A brief period in the author's career on Madison Avenue during the same period covered by television's MAD MEN but packed with far more drama, conflict and laughter, culminating in the production of a TV commercial with the incomparable and demanding Zsa Zsa Gabor who became a good friend.
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The real life concerns on Madison Avenue were substantially different than the well-done soap opera stories of MAD MEN. Yes, we all smoked like fools and there was a lot of drinking but this Madison Avenue habitue was driven by ambition and artistic integrity which led to multi-tasking and frequent conflict with inferior superiors. While most of my colleagues imbibed during lunch hours, I wrote songs and produced records. But I walked out of two good jobs in a row and found myself unemployed during a recession for months and months. We lived in Queens and I would go into Manhattan with 30 cents - subway tokens were 15 cents and that got me into town and home at night. Next I found a recession job taking a big cut from my previous salary but then bounced back by becoming V.P. Creative on America's biggest TV spot account and going to war against P&G, one of my former clients, and the biggest advertiser in the world. In the end I hired Zsa Zsa Gabor for a commercial that would introduce a new product and the experience was memorable. Having learned a few Hungarian curse words from my Hungarian father and using them on Zsa Zsa when she became too demanding turned her into an instant friend. We subsequently became partners in a would be cosmetics venture and the details should fascinate wannabe copywriters, TV producers and Wall Street entrepreneurs.
A few days later I got a call from a man named Bill Ficks with a very New Yorky accent. He introduced himself as Zsa Zsa’s manager and talked fast and in circles. Ficks told me that Tom Poston had just done a commercial for $40,000.00 and somebody else, I can’t recall who, had done likewise, on and on.
I forced him to get to the point. “Look, Ficks, I don’t know why you are calling. I have a deal with the Wm. Morris Agency for Zsa Zsa for $15,000 and I don’t know and don’t care what Tom Poston got or Clark Gable or Joseph Q. Schmuck. What do you want?”
“Wm. Morris don’t have the authority to set the deal for Zsa Zsa,” he said and then he whipped right back to his routine of all the moneys all the others got. He threw in the fact that she had a new book out and that it was in its third printing, etc.
This caught my interest. “Tell, me, Ficks, what’s on the cover of her book? A good picture of her?”
“Yes,” he said.
Now my mind was racing. “O.K.,” I said, “I’m not going to give you a measly $40,000 like Tom Poston got; I’m going to give you $100,000.00 in publicity.”
In getting excited I became dramatic; “Here is the commercial. We open on a close up of Zsa Zsa. But it’s not a live shot; it’s a close up of the picture on the cover of her book. We pull back just enough to reveal that it is a book which is sitting on her night table next to the phone.”
“We hear Zsa Zsa’s voice talking to someone on the phone. She’s telling them that the book is in its third printing and that she’s been signing copies until her fingers got sore.”
“Now we pan along the phone cord to the receiver which she holds against her ear while she is on a lounge getting her nails done by a manicurist.”
“A fast dissolve takes us to her doing a tour of her home while all the servants are busy cleaning with Sparkle Scent Lestoil. Zsa Zsa never mentions the product name. She just loves everything that sparkles. The servants tell her they are using this great new product but we’re not sure she is really listening. Then she flops herself down in a love seat in the living room and says, ‘Woman’s work is never done.’”
“Cute,” said Ficks with a slight chuckle.
“There is the commercial and Zsa Zsa has just picked up thousands of dollars’ worth of free press for her book. So you go back and tell her. Now I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting.” And I hung up.
A few days later, Ficks called again. In the interim I had done some checking and found that for a mere $7,500.00 we could pick up Carol Channing, who was a much better actress than Zsa Zsa and equally identified with “sparklers” through the song, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
Now when Ficks started his routine, I confronted him with the fact that I could get Carol Channing who was better and cheaper. There was no way this man would get me to budget for ten cents more than the quote I had obtained from Brillstein at Wm. Morris.
At this point, in comes my buddy, the tough guy, my E.V.P. He hears me arguing with Ficks on the phone. He gets angry and says, “Gimmie that phone. Let me talk to the wise guy.”
I handed the phone to Ralph who started with energy, “Now see here, Ficks..” and then he stopped, “Yes, but..but..but…(pause)”
Ralph took a breath and started again, “I know, I know, but…but…but…” My Mr. tough guy wasn’t doing so well.
Suddenly, and I couldn’t believe my ears, I hear him doing a complete turnaround; “O.K., twenty thousand. What the hell, it’s not my money.” And the deal was set.