnight and it would be taking off a few gates away.
Soon more people who had missed their connection arrived then we all waddle en masse with our bags like little ducklings down to the new gate.
Mom and I decided to get some sandwiches for our long flight so off I went to fetch our nourishment.
When I returned with full bags from Which Wich and sodas, a conversation between my mom aka The Red Headed Bombshell and this mystery man with the film reel was in full swing.
I chimed in and said, of course I recognized him.
“I thought I recognized you,” I said, “I knew you were somebody…just didn’t know WHICH body of the SOME you were.”
He smiled and gave me what sounded like a courtesy laugh. I asked about his film reel. Turns out he was taking it to the Irish Film Festival in Dublin – and he was one of the main stars, Mack. I think the film was “Made for Each Other.” Here’s the IMDB plot summary:
The best part of any marriage is consummating it. However, after 3 months of a sexless marriage, Dan finds himself in the throes of casual sex with another woman. Dan decides the only way to morally rectify this is, of course, to get his wife to cheat on him and thus he sets out to find the right man to even the score.
“My daughter, Lisa, she did a film, too,” mom said, proudly, beaming with pride.
“Yes, your mother was filling me in on your documentary,” Patrick said with a glimmer in his eye, as he popped open his Coke can.
My mind raced about what else my mom had told him about me while I away getting our food. Did she tell him I was a spinster who used to write ads in New York but was currently unemployed? Did she tell him I was not a real blonde? Did she tell him I wore corrective shoes as a child? That I hid behind the door when I was a toddler when I had a dirty diaper?
“Yes, I did a film about a homeless guy, Bob, and the tagline is ‘The story of a spiritual savant who survives his own personal holocaust.’ ” He smiled and made some witty remark and I returned with something that was less than witty, I’m sure. Nevertheless, the volley was on.
Mom told Patrick all about Bryn, and gave him Bryn’s operatic CV, i.e. where we had gone to see him (New York, Chicago, Houston, etc.), who was in the fan club and more. He looked genuinely interested.
It came time for us to board so we continued a bit of conversation as we trudged on and found our seats.
As it turned out, Patrick was sitting right behind me. Not to the left. Not to the right. But directly behind me.
After we had gotten settled and the flight took off, we resumed our volley. He talked about the cast on “Seinfeld,” “The Tick” (pictured below), as well as “Family Guy” and the many other voices he had done in the cartoon world.
I told him I had written a TV spot for JC Penney in which we cast Bryan Cranston, Elaine’s other boyfriend, the dentist re-gifter, on “Seinfeld.”
“He was your competition,” I said.
“No contest,” he said, indicating that Bryan was clearly the better, more suave of the two.
He then told me all about his wife and kids. He pulled out his wallet and showed me photos of his kids – quite a few, he had four. They had his DNA and were all handsome and gorgeous.
“You are prolific,” I said. I think he blushed.
He told me how hard it was to have a family and be an actor. Was he flirting? Certainly not, I thought. I was a Pleb. He was Hollywood soon-to-be Royalty – a Patrician. But I did try to empathize with him, telling him that when I was on the road doing TV commercials, I could not have pets or plants.
“My plants died. Even my cactus. And I had to give away my lab, my sweet Simon,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows a bit, giving me a mumbled, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
I’m not sure the parallel was really the same. I was, though, trying.
I shared more about the woes of being a part-time filmmaker, but said we did have a track by Tom Waits – who he said he loved. I dubbed this a personal victory.
Over the course of the six-hour flight, it was a verbal joust. We talked on and off about films, TV, books, music and more. When I thought of something to say or ask him, I would pop up over the seat and talk to him. He would do the same to me. We were like little Whack-a-Moles jutting up from each side of our seats. Mom even joined in on our conversation, piping up about movies she liked, even musical groups.
“Even though my first love is Bryn, I really like the Bee Gees,” mom said.
“They are some snappy dressers, those guys. Their white platform shoes alone should be feared,” Patrick said. Mom giggled and he winked at her.
Near the end of the flight, we both decided we needed to sleep.
As we started our descent, the flight attendant came on and said we’d be landing in about an hour and that we needed to wake up, make sure we did our customs forms, and other blah blah things we needed to do to enter the country.
Suddenly, I felt it….on my socked-footed toes – Patrick’s toes! He was tall enough that he could stick his feet under my seat…and tickle MY toes with HIS!
At this point, you can imagine my surprise. I jumped up, making a big scene, bursting into laughter, and looked up to see him laughing, too.
“Just had to wake you up, make sure we didn’t lose you during sleepy time,” Patrick said.
After we landed and were gathering our belongings, he said to my mom, “This is for you. I want you to have this.” It was a jar of orange hard candies with an orange ribbon on the top. I have no idea where he got these, but he was insistent about parting with them.
Mom was gushing, absolutely delighted.
“You keep an eye on her, ” Patrick said to me, nodding his head in the direction of my mom. “You never know what the Red-Headed Bombshell is going to do next.”
When we deplaned, we said our goodbyes. We wished him well at the Irish Film Festival – and with his connecting flight to Dublin.
“You better hurry,” mom said.
“Oh yes, m’aam, I better skedaddle,” Patrick said.
And off he went, with his film on the trolley that clacked and clacked on the marble floor until the sound was just a whisper.
Mom still has the jar of orange candies. I am sure they’re rancid by now. But she and I won’t give them up, or eat them. And every time she sees them, or sees him in his commercial for National Car Rental, she tells the story.
“Do you remember the time was saw Patrick Warburton on the way to London? You know he gave me some candies.”
If I ever saw him again, I am doubtful he’d remember me. But at least, I’ll always have that moment when I went toe-to-toe with Patrick Warburton.
My mother gets her hair “done,” as in “done.” You know what I mean. She goes once a week to the beauty salon where her hair is washed, curled up in hard, neon pink curlers, dried under a domed dryer from the 1960s and then back combed, all to create a very pretty hair helmet, impervious to everything from a brisk wind to an earthquake.
Her nickname is “The Red-Headed Bombshell.” It came from an old white-haired, grisly truck driver who shouted out to her, “Well…here comes the red-headed bombshell,” as she crossed in front of his Mac truck one Sunday afternoon at the Piggly Wiggly.
Nevertheless, she goes to a salon in Dallas that is tucked away on the ground floor of a 1970s-style high rise that is affectionately known as “The Gay 90s,” as everyone there is either gay or 90-years-old. However, the salon has been in Dallas, at different locations, since the swinging 1960s when big hair was big business in this town.
My mom’s hairdresser is a woman named Ann who wears gingham checkered dresses (mostly red and white) like Loretta Lynn. She also has a parrot named Rambo. Ann likes to imitate Rambo when she’s doing mom’s hair. They laugh and have a grand old time.
One day not to long ago, my mother was sitting under the dryer and a woman passed by who looked very familiar to her. “Where do I know her from?” my mom thought. “I am sure I know her. Maybe she used to be in my Sunday School class years ago down at First Methodist.”
My mother walks up with her hair still in pink curlers to the woman who is getting a manicure, and puts her hand on the woman’s arm, as only a Southern woman would do, and states, “Tell me your name.”
