Even Then He Knew…

Jack Byrne Advertising was new, hot, and the talk of both the 6:05 and the 7:02 New Haven RR commuter bar cars if not the town. In less than 6 months from its opening on January 1, 1970, it had nailed the biggest plum in food marketing, the Bonus Gifts Coupons account, incorporating funds from 30 of the largest manufacturers in the food industry with a planned national budget of $26.5 million, had produced for that client one of the greatest extravaganzas in TV commercial history entitled “The Greatest Little Coupon in the World”, had just completed a spring campaign of 20 ads for Barney’s, the world’s largest men’s store, which had become, along with Barney’s radio campaign the most talked about advertising, bar none, in New York City.

I was writing, Stan Kovics was art directing and we were sizzling. But, I had management to do and Stan knew somebody who he felt could relieve me of some of the writing.

Enter The Writer.

Read the sentence immediately preceding. Read it a couple of times. Interpret the last two words as you might The Master, The Impresario, The Philosopher, The Olympian, The King.

In most categories of world-renowned activity, those who enjoy the highest plain of performance have nouns that establish their proficiency. Writers do not. Anybody can be a copywriter, client included. Anybody can be novelist, if willing to pay for publication. Anybody can be a playwright, nothing says the work has to be performed.

But, to people who write for money (and get it), there are very few true “Writers”. In advertising, there are fewer still.

Hemingway once wrote ads.

So did Steve Gordon.

I was very lucky to be one of those for whom he wrote ads. We hired Steve on a loose full-time, free-lance basis.

He wrote most of our Fall 1970 Barney’s New York Times campaign that introduced a spectacular new Barney’s to New York and to the world.

From the first ad: “Come to Barney’s. Bring your Camera.” to the last “Take a Communist to Barney’s”, Steve’s ads shook New York advertising complacency and national retailing advertising concepts.

His words took charge of a page and demanded reading while provoking thought. Even the brilliant graphics of Maybe Trousdale studio of Atlanta under the design direction of Stan Kovics had to take a secondary position to Gordon’s greatness.

That campaign swept awards before it like a golden broom.

But, it didn’t amount to gas passed in a hurricane to the impact of one 30-second television commercial that Steve Gordon wrote.

The marketing situation was this:

Barney’s in 1970 had experienced 40 years of business under two images, the first image reflected the best place in the world to get discounts off the finest name brands in menswear. Barney Pressman, himself, believed that scratch any potential customer and you’ll find a bargain hunter. His marketing strategy, oft repeated, was, “Give me the masses, the classes are asses.”

It never bothered Barney that Barney’s store attitude (“Take a ticket and wait for your salesman to take you through the store”) and advertising, (“Calling all Men to Barney’s”) created Barney’s second image as the last place in the world one would want to admit having bought a suit. Traditionally, the bargain happy Barney’s shopper snipped out the prominent Barney’s label at home and never confessed to having been to 7th Avenue and 17th Street.

The apple, however, sometimes falls far from the tree. Barney’s son, Fred Pressman, went to Rutgers on his Dad’s discounts but clothed in the Barney’s image. There he roomed with the sons of executives from Procter & Gamble and General Motors and Oil moguls and Wall Street tycoons who joked as one about Barney’s shoppers and bragged that they never went back after that mandatory one-time, religion-driven, puberty related, ceremonial visit to Barney’s Boys Town.

When, in the 1960s, Fred finally reached retail maturity and “took over” the business from Barney, his marketing objectives were to wipe out the snickers and bring in the snickerers through an offer of a menswear store they couldn’t refuse. He would reinvent the marketing of fashion menswear by utilizing women’s fashion marketing techniques. He would benefit from a retained image of value, but he would create the ultimate emporium for the fashion-conscious man of respectable means.

In the Fall of 1970, after three million construction dollars were expended, Fred would open Barney’s International House and America House. The International House featured luxurious Dens each presenting the top creations of a world-famous designer; Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Phillipe Venet, Bill Blass, Hardy Amies, the Savile Row bespoke tailor, Kilgour French & Stanbury and others never before seen off Madison or Fifth Avenues. The America House would house the best of the middle-and-upper-market vendors such as Stanley Blacker, Hart Schaffner & Marx, Groshire, Hammonton Park, 3Gs, among scores of brands comprising the 60,000 suits on the racks. Barney’s would have on hand 150 highly-skilled craftsmen to fit and tailor overnight.
The introductory advertising campaign was assigned certain messages by media. The three primary media were to be used with budgets divided equally between the three.

Full and Double-Page Print Ads in the prestigious New York Times would be devoted to reversing the old image to a new one, that of a high-end, high-fashion store among those top-of-the-line shoppers Barney’s was anxious to cultivate.

