Stories told in August, 2012

My brief TV career (4)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 28th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The meeting with Leo Burnett: twelve guys in black suits. l’m not sure they always wore black suits, but I think when they wanted to bury a project they all dressed alike. I had the feeling that I was participating in my own funeral.
They showed the pilot, and when it was over one of them said almost as if it had been scripted, “Jesus, this is gonna play great down at Greenwich Village.”
A second guy said, “Couldn’t you get that black guy and that white girl a little more focused onscreen?”
And then a third one says, “When’s Pete Seeger coming on?”
They passed.
What Jack Sobol told us would happen had happened. The show was known to everybody as used goods. Greschler pulled out, and we got William Morris, which could do very little.
Here’s how Jim McGuinn remembered it when he talked to Ted a few years ago:

One of the worst meetings I can ever remember having was when i screened our pilot at Schlitz‘s new ad agency in Chicago. It was in a big conference room. They had about 12 people there, and they just started throwing darts at us: “Oh, well, I don’t know…”
One guy said, “Well, this music reminds me of the type of stuff we used to do when I was in college and we used to sit around in our bare feet and drink beer and sing songs like that, and I don’t think it belongs on television.“
I said, “Well sir, I think that’s the point of it. This is the type of music that people do drink beer to, and we‘re talking Schlitz here.”
“No, no, this isn’t right, we can get a much better deal on reruns of sitcoms,” Pete and Gladys or whatever the hell it was. So I knew we were dead.

Irv Kupcinet

This story takes place in 1966. It was told on August 24th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Brian Epstein had told me to set up three separate press conferences before the Comiskey Park concerts. The first would be for television crews, the second for the print reporters, and then all the adults would be shooed away and the band would answer questions from the editors of high school newspapers. When I pushed into the packed room for the first conference to introduce Sherman Wolfe, my public relations man, who was going to run things, I thought for a moment we had it backwards and we’d brought in the high school kids too early. Then I recognized the faces of some of the TV reporters. Not one of them was too old to be a son of mine. I was forty, and I had reached the pinnacle of my career by putting on a chiIdren’s show.
So here, peering over a bank of news microphones, were the villains of the hour: the boys who had dared to link up somehow with the worldwide phenomenon of kids talking back, wearing their hair a bit shaggy, and threatening the underpinnings of proper society. The chance for some fireworks was good, I thought hopefully. Maybe Lennon would back up his assertion, take up the challenge from the O’Connors and the Mableys.
Any such hopes were dashed immediately. The whole point of the press conference was to capitulate, to back off, and from their point of view, they handled it very well. The four boys showed remarkable poise, and even kept their sense of humor.
Irv Kupcinet and I stood together afterwards and watched the room clear, young reporters dashing off in all directions to file their breathless stories. Ignored, we slipped out with Kup’s wife, Essie, and walked over to Maxim’s for dinner.
Irv Kupcinet was a tall, broad-shouldered man who had been a college football star and had a brief career in the pros. He was the best kind of celebrity columnist: he would actually dig for news. Kup would subject himself to these press-conference circuses when he could easily have covered the story from the office. He prided himself on his scoops. He often knew which acts I was going to book before I did. And he was at the top of his field. He knew everybody.
Nevertheless, here we were at dinner, left to ourselves. Nobody had thought either of us interesting enough to tag along with. I couldn’t have pinned it down then, but years later I recognized that feeling. It felt a little like missing a train on which you were used to being the conductor. I was ten years older than the artists and the reporters who were covering them, twenty years older than most of the fans, and Kup was fifteen years older than me. In eight years in the business, I’d made the transition from irreverence to irrelevance.

My brief TV career (3)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 20th, 2012 by Frank.  1 Comment