The woman looks up, smiles ever-so-graciously and says, “Laura Bush.”
My mother launches in,”Oh that’s right! Say, were you a Kappa Alpha Theta at SMU?”
“Why yes I was,” the former First Lady says.
“My daughter was a Kappa Alpha Theta at SMU,” mom says.
“What is her name?”
And she told her my name. And then they smiled. And from what mom said, she was delightful and lovely. Mom said her hair looked just the same as it did when she was First Lady: discreet, brown and short. The very picture of elegance.
I find it wonderfully refreshing that my mother asks about her sorority – and doesn’t ask about her international fame, living in the White House and being First Lady, i.e. what was it like dining with the Russian Premier? Is the White House really haunted? Is it true you are really a Democrat and used to smoke? Were you near George when that shoe was thrown at him in the Middle East? Are the Secret Service guys hot?
I later found out that Mrs. Bush goes to this particular salon because she can slip in and out easily. The security risk is low. The Secret Service doesn’t have to worry about her being out in the wide open among the crazies.
And there goes my mom. Completely busting her cover. Just when she’s trying to lay low and enjoy her life with George in relative anonymity, here comes Mama, The Red-Headed Bombshell, who as everyone knows, doesn’t beat around the bush.
God tapped me on the shoulder one night.
I was about four-years-old, and I was in my bed. Suddenly, I felt a couple of pokes on my shoulder. Huge inhale. I froze. I turned over to see who it was. No one was there. But I knew it was My Maker.
When I was six, I told my mother I could see the air. I saw little squiggles, grey amoebas swimming around, interlocked like lace, pulsing like my heart, vibrating in my soul.
As I recall these two mystical, inexplicable events, there emerges from the mist of my memory a person who ties up my childhood celestial imaginings in a neat, nice bow. She brings it all together as a beckon of meaning – someone who was sent from Above to give me a message.
Through the haze in my mind she is standing behind my dad’s receptionist desk inside his beauty salon. She is leaning over and grasping my upturned hand and reading my palm. She’s telling me what my astrological chart says about me, what my 10-year-old self could expect in the years to come.
Lulu was a vivacious, perky woman with a sweet smile you could just fall into. She held my hand gingerly like it was a pearl. Her hands were soft, but firm. Her soul was overflowing, generous. She had oceans to share. I awaited with high hopes about what she would tell me about my life.
“You are very important,” she said to me, her eyes gleaming with light and hope.
“You will do big, important things in your life. You have a reason to be here,” she said. “When you were born, you had all your planets in the House of Theater. This means…,” she said and drew a delicate, short breathe.” You have a voice that must be heard.”
She had given me my mission. My marching orders from the universe.
Lulu was not the receptionist at my dad’s salon – she was just filling in for my grandmother who usually worked the desk. She was married to Woody, one of my dad’s “operators.” That’s the word he used to describe his employees, the hairdressers who worked for him. Here is a photo that my mother found in a box she was cleaning out after my father died.
Last I heard of Woody and Lulu, they had divorced and he had moved to Branson. Rumor had it that there was a lot of retirement homes from all over the country that took excursions to this Country Vegas Amusement Park. His specialty was back-combing, teasing and coifs so in his mind, I’m sure he thought this destination was his cash cow.
Lulu’s proclamation of the trajectory of my life went in and out of my mind for years afterward. Her long career as a comedian and entertainer, and her larger-than-life persona hung in my heart as did her prediction for my life’s path.
I had not looked into Lulu for years. Until a few days ago when I googled her.
I was astonished to see that she had transformed herself and lost 200 pounds. Her Website had a list of her accomplishments and awards that was never ending – and impressive. Here are a few, starting with the most recognized:
- 1968-1995 – Regular cast member on “Hee Haw.”
- 1980 – Guest performer at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan
- 1999 – Inducted into the Country Music Gospel Hall of Fame
- 2008 – Inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame
Here she is with Dolly Parton, another larger-than-life entertainer.
In light of my fortune, seems she was telling me of her own. To date, I have achieved nothing of the kind. But what did seem the most miraculous was her total and utter transformation. People can do that these days, change themselves on all levels, from emotional to physical to spiritual.
I, too, have transformed through the years. And here is my story, my Soul on Parade that I performed at the Wyly Theatre in downtown Dallas in a storytelling show, “Oral Fixation.”
In the eight-minute piece, I detail the irony of pulling out all my hair and having a hairdresser for a father. This, and my crazy journey through corrective shoes, sneaking boys into my room as a teenager, suicidal ideation in Manhattan and finally, freedom in sobriety.
I am still searching for the meaning of my childhood intersection with the iconic Lulu in my dad’s beauty salon. Is it that I love to laugh, love to “hee haw” and have a good ‘ole time? That if asked to choose between sex and laughter, it would be a big toss up? That my wish to shed my “thirty pounds of life” can be a reality?
Truth is, I have no final answer to any of this, like on that Millionaire show. But the true piece of info I can impart is that my story, and Lulu’s, is still unfolding. My mission is still in play. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet to discover my purpose.
Perhaps that’s the beauty of it all.
“From those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor.”
– Tagline suggested for a prominent Japanese firm by Jerry Della Femina.
Yes, you read it right. This was what Jerry had suggested in a meeting full of top executives from Japan. Or so the legend goes. This shocking verbiage was also the name of Jerry’s best-selling, hilarious book. Equally provocative was the subhead, which read “Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War.”
It was a war. And I was in the trenches. Even though it was 1983, Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the hallowed, revered Madison Avenue ad agency that birthed the Creative Revolution in the 60s, was still in full, uproarious swing.
Mad Men, step aside. Back away from your egos. This was the real deal. And my very first job as an ad copywriter.
And here I was, smack dab in the middle of the New York ad world working for a witty provocateur who also famously said that “advertising was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” Oh, and did we. In those days, we were allowed to smoke (#guilty) in our offices and cocktails were shaken and stirred for any reason, or no reason at all – I mean, who needed one? It was a par-tay waiting to happen. At any given moment. Of any given day. It was a odd, endlessly exciting world, one unlike any other I had ever encountered. Actually, it was more like an adult playpen. Extended adolescence. But a place, nevertheless, where magic happened.
My colleagues sported exotic names like Frank DiGiacomo. Joe Della Femina. Phil Silvestri. Mark Yustein. And Karee Rubenstein. Lots of Italians and Jews – everyone dark and swarthy all around me. Then there was pale-faced me, Lisa Johnson, or Junior Miss, Miss Texas, and any of the other nicknames du jour they lovingly called me. In any event, there I was, Sue Vanilla (#white bread) trying to stay afloat amidst this colorful crew, daily standing back in awe watching them create killer ads effortlessly. To top it off, I was one of two female writers at this famous boys club. Despite the fact that I tried to dress the part of a New York copywriter by doing the whole Antique Boutique vintage thing, Della Femina was still a lot for this little Dallas girl with frosted blonde hair to take in.
