The Time I Made Radio Commercials Like They Don’t Make Anymore: PART ONE

I missed out on the Golden Age of Radio: Jack Benny, Fibber McGee, W.C. Fields and so many others. I tried to bring back some of that imaginative writing—and the great characters—in the many thousands of radio spots I wrote, directed, and sometimes performed on during the past half-century.

Here are a few of my favorites. I wrote all of them except the Dick & Bert spot (but hey—I hired them).

STEAK AND BREW RESTAURANT: THE STEAK AND BREW STAKES (1971)

Fred Capossela was a famous racetrack announcer with a distinctive voice. He would describe the horses and track conditions, then say “…And that means one thing: it is now Post Time!” In one of my very first professionally produced commercials, I did a pretty accurate impression to promote the dining experience at a Miami-area restaurant across from Gulfstream Park. It was a real thrill to hear it on the air.

gulfstream_park
Once upon a time there was a restaurant out there called Steak and Brew. It’s not there anymore—but not because of me.

PUPPETS RESTAURANT: CABARET (1973)

Bowling Green, Ohio and I never quite got along. I earned my Masters at BGSU and stayed on at the local radio station, WAWR-FM, for a couple of years. I wanted to inject some personality into my show when I wasn’t playing elevator music or reading crop reports, but was stifled by the station manager—the owner’s son—who sent me a memo I kept as inspiration. I was allowed to push the envelope when making commercials, and this one, for a local restaurant/theatre, stood out. Cabaret was a big movie at the time, and I did my own bit of Joel Grey. As to what accent I used—I still have no idea, it just kind of came out.

WAWR 1
Posing outside the studio in 1973.
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Same building, 2016. Just passing through town and got the last laugh.
WAWR-FM, Bowling Green OH 1973
And the memo that inspired me to get out of radio and into advertising, where I could be funny on my own terms.

FAMOUS-BARR: MS. CANDY AND FRIENDS (1974)

They say to write about what you know. I was a W.C. Fields fanatic. In this children’s toy promotion for the huge St. Louis department store chain—one of my first efforts at the Byer and Bowman ad agency in Columbus—I cast myself as Fields. Mae West was the mother of one of our secretaries.

W.C.

It won First Prize at the National Retail Advertising Conference, as one of the best radio commercials in the country. After that, the bosses left me alone.

Ms. Candy RAC Award

ROBINSON’S DEPT. STORES CLEARANCE SALE: DICK AND BERT (1977)

Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis were tremendously funny guys who created the “Chickenman” radio series I first heard in college. To have worked with them ten years later as a producer in Columbus was an incredible thrill. Unbeknownst to me they were, at the same time, making TV commercials for my future employer in Detroit. Here’s a still from one of their Big Boy Restaurant spots. Please see PART TWO for another great Dick and Bert collaboration.

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Bert: Sir, how was dinner? Dick: Oh I’m just … stuffed.

L.S. AYRES DEPT. STORES: HIM FOR HER SHOP (1978)

This was my tribute to old-time radio actor Bill Thompson, who played henpecked husband Wallace Wimple on “Fibber McGee and Molly.” He used the same voice as Mr. Smee in Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan,” and as Droopy Dog. I thought I did a pretty good version for the large Midwest chain L.S. Ayres (“Your Christmas Angel Store”). My kids still think so.

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Mr. Smee

ACME SPORTING GOODS: DICK VITALE (1979)

On November 19, 1979, just days after he’d been fired as Detroit Pistons head coach, we got Dick (“awesome, baby!”) Vitale to cut this silly spot for Acme Sporting Goods. Perhaps to get more work, he wrote me a nice letter. A few weeks later, he was hired by a brand-new cable TV station called ESPN. Some might say he hasn’t shut up since. In 2008, he was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Three years later, the University of Detroit named their basketball court in his honor. He’s a good guy; I’m happy for his success.

Dick Vitale

FISHER WALLPAPER AND PAINT: RICHARD SIMMONS (1982)

The fitness craze was going full tilt in the 80s, and I couldn’t let it pass without my own take on Richard Simmons. The brilliant Mattie Wolf, who directed me on stage in Fiddler and whom I directed in God’s Favorite, played her belabored bubbe role to the hilt. We did a bunch more in the series, and they for sure cut through the radio clutter.

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Mattie Wolf also performed in one of my Big Boy TV spots, with the wonderful Lou Jacobi as a modern-day Ponce DeLeon.

BIRMINGHAM THEATRE: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1993)

I really lucked out with this one. Forbidden Broadway was playing in Detroit at the Birmingham Theatre, one of my clients at SMZ Advertising. Christine Pedi did a show-stopping Ethel Merman impression. I quickly wrote a radio commercial for her, plugging the theatre’s upcoming production of Annie Get Your Gun. We were able to get her into the studio, which she ultimately destroyed—on tape, that is. Today, Christine can be heard daily on Sirius XM’s Broadway Channel. The spot remains one of my all-time favorites.

ChristinePedi 54Below.com
Christine Pedi. Photo credit: 54Below.com

Tune in to PART TWO, where you’ll hear a radio commercial that couldn’t possibly get made today, a guest shot by Paul Lynde, another great bit from Dick and Bert, and 15 more of my voices.

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4 thoughts on “The Time I Made Radio Commercials Like They Don’t Make Anymore: PART ONE

Add yours

  1. So funny. The memo from the radio station is priceless. I thought the Mae West impersonator was great. The Ayres one has to be my favorite. You were great and the announcer was good, too. And, what a classy thing for Dick Vitale to write you that note. Not many would do that.

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