Tinsel Wilderness by John Klawitter

Tinsel Wilderness

(John Klawitter)

Tinsel Wilderness

Book 1 - First Flight


I remember the day Cornelia Otis Skinner came to town to "declaim upon the stage" as her mimeographed one-sheet billboard declared.  There she was up on that theatrical poster in all her grandeur, one arm thrown dramatically in the air as she gazed off into some distant horizon only she might see.  This was back in the time of hot rods and bobby socks, and the grand old lady of the theater was due to sweep down past the dark and sooty brickworks, the tall, black-belching chimneys and rusting junkyards into our town of Chicago Heights like a pale spirit from a long-forgotten era, the time of Victorian gentility, to cast a few civilized lines to the intellectually impoverished sons and daughters of the working class.  The grimy puddle of our reality offered the Hotpoint factory, the Ford body stamping plant, the DeSoto Paint Company, Victor Chemical, Acme Tool & Die Works, Industrial Welding, and the Inland Steel mill where they melted down old railroad tracks and turned them into new re-bar and steel fence posts.  We didn't have much in the way of dramatic recitals.

I was the eldest son of a loving, alcoholic welder and a strict, rosary-thumbing mother who saw God's hand in all events; I was gawky, dreamy and near-sighted, a somewhat less-than-average teenager who loved to lose sight of himself in books of romance and high adventure.  In Darkest Africa.  The Coming of Cassidy.  A Princess of Mars.  Daredevils of the Air.  The Virginian.  I had this ant-horde of brothers and sisters, and due to the economic necessities of existence at that level, was destined for a short scholastic career followed by a hot and lusty career in the steel mills, or perhaps at my father's side in the welding firm.  In my dreams I may have been holding the wheel to drive the pirate schooner, sails fully set and cutting through the waves across a churning ocean, but in the real world I was rowing my dinghy across a muddy pond, preordained to paddle out my days filling paint cans with Aztec Tan latex or Peppermint Green oil base, bolting fenders on Falcon body frames or catching new iron up on the fiery hotbeds where the furnaces roast your skin and the cherry red re-bar is spun.

This special one-night event was a one-woman show, entirely Cornelia, and would feature poetic readings--and short excerpts from dramatic pieces, to boot! Very intense for the time and place, which was 1956 in the Bloom Township High School auditorium.  I don't know that I'd have thought to go, but that was my sophomore year and I was in Speech class, and Mrs. Wilson stood at her desk with her spectacles down around the end of her nose and declaimed it a mandatory attendance.

Today I remember this tall, stately lady standing in a pool of light emoting in her tremulous voice, “Ghost Lake's a dark lake...a deep lake...and old..."  She also did Lady Macbeth's bloody hands scene, "Out, out, damned spot!", and to tell the truth that's about all I remember.  It didn't matter; the pieces themselves weren't what I found important about Cornelia Otis Skinner.  It was the fabric, not the text. I was hearing the great roar and the little whispers of actual life up there in front of those lights.  I didn't have the words or the understanding for it back then; all I knew was that I was experiencing something big, real big, mighty big.

After the show, Mrs. Wilson led the Speech and the Drama classes backstage as a special privilege.  I was surprised to see that Cornelia may have been grand, but she certainly wasn't that old--maybe in her mid-fifties.  There I was, bare wrists hanging out of last year's shirt, wide-eyed under a cowlick of unruly hair that no Vaseline Tonic could ever tame, chalky scuffed white suede shoes under my frayed roll-cuff jeans.  I stood right next to her, still as a statue, hardly daring to breathe as she took a few questions from her admiring fans.  Is what you do hard? a freshman girl in pigtails asked.  Where do you go next?  The others crowded around.  Did you ever act in a movie?  I just stood there, frozen under the hot orange stage lights in the electricity of the moment like a humble fly in amber while Cornelia politely answered as best she could.  She smelled slightly of sweat and greasepaint, and there was something wonderful about her, I'm not sure what...to this day, I'm not sure what...I do know that there was a moment when, in her reflected light, to me all things seemed possible and even the iron manacles of absolute reality could be questioned as if they might, like the chains of gravity holding John Carter, Prince of Mars, magically fall away.

And then Mrs. Wilson tugged at us like so many little boaters, reminding us the magic hour was over.  I was bewildered.  Time had never slipped by so fast.  I could see the auditorium was nearly empty.  Amazing!  For a moment I didn't budge.  Old Mrs. Wilson smiled sympathetically, and I saw she was looking directly at me.  "It's not a life for any of you," she said firmly, and she shook her tired old mop of gray curls.  Not to be.  It was not to be.  She was right; it was late, it was time to grab our noses and jump in the warm puddle and swim back to our safe little coves.