I was not good at what I did back then – no creative muscle to speak of. While I was good at puns, and was the ultimate punographer, ad concepts I just could not generate. I had gone to the School of Visual Arts and taken portfolio classes. I had cobbled together a “book” , a model’s portfolio full of my speculative – “spec” – ads drawn on typing paper with Marks-a-lots. I got the job, which to me, was a miracle. But at this point, I was painfully slow and needed remedial help – I had no Concepting Legs. I could have used a walker.
In addition to “ideating” and “papering the walls with layouts” as we used to say, the offices were always abuzz with lots of hollering and laughing and yucking it up – until 5 p.m., at which point on Fridays, it was time for a bit of liquid inspiration. The location: the bar in Frank’s office, where he had a little fridge full of wine and beer, as well as a small table with all kinds of other liquors and libations.
As the only Junior Copywriter in the bunch, I was chronically afraid to go into this gathering of seasoned pros – they had won every award you can name. (#Cannes, #One Show, #Clio) Though one afternoon, I had to venture in. After I had slaved away for hours coming up with just the right headline, I wanted to get my supervisor’s approval of it.
As I sucked up my courage to walk in, I approached Mark (#prince of a guy), and said, sheepishly, “Hi can I get you to look at this?” He smiled and said, “Lisa, this is cocktail hour. We’ll look at that tomorrow.” I need to add that Mark Yustein was an Ad God. As an art director, he was part of the team that came up with the famous line for Meow Mix, “Tastes so good, cats ask for by name”. He also partnered with several writers to pen the brilliant Blue Nun wine radio commercials featuring the inimitable banter between Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara.
As you can see, I was surrounded by Awesomeness. So it was only natural that during this time in my life, I was a bit more serious about the ad game – staying late nearly every night, honing my craft, puffing away on Marlboro Reds and having giant, heart-clogging pretzels with mustard for dinner.
One day I was rather upset and distraught that the client had changed one of my headlines for a newspaper ad. I marched into Ron Travisano’s office simply beside myself. How could this have happened? What was the client THINKING? Ron tried to calm me down, but I just wouldn’t have it. Finally he said, “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. People use these to line the bottom of their bird cages. Relax. This is only an ad.” Boy did that hit me like a Mack truck. WHAT? You can’t be serious. I was in this for blood – and awards! And an award I got with the help of Senior Writer, Rita Senders. A Clio Finalist, complete with an invitation to the ceremony at the Waldorf. I still have the menu from that day and on it, a nice dime-sized stain of mustard vinaigrette.
Even though Jerry was the head guy, he was frequently out of the office, I’m sure, rustling up new business. I didn’t present work to him (thankfully), but one day, I had to. My bosses were out on a shoot. His assistant set up some time for me to see him. So in I went.
Nervous, fidgety, overly-apologetic – scared as a little church mouse – this was me as I sat across from Epic Greatness in the form of Jerry Della Femina. Clad in his sleek Italian finery with the top of his iconic hairless head gleaming in the neon lights above, he smiled, and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Have a seat, my dear,” he kindly said to me. So I did as he said.
We were working on an ad for the New York Times for First Boston, an investment bank.
I was really struggling with what to say in the headline. I didn’t do math or numbers, much less banking. But I did come up with a nugget of an idea. So I presented it, we lobbed it back and forth a few times, then we birthed: “What every great banker needs is a great banker.”
Oh what a feeling! (cue the “Flashdance” anthem.)
I was titillated, energized, but also relieved that my meeting with him was over and I was no longer in his office. He was kind of just too much for me in my meager 23 years of life and my yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobe.
The only other time I really got a good chance to see Jerry, other than when I saw him in Frank’s office deep into storyboards, was when he walked down the hallway one day playing the ukulele. It was joyous site to behold.
Another fun event was when the office was getting redecorated. For some reason after the walls had been stripped bare of wallpaper, we created a contest involving toilet paper rolls. Whoever could stack them up next to their doors in the most creative way got a prize, which I think was a hotdog.
But it wasn’t always so magical.
I was working on a radio spot for Six Flags Great Adventure, a :30 spot. Problem was, it was coming in at :40, according to the account guy. I took another pass at shortening it and thought it was fine. In the days before email, I would just put the copy that I typed on a typewriter (#fossil) in the chair of the designated AE (account executive.) Then he/she would read it and walk it back over to my office.
On my way to lunch, I dropped the radio copy off with the AE, sure I had nailed it. I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Fred.
When I got back, what appeared at my door was an irritated, red-faced, spectacled Fred fiddling with his police/porn moustache and puffing on a cigarette with an inch-long ash. “Um, Lisa. This is not working. You’ve got exactly thirty minutes to make this thirty seconds,” at which point he hurled a stopwatch at me, narrowly missing my nose, skittling and clanging across my glass-topped desk, and knocking over my pencil holder. He stood there, swaying to and fro like a buoy in the Connecticut Sound. I could smell him six feet away. Apparently, he had just returned from a 16 martini lunch.
After he staggered away, I burst into tears, then got up and went into Mark’s office sniffling and trying to speak, barely able to eek out what happened. After I explained the situation, Mark was not happy. Fred got in big trouble. I hate to say it, but I was so happy.
The other moments that stand out were the Christmas Party at the River Café in Brooklyn. The lights of Manhattan twinkled on the East River as we partied and danced the night away.
I also had the distinct privilege of working for Luke Sullivan who penned “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” He was later inducted into the Copywriter Hall of Fame. I learned a tremendous amount about ad writing – and life – from him.
At one point, EST was The Big Thing. EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training. Everyone in the office was doing it. But I ended up declining. It was rumored that they locked you in an auditorium full of strangers for an entire couple of weekends and wouldn’t let you out to go to the bathroom or wear a watch, all the while pummeling you with data, shouting at you with depressing facts about humanity (so I heard) that wore you down to a nub. Then on the last day, you were supposedly rid of all your painful childhood memories, limiting beliefs and were built back up. Made all new and pretty – rarin’ and ready to change the course of your life.
The last phenomenon around the office I remember was The Hunger Project. Sounds good, right? Like you’d be helping the world, right? Well, I went to a meeting after work one night along with some other folks from the agency. Jerry even went. During the evening, we were presented with staggering, heartbreaking facts about hunger along with sad faces of precious children. I was weeping through much of it.
I had asked a good friend of mine to go with me that night, but the whole presentation was REALLY dragging on and on. Way too much information. About halfway through, we saw Jerry get up and leave. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “He’s probably like, ‘Let’s get outta here. All this talk about hunger is making me hungry. I am diein’ for a big plate of spaghetti.’ ” We could hardly contain ourselves after that.
The sad truth about The Hunger Project was that while the overall purpose of the movement was admirable, they were criticized for using most of the money for educating the public about worldwide hunger rather than actually feeding people.
But after all of these kooky happenings, the most fun, most insane, most deliriously ZANY event at the agency was…
The Sex Contest.
No, it wasn’t a live sex show. But the vibe of the whole thing was deliciously wild and racy. Women voted for the man they’d most like to have sex with, and men voted for the women they’d most like to boink. The winning couple would be announced at a luncheon called The Secretaries Luncheon. The prize: a weekend at the Plaza. Beyond Fabulous, right? But here’s the thing: each winner would not be getting their own room. The prize was one room…that the two lucky winner swould share…to ostensibly get lucky. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano’s office couch.