Radio, already successfully recreating the Barney’s image with the witty and sophisticated radio team of “Jay and Day”, would balance image-support with occasional infusions of the Barney’s value story.

But, the sophistication of Jay and Day and of the New York Times audacious upscale advertising were felt by many Barney’s salesmen, managers and buyers (and by Barney, himself) to present a potential turn off to the bargain-hunting masses who had loyally shopped Barney’s for as much as three decades; the cab drivers, civil employees and school teachers,, the one-suit-a-year men, the New Jersey families who drove across the river to buy under the regular retail, the mamas of the 13-year old Bar Mitzvah boys and the even-younger Confirmation Kids dragged in from the boroughs to Barney’s Boystown for their first tailored clothing experience, the nervous grooms who came to the RSVP room for a bargain tuxedo they’d wear once in their lives – a disaster could occur if the proletariat were turned off before the bourgeoisie were turned on enough to turn up.

Television was assigned the task of reassuring these loyal customers that, notwithstanding the new International House and America House, The Givenchy and Cardin Dens or The Kilgour, French & Stanbury, Ltd. Shop, or the flippant Radio or heady Times ads, Barney’s was still a family store and not some mis-located Fifth Avenue Snob Shop.

All concerned including the agency agreed that, to soften the intimidation of its upscale reality, the average guy and his wife needed reassurance that Barney’s was still for the common man, warm, human and founded upon simple values. And the average family whose majority skipped the New York Times was best reached on the couch near the TV. All agreed a fitting commercial might synopsize the store’s unique history (though none suggested reinstating its original slogan: “No bunk, no junk, no imitations!”).

Steve and Stan went off to play creative team. For two days.

What they came back with was to become sixty of the most legendary seconds TV viewers have ever seen.

Let’s cut to the end product of their exploration, a commercial we titled MEN OF DESTINY:

Scene: New York City circa early 1900s. Five young boys are hanging out on a brownstone stoop. Boy One, with freckles and an Irish cap has a ball and glove and is trying to induce the others to play baseball. His name is Casey. He is resisted by Boy Two who wants to go to the cinema to see a “gangster movie” He speaks with a slight lisp and is called by his last name, Bogart. Boy Three, a stocky black boy in a white shirt is about to agree to playing ball when his mother calls out “Louis, you come up here and practice your trumpet!” Casey pleads, “Ah, Mrs. Armstrong, can’t Louis play ball?” Bogart chides, “Yeah, Louis, you’re always practicing that trumpet!” Louis’ gravelly retort, “Well, I’m going to be a great horn player and singer someday.”

“Yeah, kid”, says Bogart, “someday your voice might change. Me, I’m going to be a big deal Hollywood actor.” Casey interjects: “I’m going to be in the World Series.”

Then, Boy Four, knickers-suited, glasses-wearing little Barney calls out to Boy Five, his chubby friend at the top of the steps, “What are you going to be, Fiorello?”

The response? “I’m glad you asked me that question, Barney, I’m going to be the Mayor of New York someday.” Much laughter.

Then, since one boy’s future is still unaccounted for, all ask in their own way, “Hey, what about little Barney” “Yeah, Barney”, “What’dya gonna be when you grow up, Barney?”

Barney adjusts his glasses and says right into the camera: “I don’t know, you’ll all need clothes”

Scene fades.

Message appears: Even then he knew.

Message fades.

Store name appears: Barney’s.

The story of the American Dream has probably never been told better in 60 seconds or perhaps in 60 minutes.

We called it Men of Destiny.

The trade called it Commercial of the Year.

The awards were endless but the one most significant was that it became the 40th commercial ever accepted into the CLIO TV Hall of Fame. (Of the hundreds of thousands submitted in the history of Television.) More significantly, it was the first local market and first retail commercial ever accepted into that hallowed advertising Hall.

Those related to the cast were equally appreciative.

Marie Fisher LaGuardia, widow of the beloved three-time New York Mayor, invited me to her home for tea and talk so pleased was she of our representation of her long-departed husband. This was especially true since, at that same period of time, the irreverent genius (and my friend and competitor), George Lois had a series of spots running for KORVETTE’s discount chain featuring an animated short and fat man, straight from political cartoons of decades past satirizing her husband, who, wearing an over-sized fire hat and carrying an ax in hand, raced about the screen screaming and shouting about savings at Korvettes. Mrs. Laguardia’s stomach could tell you about that very upsetting campaign. But, she loved Steve Gordon’s Men of Destiny.

As for the mother of the young star we chose to play Fiorello, and my dates with her and the interesting fact that she had co-starred in the Broadway Musical, Fiorello, playing the wife of Fiorello. Well, that’s another story.