I tried to dog-paddle along with the rest, I'm sure I did.  After all, the route was wide, clear and well traveled, and we were all taking it together.  It was, after all, the only pond in sight and the only way to be taken.  And yet somehow, in spite of all that help and good direction, I wasn't going to be able to make it back.  I remember a turning--a sudden, irrational fury--and how I stared hard-eyed at poor, unknowing Mrs. Wilson, staring purposefully, like the Virginian had when he set aside his poker hand and said, “When you say that--smile”, glaring until it was she who turned away.  And looking back over all the years and all that has passed in between, I can recognize now that it was at this improbable moment that the impossible boat with its awkward rigging and all its outlandish airs, like a new-born bat or insect half-crazed with the first upward taste of flight, unfolded its gauzy wing-like sails and launched itself into the bright and shiny seas.

Book 2 - The Happy Jack Platter Shop


It's not a totally stupid idea to be a little nice to people.  Of course, you wouldn't want to go overboard and become a kiss-ass, but there may be some benefit to occasionally improving your attitude toward the ordinary Joes and Janes around you.  For one thing, by putting out harmonious vibrations, you maintain your karmic balance, which in turn enables your creativity to flow in a pure and steady stream unaffected by the negativity which is pulling the less-enlightened all around you down into the merde.  Then too, you never know when the mail boy is going to be promoted to senior vice president in charge of creative--so you'd better be nice to him.

Once, in that very long-ago time when I was playing spy in Saigon, I met a Scotsman at the Bristol Bar, a fairly high-class South East Asian watering trough which, if my memory serves me correctly, was on the Street-of-Flowers near Le Loi. This Scot was blessed with a mop of that carrot-reddish hair only Scots have, and he spoke with such a burr that I could hardly understand him.  Yet the poor, mad fool insisted he was a radio announcer.  He had to say it three times before I even understood him.  He was a rrrrrrrrr-adio jock, mon.  What's more, he was leaving in three days for the highlands (Scottish, not Vietnamese), and if I wanted his job, it was mine.

Well, Ba Muoi Ba is one of the more powerful beers you can find in the Orient, and as the evening wore itself into a pleasant blur, my new life as a radio jock seemed a better and better idea.  I remember that somewhere toward curfew my new friend Kevin confided that my American accent was every bit as ugly on the king's ears as his own was to me.  Some confidence-builder, huh?

I staggered out of bed the next morning, grabbed my shoes and a cab and slept all the way down Pasteur Street to the radio station.  Wonder of wonders, Kevin was there, just like he said he'd be.  He showed me the ropes in about ten minutes, walking me around and introducing me as their new radio personality. Then he dragged me into the booth and we were on the air.

Now those deep-voiced fellows on the old Columbia School of Broadcasting commercials may have convinced you it takes a great deal of specialized training to get up in front of that microphone, but that's all a lot of hogwash.  Hey.  Not necessary at all.  Look, the pilot dies in the air, you learn to fly the plane.  And the next morning I showed up alone.  Wahoo.  Look, ma, no hands!

This was a couple of years before Adrian Cronauer had his Good Morning, Vietnam show, and I wasn't on Air Force Radio, either.  We're talking about good old VTVN, a real native radio station.  Our signature was a scratchy 78 rpm of the William Tell Overture somebody had swiped from the Canadian Broadcasting System.  The girls who spun my platters wore slit-skirted silk ao-gai, chewed betel nut and ducked under the table whenever they heard the low rumble from the B-52's shellacking the provinces, convinced it was the ghosts of their dead ancestors.

I called my show The Happy Jack Platter Shop.  We had a simple format; I'd do 15 minutes of news, and then spin 15 minutes of records that I'd mostly scammed from the guys back in the barracks.  The music was easy, but the news was a little more complicated.

The stories came clacking off the teletypes from AP and Reuters, just like it does in newsrooms around the world.  As it was in English, a Vietnamese government interpreter translated it back to the native tongue for their political department (read "censors" here).  Offending passages were cut out with some scissors, and what was left over was given back to the station interpreter, Mr. Van Nguyen, who translated it back into his own chop-socky brand of English. Sometimes it seemed like an afterthought.  It was mind-numbing stuff, often without even a tenuous relationship to the original stories.  I had about 20 minutes to smooth the most obvious craters and manholes, and to give it a few run- throughs, and then I was on the air.