The day arrived for the luncheon and the big announcement of the winning couple. We shut down at noon on Friday and all headed over to a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side – one that we had rented out for this soon-to-be-raucous party.
The afternoon was somewhat of a blur. All I remember is that after the winners were announced – they were both way too sexy for their shirts – the margaritas and funny cigarettes (#mary jane) started flowing. Secretaries were sitting on top of the laps of the wasted account guys as well as some handsy creative directors. I crawled out of there at some point, blotto and bleary-eyed, and went to bed for what may have been the entire weekend. Oh yeah. It was some party, the memory of which is both vague and achingly specific in my mind. Some things that happened there…I’ll never share.
Lots of stuff happened during my stint at Della Femina. But it was one of the best years of my professional life. I can honestly say it was a balls-to-the-wall year of true Mad Men revelry that glows and sings and Snap Crackle Pops in my memory.
” Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”
– Norman Berry, Creative Genius and Ad Legend, Ogilvy & Mather.
I quote him often.
He was my big boss from 1986-89 in New York when I was a copywriter at Ogilvy.
I frequently saw him dashing by atwitter, burgeoning with disruptive, brilliant ideas, clad in Omar Sharif collared shirts inspired by Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.
He would be hunched over with laser-focused attention on the print ad or TV spot at hand, chain smoking, and moving his head about in bird-like sharp movements with lovely, deep, caring eyes. His laugh filled the atmosphere in any room with hope and endless possibilities.
My assignment was for New Freedom Maxi Pads, a product from Kimberly Clark. First, I worked on Pull-ups, those in-between baby diapers that kids wear when they are potty training. Now it was time to move on to more mature bodily emissions. The dreaded period.
How might my partner, fabulous Senior writer, Alice Henry Whitmore, and I make this interesting or most importantly, tasteful? How could we hook people in and prevent them from being instantly turned off by the decidely intimate subject matter, and change the channel the second they heard the words “maxi pad”?
Well, we had an idea.
For historical context, let’s remember that this was in the late 80s. It was before the end of the Cold War. The world was a different place.
People in communist countries had little to no freedom, especially the women.
So for our New Freedom project, Alice and I posited this intriguing question at the top of our TV spot:
“What if the women of Moscow discovered New Freedom?”
But here’s the kicker: the entire spot would be spoken in Russian – with English subtitles.
While the startlingly beautiful model we’d cast was moving freely about Red Square (oh yes, LOVE the irony) you would hear her extolling the virtues of these awesome maxi pads that were the best thing since sliced bread (visual intended) while the translation populated the bottom of the screen:
“I can wear it everywhere I’m allowed to go…I can even wear it with my Official Party Dress. I can carry them in modern pouches of plastic…even in Red Square.”
And so on.
The campaign would also extend to the oppressed Chinese women and have the same opening line:
“What if the women of China discovered New Freedom?”
Our lovely Chinese model would be elated about her newfangled maxis while English subtitles played on the screen.
We were tickled. We loved our idea. We thought for sure we had a BIG win. A smash hit, one that would march us right into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.
We couldn’t wait to present this to Norman.
The day arrived for us to see him. I was terrified. Sweating. Obsessing about what to say – writing my notes for the set up for our brainchild, then scratching them out in a furry, and starting over again and again and again. I was a mess.
I finally calmed myself down before we went in.
When Alice and I arrived at his office, we were surprised to see Norman sitting on the floor in front of his coffee table puffing away on a cigarette wearing his signature Omar shirt. We sat down and joined him. I was wearing a skirt, so sitting cross-legged was not an option. Didn’t want to flash anyone. I was no Sharon Stone.
I was already a bit jittery to begin with. As I positioned myself on the floor in what felt like the most awkward of poses, my leg and hip started to cramp. I thought my elbow upon which I was leaning was going to give way. But that all went away once we launched into our idea.
I got off to a sputtering start, “So we thought that, well, I mean, we were thinking that, um, women in Communist countries who had few liberties would be a good juxtapose, sorry, juxtaposition to the name, New Freedom,” I said.
Luckily, Alice jumped in and saved me while she pulled out the key frames for the TV spot.
Norman inhaled on his cigarette with such force, I knew we were in trouble. His brows furrowed, his eyes half shut.
With an exhale like God breathing life into the universe, he said, “This is brilliant, simply brilliant. I love it. Great work, darlings.”
We couldn’t contain our elation. Alice and I both tried to disguise our smiles, giggled a bit, but were still focused on the work.
“However, ” Norman said, “this would never fly in the States.”
We were heartbroken.
“It would play smashingly, swimmingly in the UK,” he said. “There, you don’t have the strict social mores like we have here. It would be a brilliant there….but not here,” he said.
He went on.
“I applaud your bold creativity, loves,” he said to me. “Can you all come up with something else as brilliant?”
Alice and I both nodded eagerly like little cocker spaniel puppies indicating, “yes.”
We thanked him for his time and left.
After that day, I saw him at department meetings where he’d give a rousing, encouraging speech to all and then show some stellar, recently finished spots – Seagram’s Wine Cooler spots featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd who were the stars of Moonlighting.
I had worked on the radio and it was presented to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagrams, with my voice recording of the spot I had written (thrilling!), but it was never bought. (See the dashing fellow below.)
Back in those days, we had an Ogilvy bar, replete with a bowtie-wearing bar tender who would serve up terribly strong drinks and bowls of peanuts to the wayward, haggard account execs who needed to recover after being beaten up by the client or weary creatives who needed to birth a new idea after theirs was savagely killed.
I loved hearing Norman give the State of the Agency address at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, where we had our holiday meetings, after which, the Ogilvy Choir would sing. Yes, a choir filled these famous halls with lively Christmas cheer that somehow made me think of fruitcakes – the food, not the people. Also offered while I was there was a bevy of swag in Ogilvy red: watches, umbrellas, and finally, a flannel unisex nightshirt. I still have mine.
With Norman at the helm, it felt like a club. Not a company. Not a job. But a place, a home, where you could make memories, history and lifelong friends. I think there was even an Ogilvy alum newsletter – way, way before social media hit. This was a place that just got things right.
In those pre-Cold War days, we could have never foretold something like Facebook. The world is radically, immeasurably different today – especially in the ad business. Web is King, the Grand Poobah of all. Mobile is Queen. Google is a verb.
The nerve-wracking days of meeting our air date or print deadline are mostly over. Ideas are distributed through a dizzying array of channels and are evaluated through a new lens: your Followers, SEO, and all those other things that makes my head spin. It’s a whirling dervish, a technological cauldron of activity which, if I let it, can become a time-sucking life invader.
These days, if I am in a meeting with ad folks, I will invariably quote him. Sadly, few people know this classic maxim. It’s too bad. It has helped me many times when explaining to a client why the TV spot filled with 50 competing ideas just won’t work.
Here’s to you, Norman. My time with you was brief, but meaningful – indelibly etched on my heart.
Because after all the hoopla of new media is said and done, and we’ve moved on to The Next Big Thing, you and your timeless, tightly defined words still reign.