Some eight years later, I happened to sit behind Lucille Armstrong at the Broadway opening of the show, EUBIE. (Louis had died just a year after Men of Destiny began to air.)

When she learned who I was she said, “You dear man, Louis always loved that commercial. He said it was the greatest ever done. It was so nice it ran while he was still here to enjoy it.”

As for Casey Stengel, I must reserve his part of this story for another section, as this commercial was the beginning of a very long and many-sided story of Casey, Barney and Jack.

But this is the story of Steve Gordon.

Who had no ass.

Who couldn’t make out with girls.

Who made every egotistic copy star call himself the second best ad writer in New York.

Who tried to steal the Barney’s account. (See separate story about how to stop a young and nervous man from doing what he shouldn’t.)

Who left me and the agency business and surfaced on Broadway with an original play starring John Amos and directed by Carl Reiner, titled “Tough To Get Help”. The opening night audience, including me and my wife Christian and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, gave a standing ovation only to learn the next day that the show was cancelled. (There’s no Bizniz like Show Bizniz). Six months later Steve surfaced in Hollywood as writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show and a variety of series such as Chico and The Man and next created two network series, “The Practice” starring Danny Thomas and, in 1980, “Goodtime Harry” starring Ted Bessell. During that same period (1978), Steve hooked up with Carl Reiner again who directed Steve’s first big screen creation, “The One and the Only” starring Henry Winkler (The Fonz) another notable bomb by that highly talented partnership..

Author, Arthur.

Then, in 1981 Steve Gordon reemerged as author and director of a little Hollywood sleeper called “ARTHUR” starring Dudley Moore, Lisa Minnelli, Sir John Gielgud, and Geraldine Fitzgerald. It was as they say, an instant box office smash.

NY Magazine (8/24/81) loved Steve Gordon.

The world clamored to talk with him. New York Magazine used 3 pages to introduce him to its readers. He was the new Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and who have you. He was a brilliant new director and new writer all in one. In the Academy Awards he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screen Play in the Academy Award but Colin Welland won for “Chariots of Fire” Sir John Gielgud was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and won the Oscar beating Jack Nicholson for “Reds”. Dudley Moore was nominated for Best Actor and didn’t (Henry Fonda won for “On Golden Pond”. But the song that Steve inspired, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” did win the Oscar and speaking for its prodigious words and music team (Bachrach, Carole Bayer Sager, Peter Allen and Christopher Cross) Bert Bachrach’s only comment upon receiving his Oscar statue was “I thank Steve Gordon”.

At last, Steve could write his own ticket! And script. He could turn down studios. He could line up backers. He could tear up Beverly Hills invitations. He could do anything he wanted to do in this whole wide world, but for one thing:  He could not Die.

Unfortunately, always bearing a perverse attitude, Steve ended up doing the one thing he could not do.

In November of 1982, 8 months after the Academy awards. Of a heart attack, they say.

His 15 minutes of fame peaked that day, earning him a 48-point headline and a full front-page picture (Steve and Lisa Minnelli having fun at opening of ARTHUR) in the celebrity-addicted, multi-million circulation New York Post.

This may have been the shortest-lived Hollywood Superstar ever. I mean, James Dean did three important pictures.

This was not your tortured-and-out Marilyn or Francis, or your overed-and-out Janice or Jimmy. This was not your taken-out Abraham, Martin, Bobby nor John.

This was just a nice Jewish funny boy from a middle-class family in Ohio.

How could his brief dose of success been too much of a dose for him?

I called God a four-letter or twelve-letter word that day, I can’t remember which. I don’t know why I put it on Him. At the time, I hardly believed He existed. But, I had to blame someone for cheating me and the world of our rightful legacy to the writings from a genius free at last to kick ass.

He had joined the Men of Destiny, Casey, Bogie, Fiorello, Louis and little Barney.

Maybe Steve was a commercial.

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One Response to “Even Then He Knew…”

  1. michael koulermos April 21, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

    A quick introduction. I’m Michael Koulermos, a creative director in the advertising business for over 50 years. I’ve worked with and was part of the original Mad Men in the advertising business. Recently retired, I started to not write my biography, but to paint it. I have now completed 52 portraits including STEVE GORDON a close friend of mine and of famous ad people I worked with, for, or socialized with. Since Madison Ave was where all the big stories began in advertising, and is as much of a big part of the history of NYC, I would like to suggest to the MCNY it would be interested in doing an exhibition of these portraits. I’m attaching examples of the portraits.
    Jack, I’d like to include this wonderful story about Steve that you wrote.
    Plkease contact me if it’s okay with you. Best Mike/../.

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