Stories that feature ‘Jim McGuinn’

My brief TV career (5)

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

Some things have a life of their own. Jim McGuinn worked very hard showing our TV pilot around town and talking it up, but he was getting nowhere until about a year and a half later, when we went to see Manny Kaplan, the vice president of Sara Lee bakeries. He loved it. He said he’d put on an hour-long special in Chicago, option it for the networks and, if it played well on the networks, sponsor the series. We persuaded Red Quinlan at ABC, one of the more courageous people in television, to take a chance on it. We were back in business.
This version of the show had the Second City comedians, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Weavers. Kaplan insisted on the Weavers — he was a big Weaver fan. We set up an outdoor shoot at the University of Chicago campus, where we figured we would have a receptive crowd. We were wrong.
There’s nothing particularly exciting about a location shot. There are interminable delays while cameras are adjusted and wires are fixed, and for the students — who were there for a backdrop, nothing more — it isn’t much fun to sit there in the cold wind and wait. How many times can you do a take before boredom sets in? Before long there were boos and catcalls. But we had a usable tape.

My brief TV career (4)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 28th, 2012 by Frank.  1 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.

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.

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.

My brief TV career (2)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on July 24th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Jim McGuinn stayed up all night and edited the tape of our TV variety show pilot. The next morning he showed it to ABC and got a pretty fair response. Then that afternoon he showed it to CBS. Mike Dann, the programming chief, loved it. He said, “If you guys can come up with half the sponsor, I’Il put it on.”
Jack Sobol at Screen Gems gave us some sage advice, which we ignored. He said, “lt’s not selling season, and there isn’t any money left. This money only remembers what you did for me today. If you show this thing now and don’t get any sales, lt’s gonna be yesterday’s news next selling season.“ But we had been told by Mike Dann that we had a great show, and we were not about to wait around.
Sobol also told us we had to get an agent. Get an agent? We couldn’t get an agent to return our phone calls. Those who heard about it thought it was a big joke. Then I remembered that I knew Abner Greschler, the hotshot agent on the West Coast who had been the Gateway Singers’ first manager. When I took over the Gateway Singers I had paid him the money they allegedly owed him, so he would at least take my calls. I called Abner and started telling him the story.
Abby often talked on two phones. He always called you collect, unless you put a stop to it by refusing the call. He was a very smart, fast man, the prototype of a Hollywood agent. So he was listening to me and doing two or three other things, until I said, “and Mike Dann likes this.”
He interrupted me: “Did Mike Dann see it?” I told him what McGuinn had told me. Abner immediately called Dann, with me still on the phone. Suddenly a change came over him. He had confirmed that CBS was interested.
Abner thought he was going to sell this show as country-western. All he knew was that CBS was interested and that this could be a hot property. So he said, “Send me a telegram giving me 90 days on it.” Jim sent him the wire, because nobody else was talking to us, and we both went home to Chicago to wait for Abner to produce a miracle. I‘m not sure Abner ever saw the show.