As the story goes, I was in LA visiting friends in 2006 over Labor Day. I decided to treat myself as well as indulge in a little bittersweet remembrance of times past when I had a per diem and wined and dined on JC Penney’s dime during shoots in the 90s.
I booked a room at the very green and white, posh hotel, the Viceroy, with interiors by Kelly Wearstler, international style icon with dreamy, fresh colors that pop admist neutrals. Very yummy.
However, the only wrinkle is, well, wrinkles.
Those facial lines and crow’s feet that I could not escape seeing when I was there, as on every bedroom wall there was a collage of MIRRORS. Big mirrors inches apart. So everywhere I turned, I was faced with myself. The good, the bad and the ugly. I decided to not make eye contact with myself, but look down at the carpet when walking about the room. I got dizzy doing this. I just gave up after a while. What I saw was what I got.
One night, when I returned from dinner, I walked up and there was a long snaky line out front that was topped off with a doorman and a dreaded velveteen rope. I say “dreaded” because in New York when club hopping, especially during winter, unless you were a super model (not me), a movie star (not me) or on the list (not me), you shivered out in the cold in blustery winds until you either miraculously got picked, tailed in after someone, or gave up and decided to go to an old, broken down, has-been club like Danceteria got to be in the 80s, ashamed and defeated, and sipped on watered down Manhattans.
So I had a visceral reaction when I saw this, a bad flashback flinch in my gut. Luckily, I was a guest. I was not only on the list, I was sleeping there. So I walked right up in front of everyone, flashed my room key and waltzed right in. Liberation, at last.
The party was at the pool, a pool area that glistened in style and populace. The hotties were out tonight. The area was swimming in tanned legs in spindly tall heels upon which gazelles teetered when they hobbled past. I saw guys with hipster stubble and matching baldish, fuzzy heads with sunglasses on at night. Some wore hats, porkpie hats a la John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise.”
This night, I wore no hat or any Daisy Dukes or anything remotely revealing. In fact, I wore jean shorts to my knees-JORTS. And mules. I baby-stepped my way down to the pool-I don’t walk too well in backless shoes. Been known to topple over and sprain my ankle on occasion so I wasn’t taking any chances.
I took a seat alone on a little tree stump. It probably wasn’t a stump, but it felt like one it was so uncomfortable. I was about knee/butt height to all who passed me so it was an odd vantage point. But I liked it. I felt safe. I could sit here, inhale the electricity and dynamic of the night while gazing at the soft, blue waters of the pool. The palm trees were as tall as skyscrapers and added a nice ceiling to the evening.
Then he appeared. A man. Dressed in white linen from head to toe. He was tanned, too. But thankfully, not like George Hamilton.
He asked if he could join me. I smiled and said, “Of course.” As soon as he sat down, he started talking. We exchanged the usual pleasantries like name, where from, what doing here, etc. Turns out this man was a lawyer. On and on we chatted about everything and nothing.
Then somehow, some way, he asked me if wanted to go work out with him tomorrow at Ryan O’Neal’s gym.
What was I hearing? Seriously? As if I would be seen in a leotard exposing my extra 30-pounds-since-college body to the starry, Ken doll beau of “Love Story?” Getting into certain undignified and highly awkward work out poses, some spread eagle? In my mind, I screamed, “NO WAY!”
But, as if by its own will, my mouth spoke the words, “Why YES, I’d love to!”
I winded down in my responses, yawned, then excused myself. Told him I needed to get some rest for tomorrow morning. We exchanged vital contact info and off I went.
As I was walking away, I was still reeling from my decision-what my renegade mouth had said. That night, I didn’t sleep very well, obsessing about the morning. But I made one big decision: I would wear a butt wrap with my leotard. You know, a SOFA-Sweater Over Fat Ass. An appropriate camouflage. And I wouldn’t get into any machine that required me to spread my legs like at the gyno (inner thigh machine). Not pretty.
What would I say if I was introduced to him? And what about makeup? Without it, I have no eyebrows. I look very Elizabethan.
So I decided I’d wear brown eyebrow pencil. I had to.
My mind, on a loop, didn’t calm down until around 2 a.m.
I awoke with a start and popped out of bed waiting for my friend to call. I ordered breakfast. Then I looked out, well, no, I craned my neck to see the ocean view I had been promised. There was big busy street between the hotel and the Pacific…then there was a good chunk of buildings, THEN the ocean. If I looked carefully, I could see a bit of it, but a bit was better than none-coming from landlocked, concrete Dallas. (See my view below.)
I dawdled around a bit more. Still no call. So I called him. Turns out he had stayed up a bit late, or that is what I heard in his gravelly voice. He asked if we could go to Ryan’s gym the NEXT day. WHAT? I had wrung my hands and thoughts for no good reason? Lost sleep?
I was not happy. But I agreed to his offer to get a burger at a diner. With all the outdoor places to sit in the sun, I was not crazy about doing this, but I decided to just go with it.
The diner was in Brentwood. It felt kind of like an old Hollywood place that Lucy and Ricky might have frequented. He had his burger. I had my soggy, sad iceberg lettuce Chef salad.
He then said, “You know, there is someone I’d like to introduce you to, a friend of mine.”
“Who would that be?” I said.
“Julie Newmar,” he said.
I had heard the name, but couldn’t immediately place her.
“Catwoman, the original Catwoman. I have done some work for her and she’s really a great person,” he said.
This was finally getting interesting-an Old School super hero I was psyched.
“Let’s go!” I said.
Julie’s house was very near the diner. So off we sped through the winding streets of Brentwood. When we arrived he drove up the driveway all the way to the back. The house was California chic and as those houses go, smallish and deceptively expensive.
We walked in through sliding glass doors. There she was. Julie Newmar.
She was standing and feeding a young adult man who was seated at the table. He has some sort of disability-I believe he was Down Syndrome.
She was glowing. Her face, her hair, her smile. All glowing. She was very, very thin-a former dancer. We said “hello,” and introduced ourselves. She introduced me to her son who she said was deaf. At that moment, I was obviously struck deaf because I said to her son, “Hi John,” at which point, both my friend and Julie in unison said, “HE’S DEAF.”
I shrunk a foot. My mouth had a mind of it’s own yet again. My friend told me that Julie had John when she was around 50. Since then, he said she has been a selfless, dedicated mother to her boy.
As she stood and talked, she delicately, lovingly lifted spoonful after spoonful of food into her sweet son’s mouth. He had rich, dark hair. Doleful big eyes. I was touched by her composure and unflinching grace. She kind of purred.
She then gave us a tour around her house. It was marvelous. Tasteful design and decoration. She even took us around the outside of the house and told of a feud she had with her neighbor, Jim Belushi, concerning a fence. I am not sure of the details, but it was pretty brutal. She talked about it with passion and fervor. I could see a bit of her claws coming out, but they quickly retracted.
She was alive and moving fast – it was hard keeping up with her as she scampered around her property.
I believe at the time she was near 80.
When I got close to her face, it was shining and flawless. My friend said she had not had any work done. No cosmetic surgery. Nothing. I believed him.