Being the innocents we were, Jim and I started setting up showings of our TV pilot on our own for the ad agencies. We rented the Gate of Horn and showed it to J. Walter Thompson, who loved it. They said, “This is too good to go on this summer. We’ve got the client for you and we’lI go on in January.” Wonderful. Fantastic. Sensational.
Now that we were getting somewhere, all sorts of people began to surround us. A lawyer by the name of Parsons came around, and all of a sudden it was “these wonderful kids need some help, and everybody knows that television shows run at a deficit.” Very quickly, I heard about a group that was going to buy a big piece of the show and help us kids out. I knew enough about capitalism to know that when anybody talks about helping kids, put one hand on your wallet and the other on your groin.
Meanwhile, J. Walter Thompson had shown our tape to Schlitz, and they loved it too. Papers were ready to be drawn up to put the show on the air in January, and heady things were happening. This was still very early in my career. All I could think about was that I was gonna be a television producer and have the casting couch and the office and the whole shtick.
Then I read a story in Advertising Age that the $18-million Schlitz account had gone from J. Walter Thompson to Leo Burnett. I guessed quicker than Friedkin and McGuinn could tell me what had happened. I may not have known much about show business, but I knew about politics, and I knew there was no way on earth that Leo Burnett was going to take J. Walter Thompson‘s last recommendation to Schlitz as their first television project. lf the project worked, what did Schlitz need Burnett for, and if it flopped, Burnett would take the fall.
The Schlitz people told us, “Don’t worry about a thing. You’re the first thing on the agenda with Leo Burnett.“ Six or eight weeks later we were called in again, and they said they would like to have a formal screening in their screening room. By this time we had spent $25,000 to sell a show that cost $5,000 to make, so we were grateful that at least we didn’t have to rent the Gate of Horn again.

Orchestra Hall (2)

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on August 14th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser-known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come. That‘s not how it worked out.
In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.
Harry Zelzer, the man who controlled the classical music market in Chicago, would always come out in front of the audience to present his shows. He knew many of his regular concert-goers by sight, even by name. I tried to do the same. I would be in the front of the house before each show, taking care of problems and misunderstandings. After the business really exploded, I couldn’t keep up with that personal element any more, but I kept at it for as long as I could.

Miss Chicago (2)

This story takes place in 1977. It was told on August 9th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Years later I brought the Rolling Stones for a concert at the Rosemont Horizon, an arena I had put together outside Chicago. The Stones, whose show was more outrageous by an order of magnitude than the Beatles ever were, drew every mover and shaker and aspiring somebody in Chicago’s establishment. Some of them probably enjoyed the concert, but all of them knew they had to be there whether they liked the tunes or not: it was the Place To Be. Everybody understood by then that not only was the music not much of a threat, it was in fact part of the conformist coloring of the period. The business world can accommodate anything, as long as the rules of property are not disturbed.

My brief TV career

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 4th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I think what made show business interesting to me, at this point, was that it was one of the last corners of this overdeveloped capitalist economy that you could go into with no knowledge and no money — and I had neither — and start generating income in a short time.
Any business that shows tremendous growth and the chance for fortunes to be made overnight has its own rules, and they aren’t very nice.
Jim McGuinn was an independent television producer who had made his mark in kids’ shows on WGN television. Jim called me up one day in 1959 and said, “Let’s have lunch.” So we did: in those days having lunch was just having lunch. He said he had an idea for a television show about contemporary folk music, and would I be interested in being a third owner and being the talent coordinator. It sounded like a wonderful idea and I said sure.
Jim suggested that our third collaborator should be a very talented local director by the name of Billy “Gloves” Friedkin, who at that time had a bit of a reputation. So we formed a partnership. We conceived a show with the Clancy Brothers, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Josh White. Chad would host it.
We went to shoot it at the Village Gate in New York, because everybody was already in New York and we wouldn’t have any expenses. We shot the show in one night, for $6,000. There were a few people from the industry there, and they were skeptical. We were from Chicago, and on top of that we were making a pilot for $6,000, and pilots had to cost $60 or $70,000 in those days. And we were making it in April, when the traditional selling season was over.
I sent Ted to talk with Jim a few years ago to help jog my memory. Here’s some of what Jim remembered:

A young woman folk singer drove all night from St. Louis to audition for us. I remember she was very nervous, and her hand was shaking. We said settle down; we gave her some coffee and just talked, and finally she did lt. Her name was Judy Collins. So we used her.
We felt that the blacklist, which very much existed at that time, was improper, and if you‘re doing a folk music show you should stand behind the people who are really the legends of that field. We had every intention of using Pete Seeger, and all the others. We did use Josh White on the show.
After we booked the Weavers, I remember an agent from William Morris calling to say, “Why did you use those people? lt’s hurting the project.” And I said, “Well, we did, and that‘s the reality of it, and let’s get on with it.” So I kind of watched a certain pullback in enthusiasm by the William Morris office in New York.