In her heyday, she was an exotically gorgeous dancer, singer and actress- the daughter of a Ziegfield Follies performer. Her career had been magical, kissed by fate at every turn. (There was even the movie Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, that she did later, but one I never saw nor had any desire to. Really bad title.)
“Well, now, I don’t ever have to see that film because I have met the real thing!” I thought to myself.
Julie Newmar was as beautiful then when I met her as she was as Catwoman.
But she was leagues more beautiful to me now. Her adoration and care for her son shone brighter than her outer physical God-given features. To me, now she really was a super hero. A woman, a mother, who loved her son unabashedly, a mother who would undoubtedly take a bullet for him.
The juxtaposition between Julie’s physical perfection and her son’s handicap ripped my heart right out of my chest. Her son’s seemingly compromised life seemed so unfair. But life as we well know is decidedly and often, not fair.
Once she was leaping tall buildings in a single bound. When I met her, she was gently depositing food into her deaf son’s mouth, nourishing, I’m sure, his soul as much as his body.
I am so blessed to have met you, Julie Newmar, especially, now that you are in your role of a lifetime.
You are, indeed, a real live super hero.
The year was 1987. I was on a flight to New York’s JFK from Chicago.
I don’t remember why I was in Chicago, but I suspect it was for work. It was probably a Focus Group for potty training baby diapers, Pull-Ups. I believe I had connected in Chicago to go to Neenah, Wisconsin, to meet with the client, where we’d go to the groups together.
I had worked on this product for an entire year at Ogilvy & Mather, and during it, had the distinct pleasure of rewriting the jingle that went, “I’m a big kid look what I can do. I can wear big kid pants too… and I can take them up and down…”
Jaunty musical interlude: Ba da da da dah.
“I’m a big kid NOW.”
End of :30 award-winning commercial.
There was much concern from the client if, when we were saying “up and down”, we were encouraging children to take their training pants OFF… to become little exhibitionists, rip off their Pull-Ups and run around the freezer section of Piggly Wiggly nude. (See creepy demonstrative doll below.)
So we tested “up and ON” and “up and OFF” to assuage the unhappy mommies that had written in; the winner was the former – “up and ON.” Whew, what a relief. Now perhaps the nastygrams the client was receiving would cease.
Dizzying amounts of money was spent researching this nugget, this insight.
Nevertheless, I was returning from this trip, sitting in Coach (of course) when I learned somehow from some flight attendant murmurings that we had a celebrity on board in First Class: Mr.John Malkovich.
Immediately, I was titillated. I loved John Malkovich.
I fantasized that he was returning from a play rehearsal at the famed Steppenwolf Theater. Was he Hamlet? Romeo? Just who WAS he? What was he doing there?
To calm my racing thoughts, I summoned the flight attendant and ordered a little mini bottle of chardonnay. How fitting, I thought, in light of the film, Being John Malkovich, during which there was one (or many, can’t remember) of ceilings being low and therefore, everything small, miniature. Perhaps that would be my entre when I met him. I’d offer some remark about the irony of this. Better yet, I would send him a note that summarized my observation attached to my mini bottle of chardonnay in First Class.
Nah. Strike that. Too corny. I’ll just continue to think of my plan of approach.
I sipped my mini chardy all the way back to JFK. I could not come up with anything that I felt comfortable saying to him. Plus, I was kind of scared. I didn’t want to ask for his autograph. Too normal.
I had seen him in Burn This on Broadway. As we know, he’s bald, or near bald with a little top fuzz.
But in the show he wore a wig, kind of a page boy that was brunette but didn’t have bangs. He whooshed his locks around with great abandon like a wild stallion galloping around the stage. Plus, he had a sexy ciggie in hand.
I was spellbound by his performance. He was seductive. Handsome. And oh-so-witty, thanks to the brilliant playwright, Lanford Wilson. Thus, my faraway crush.
After we landed and we were de-planeing, I figured I would just see him at the baggage claim and admire him from afar.
As I stood at the baggage claim carousel, there was no sight of him. Perhaps the John Malkovich Squad had grabbed him, put a brown paper bag over his head to quell/avert the excitement and tucked him into a limo.
I was kind of sad that I didn’t have a celebrity sighting. But figured, hey, no biggie. Life goes on.
I saw my standard over-packed giant suitcase on the carousel creeping towards me. It was a massive black heap with strange bulges all over it. I could have been smuggling in a small Pull-UPS wearing child.
I was on the front row so I could grab it, heave it up and then head towards the cab stand.
So there it was, my big-lug-of-a-bag. I grabbed it, and gave a heave-ho. But in fear of not being able to lift it combined with a sudden adrenaline rush, it came flying off in warp speed, and as I whirled it around, there he was.
You see, I just didn’t whirl it around. My bag (the size of a cruise trunk) came whipping around violently, with a purpose and within an inch of clipping him at the knees.
I could imagine him being hit, breaking his knee caps, the EMT people rushing in, the sirens, the flashing lights. It wasn’t pretty.
He then looked at me and smiled.
“Can I help you with your bag?” he said to me. His hand reached out and neared mine on the handle – I had a death grip on it. Then…his hand graced the top of my hand. It softly tickled the top of my knuckles.
Faint. Swoon. Chills. Tingles. An explosion of sensations like fireworks on the fourth of July.
(I think I even peed my pants a wee bit. Where were MY Pull-Ups?)
“Oh,” I said.”No thanks. I’ve got it.” (What was I thinking?)
“I am okay, just a crazy Texas girl who overpacked.”
(Again, what WAS I saying?)
Then I went into a torrent, a verbal vomit – BIG diarrhea of the mouth.
“I saw you read at St. Bart’s the day that the Challenger went down. You read from Franny and Zooey, by Salinger. I use a quote from his book in the play I am writing, and I quote-from the book, not my play, I want to be clear-so here’s the quote, ‘I wish I had the courage to be a nobody.” Franny says this to Zooey when she is struggling with being rejected from her auditions, she wants to be an actress, you know, have you read the book in it’s entirety? I just love it. She’s so existential, wild and SO ME. Oh, and then you read from Endless Love by Scott Spencer, and it was so wonderful, much MUCH better than the film, did you see the film, Endless Love?”
After this stream of my nervosa descended upon him, there was a pause, the kind that is seconds but feels like hours.
Darn it if he didn’t smile again. His sleepy, sexy eyes kind of smiled, too.
“That is so nice of you to remember. That was quite a day with the Challenger going down.”
John Malkovich said Going Down. To me. He said these actual words.
I envisioned his face planted amidst and among my Lady Parts. I could not look at his face, as all I saw were my legs wrapped around his near-bald head.
The entire time we spoke, I just kept moving and hauling my suitcase. He didn’t offer again to carry it, as I did my best to look un-needy, un-weak, you know, girly.
He then said, “Would you…,” at which point I was so nervous, I just interrupted him and said, “Okay, so nice meeting you… buh bye!!”
And off I limped towards the lonely cab stand, to my lonely life in Manhattan.
In retrospect, I imagined that he was going to ask me to share a cab into the city, which would of course lead to an affair (wasn’t sure if he was married or in between liaisons or he, himself having an illicit affair with some other star.)
The thought was intoxicating. I love me some Naughty.
But the affair would end with my getting ditched, crushed in his palm like a used coffee cup, and thrown in the trash with all the others who dared to canoodle with Mr. Malkovich.
What’s a girl to do?
Well, this girl had a follow up plan.
A few weeks later, he opened in a new play on Broadway. I wrote him a letter (phone number included) reminding him of what happened, when and where, and… could I buy him a drink?
I took it to the stage door and handed it to some unknown stage worker.
For days, and weeks, I jumped every time my phone rang. Every time I got home and my message machine light was blinking, I knew it was him.
Remember, this was back in the olden days before anything cell phone, laptop, social media. No Facebook or Skype. No Instagram. Nada. My only source of contact was my home phone and answering machine.
He never called.
But of course he wouldn’t.
I had run away from him.
Or, this is what I like to think, humoring myself.
Now when I see him in films, I remember that day, his smile and his hand gracing mine.
For a moment… there was magic, the kind of stuff that some days, makes me feel all warm and mushy inside… bittersweet and when I am sad or depressed, somehow, electrically alive.
And then I think of peeing in my Pull-Ups. And I am complete.
During high school, the church was my second home. I lived, breathed and ate church. I was in the youth group and I also sang in the youth choir called The Variations, a clever name derived from the wide variety of musical numbers we would perform each year, as well as a neat little pun out of the music lexicon.
The Variations toured every summer. We went to exotic places like Texarkana, Baton Rouge, and one fated summer, San Antonio, where I would be the center of a prank instigated by one of the church’s senior clergy.
As a Variations member, I got to wear a cherry-red polyester leisure suit that had a matching polyester shirt, replete with ginormous lapels. The shirt was white and on it was a scattering of little red and blue shapes akin to Pac Men. Kind of early emoticons. We sang at churches, old folks’ homes, burn centers, and orphanages. Our repertoire ranged from selections from Christian youth musicals like Celebrate Life, Tell it Like it Is and Lightshine, each with distinct, jazz-hand centric choreography, square dancing moves, kick lines, as well as snappy contagions. One time we performed a three-part round that kicked off one of the musicals. It consisted of our running down the aisles in succession in three groups, our hands flailing about our heads as if the church was on fire, hollering at the top of our lungs: HE is alive, he IS alive, he is ALIVE.
The entire congregation was terrified.
So this one summer evening in San Antonio we had performed at a orphanage. The very same night Olivia Newton-John was in town for a concert.
After our dinner, the group decided we would take a boat ride down the river, one that cut through the shopping and dining area called The Riverwalk. Since the boats were not that big and couldn’t carry all of us, we broke up into groups. I got on the boat with my buddies, as well as the senior pastor, Dr. Ben Oliphint.
About midway through the boat ride, Dr. Oliphint let out one of his signature siren sounds. Yes, he would howl out from the depth of his lungs this noise that sounded EXACTLY like a fire engine coming down the road. He could have made a lot of money in Hollywood being a Foley Artist.
So as he was letting out this deafening siren blast, he then yells out, “Olivia Newton-John…Olivia Newton-JOHN, everybody…RIGHT HERE!”, at which point he said, “Stand up Lisa and start waving.”
Now in addition to the enormous lapels on my shirt that flapped in the breeze, I also had a big, frosted blonde Farrah Fawcett hairdo with Texas-size wings that flapped in the wind right along with them. At that time, Olivia and I had the very same hair.
From a distance, I looked the part. I was her body double, doppelganger – this was my chance to put my youth choir performing chops to the test!
So up I stood and I started waving. Suddenly, people started waving back, and some started running down the Riverwalk with cameras snapping photos.
The lights flashed, one after the other. Click, click, click! It was paparazzi fest! The farther we sailed, the bigger the crowds got. Large groups of my “fans” started running down along each side of the riverbank, snapping more photos and shouting “Olivia! Olivia!” The more adulation I got, the more I waved!
We sailed on a bit more and I sat down. The ruse had run its course. Everyone on our boat had a good laugh.
As we docked, I was praying that no one would come up to me and give me a frowny face for not being Olivia.
But then…just after I had gotten off the boat and walked into a restaurant, a little girl comes up to me. With her big, brown puppy dog eyes, she takes my hand, looks up to me and says, “Are you really Olivia Newton-John?”
My heart just broke…and sank…I just couldn’t continue the joke…so I said, “No, I’m not.” Her face dropped right to the ground and I could feel her disappointment in my bones…UGH.
Her mother came up to fetch her. We both smiled and she grabbed her hand, gave me a look of disappointment and lead her away.
So what is the morale of this story? First, this story is a testament to the fact that the cult of celebrity does seem to get a crowd all stirred up. Why? Because it’s as if when we get to touch the hem of their garment, we’ll be healed, or blessed. God-like.
Case in point: I was on a shoot in the 90s in LA and Michael Jackson was shooting a music video right next door to us. We all had our eagle eyes out to catch a glimpse of him. One time during a break, we saw Michael Jackson emerge from his trailer, but it was from a distance. He was wearing his signature surgical mask. (He was a germaphob – a known OCD sufferer so no surprise.)
We were all atwitter, all abuzz. We had seen him! Michael Jackson! We had chills – a big adrenaline rush. We all just walked a little taller back onto the set, bragging to the crew about our siting.
Sadly, we later found it that it was his body double. I think knew, perhaps, how that little girl felt. It was a buzzkill, a letdown, for sure. That feel-good extra specialness, that just a little bit better than feeling escaped like a just-popped helium balloon.
But such is life. Many of us live ordinary lives sans celebrity – our “quiet lives of desperation,” to quote Thoreau. My dad used that quote from time to time. I think he felt that way, desperation because he felt he hadn’t lived up to his potential by only owning a small business and never lived his dream of going to law school.
He died in 2003 and to this day, he is still my hero. That’s why in his honor, I try to live every day as if it were my last. It squashes the desperation right out of my soul.
This is the star-turn I live for.
Many years after the whole Riverwalk event, from time to time, I’d think about that little girl. Should I have lied to her? Would that have been better than disappointing her? I honestly don’t know. I think what tipped me towards telling the truth was, well, TRUTH. No matter how painful, truth is always better. At least, this is what I learned from church…the First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas…where I was, for one brief shining moment on a river boat in San Antonio, Olivia Newton-Johnson.
Mutato. This is the word I think of when I think of Devo. The word “mutato” (according to Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer) is a mash up of “mutant” and “potato.” Thus the word, “Mutato,” which is the first part of the moniker for Devo’s commercial music venture, Mutato Muzika, and is the very place that I came to work with this epic band. The year: 1998. The project: the JC Penney Holiday Campaign. The client had selected 15 “hot gifts” (read: cheap/affordable) that ranged from generic, slightly festive teddy bears to mini colorful TVs (yellow, pink, blue – they were cute as buttons) to somewhat okay sweaters in mostly unnatural, scratchy blends. We decided that for the maximum media punch each should be :15 and run back to back. The consumer would get a quick flurry and assault of cool stuff they just couldn’t live without.
Some spots were live action and we shot with Robb Pritts from Backyard Productions. Some required more complicated shoots so we worked with Rhythm and Hues, the company famous for the Coca Cola white polar bears and the film, Babe: Pig in the City.
We looked at a few music companies to work with, but decided that Mutato Muzika was The One. I mean, who could pass up the opportunity to work with Devo? Not us. The tracks were always done after the shoots and after the editing. So when we traipsed into Mutato, we pretty much had the final product. Each :15 spot required a different musical approach. If my memory serves me, (and it usually doesn’t so apologies will abound after this), different teams were responsible for each of the spots. My art director, James, and I worked on a number of them.
But the one in particular that stands head and shoulders (sheep’s, that is) was the spot for wooly sweaters. (Sheep don’t have shoulders, but I couldn’t resist.) The concept was simple: the sweaters, each with wintery, earthy tones and crazy patterns, were from sheep who had grown these unique patterns on their fuzzy, woolen bodies – as if the pattern was in their DNA.
It was as if JC Penney found these mutant (a theme!) sheep, shaved them then turned their little patterned coat into sweaters.
Can’t picture this? See this work of art here.
Nevertheless, it was the late 90s and the whole production took many days involving green screen, layers, lots of post work, and yes, live sheep. The idea was that the sheep would cross in front of the camera. Problem was, the mama sheeps wouldn’t budge. Only when we positioned their babies on the opposite site of the set would they come a ‘runnin’. And when they’d come a ‘runnin’, they each left a trail of nice poopy pellets behind. The PA’s would run after with a shovel scooping up their smelly trail, thus their moniker (instead of Production Assistants) “Poop Assistants.”
Other spots involved golden retriever puppies pushing the mini TVs, puppeteers a la mimes operating the frolicking teddy bears, and a stunt mouse. Yes, the later had a “wrangler” (full-sized human) who worked with him in a little “practice set” that was a shoebox. In it was his bed, a sardine can lined with a thin layer of cotton. The mouse’s job was to totter over in front of the camera and rub his nose, as if he was waking up. Cheese was put on his nose so when he was supposed to be rubbing his eyes and “waking up,” he was actually using his little mouse hands to eat the cheese. The proximity of his eyes and mouth were so close that him stuffing his little face could be mistaken for him rubbing the sleepy out of his eyes. Very intricate and nerve wracking, the whole kit and caboodle.
This particular spot was for one of those modern things called “online shopping,” and his cue line was, “…not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Ba dum dum. Big hilarious punch line. Rumor had it that our budget for this entire project was $2.5 million. I think it actually was, as it was the tail end of the Clinton 90s, the good old days.
But baaaaack to the sheep spot.
As was the practice, we’d have a conference call with the music guys/gals before the production, give them ideas about music, the direction, the vibe, then after the shoot, gather to hear the track played up against the rough cut.
For some reason, we didn’t do this with the Devo dudes. We all showed up at their Sunset Boulevard address without a plan, at least, this was the case with the sheep spot. The building was decidedly, mutantly cool. It was a round building from the 50s that used to be a bank – a solid, green orb, that was painted in their signature Mutato green. We all filed into the work room. At the helm was Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark’s brother. He sat in the engineer’s chair at the sound board tapping away, moving buttons, doing all the mysterious things that sound guys do. Above him was the monitor.
James and I sat down on the comfy couch. It was just the three of us, and our producer. So there we sat, enduring the silence and waiting for Bob to spin around from his perch (his chair and board were elevated a tad) and talk to us. After the typical intros, requisite questions and discussion of where we had lunched and where me might dine later, we started discussing music for the spots. The wooly sweater commercial came up and unlike the others prior, we were kinda stuck. We tossed around a couple of ideas, then decided to look at the spot one more time in hope that it would jog loose a crumb of something.
Then, it happened.
Deep from the recesses of my childhood came a melody from my soul, one that I could not not share…and just like Old Faithful erupting at Yellowstone, I, too, erupted with the song, singing at the tippy top of my lungs:
“Have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and that…go THIS way and THAT way, go THIS way and THAT way…have you eeeever seen a lassie go this way and THAT.”
The look of shock on everyone’s face was as if I had just stood up, pulled up my shirt and revealed my bare breasts. Luckily, at that very point, in walked my salvation: Mark Mothersbaugh. The head guy. The one with taste. The one who knew that I had hit upon something. He asked me to sing it again…and again, I sang.
I could then see the uncomfortable looks on my colleague’s faces transitioning to that of delight, their heads bobbing “yes” to one another. (I’m so glad no one high-fived.) Mark, Bob and our team continued to discuss what instruments and then before we knew it, Mark brought out his accordion. As if he were atop a mountain replete in Tyrolean splendor clad in lederhosen, he played the tune again – sans my lyrics or singing. The accordion breathed, expanded and contracted mightily – it was alive! We all watched in amazement as Mark cranked out this simple, yet highly jaunty tune on his giant squeeze box. Beaming, we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. But it wasn’t over. As I was walking out the door to go to the ladies room, I sensed a presence behind me. It was Mark.
As I walked down the circular hallway that wrapped itself around the building, I felt Mark’s hand clasp mine.
And then we started skipping together, hand-in-hand, down the hallway, laughing and giggling about the childhood song I had birthed from my memory and heaved out with my lungs. “Skip, skip, skip to my loo, my darling,” is the refrain we sang. We skipped nearly all the way around the building…and then our hands drifted apart and we laughingly separated.
Cut to the next day.
We had sent the tracks to the agency to get approval before we did any more work, any polishing. So we gathered once more in the room with Bob and Mark. We cued up the tracks and played several of them on the speaker phone so our Dallas crew could hear them. The response for all of them was resoundingly enthusiastic, especially the sheep spot. But one track just wasn’t doing it for the folks.
When Mark heard the lack of love for one track, I could tell he was rattled. After we hung up the phone, Mark said with a sullen, sad face, “I’ve got to stop hurting people. I’ve got to get back in therapy.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Mark actually cared what his clients thoughts, so much so that he felt personally responsible for their reaction. And his sharing of his need to go back into therapy, the transparency he displayed. It just broke my heart.
In my ten-year stint working with a large number of musicians in commercial houses, NEVER have I thought any of the people cared – to this extent. I could be wrong about my assessment. I hope I am. Nor during this decade had I ever met someone so willing to be vulnerable. Indeed, he was an artist of the highest caliber. A fine, dear man.
The overriding feeling I walked away with was that Mark, superstar that he was, didn’t put himself “above” others. He didn’t think himself a God like so many rock stars do. Despite what the band’s name represented, which was the DEvolution of society, Mark had actually done the opposite: he had evolved from the disposition that some rock stars possess – egos the size of Alaska.
Mark’s demeanor, his soul, was so refreshing and startling. Just so cool. The other very cool thing about working with them is that we all walked away with Mutato Muzika knee socks with each word stacked vertically on each sock so that you would read “Mutato” on one side and “Muzika” on the other. AND…we snagged some “handsome man” hats! (See pic below.) What a kick they were. These days, when I hear “Whip It” or any other Devo song, I am reminded of Mark, his lack of egoism and his kindness. And in honor of that fanciful day with him, when I hear a song, I without fail seem to always get just a little more bounce, a little more skip in my step. Imagine that.