Little Van Nguyen was a pest from the get-go, with his heavy dandruff, sour- whiskey breath, a little potbelly hanging out over the beltline of his cheap suits, and the cigarettes dangling from one corner of his mouth in the negligent French manner.  I guess I'd known him about a week when he first started bugging me fora Pentax from the PX.  He carried on about this practically nonstop from the moment we got to the station.  He would gladly pay me 100 P to the dollar instead of the official rate of 80.  (I could get 200 from any cigarette lady on any street corner, and 230 at Johnny's Bookstore.)  He would be happy even with the smaller Pentax, the less expensive one without the wonderful zoom lens that could be such a help in his business and might in fact make his career.  He would never, ever bother me for anything ever again from the PX, except possibly for some hairspray, lipstick and maybe a bottle of perfume for his wife's birthday or some chocolate candies for his kids for Christmas.

I was managing to keep my temper with Van Nguyen, but just barely, when the weak Phan Huy Quat government was overthrown.  That morning I was just lucky enough to catch the Grey Snail off-base before the U.S military declared an orange and shut down the gates.  My bus passed ARVN tanks in the streets and machine gun nests at corners some military genius had decided were strategic.  The cabbies were still running--hell, they ran right through the Tet offensive--and so I was able to flag a ride from MAC-V over to the station.

When I got there the newsroom was deserted, but there was a stack of neatly clipped translations on my desk.  If possible, they were more nonsensical than ever:

President Johnson reassured [blank space] yesterday.  The American people can be confident [big blank space].  In the interim, the valiant fighting effort of the courageous Vietnamese people goes on.

Top Strategists met in Hawaii to [huge blank space].  The valiant peoples of Vietnam should be reassured by this.

[Blank space] farm crops [blank space] product of the cooler weather. [Enormous blank space] resulting in lower prices and an excellent result.

[Blank space] new American wave of comedians [big blank space]. Nothing at all about the collapse of the government.

Still, Van Nguyen had clearly been and gone.  At least I wouldn't have to listen to his miserable whining about the camera he wasn't going to get.  I poured a bitter cup of coffee from the pot, scooped up the tattered copy and headed for the booth. Before I knew it, William Tell was jangling in my ear, and then I picked my way through the news, mostly making it up as I went along:

Top strategists and allies of the Vietnamese peoples, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, met in Hawaii to review the war effort and find new ways to apply pressure to the hated enemy, the Viet Cong and their masters in North Vietnam.  The generals read a personal message from President Johnson and then issued a statement for reporters gathered from around the world that the war was going well, and it was only a matter of time before the ultimate Viet Cong surrender.

I turned the second news item--the cut-up farm story--into an informative discussion of the pineapple industry, and went on to do a little color piece on the Smothers Brothers, those happy, bumbling American folk-singer comedians.

Hey, no problem, this show was nearly in the bag.  I had my feet up and was halfway through the music side--I remember Peter, Paul and Mary were singing "Lemon Tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet/ But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat" when a squad of khaki uniformed ARVNs burst through the door into the outside room where the turntables and the jittery co-gai were and started waving their machine guns around in the air.

I was then in my mid-twenties, but these soldiers were little more than kids. One of them figured out the magic of the soundproof double doors and made his way into the booth where I was.  He jabbed his machine gun in my direction and said in almost inaccessible English, "You say Ong Quat a filthy pig?"

"Ahhhhh...nooooo...," I replied.

This didn't seem to make him happy.  It probably was the wrong answer.  "You say Ong Quat a filthy pig?" he repeated, turning the machine gun in a somewhat more operational way toward my face.

"Ahhh, maybe I did say something...", I stammered.

His face started to get red and he slammed off the safety on his weapon.  I could see this kid hadn't been to Buddhist Patience School.

And then by some miracle the wonderful little Van Nguyen was there, holding up his hands and stepping in between us.  He yelled at the kid with the gun for a while in the sing-song way that Vietnamese have, and then turned to me.  "It all a small mistake," he grinned with a little shrug.  "This young fellow with gun here, he want you to say Ong Quat is a filthy pig."  Van Nguyen gestured encouragingly to the mike, which was clicked off because Peter, Paul and Mary were still singing.

"He not know we on air or not."

"Ohhhhh...", I said.  I sat in my chair and cleared my throat.

My rousing condemnation of the old government seemed to satisfy everyone. After the show I did a few chits and chats with the kids in khaki.  One of them insisted on taking a group shot of us all with his battered little Kodak, and I even signed an autograph on the back of a napkin.  I waved goodbye and walked swiftly down the big marble staircase.  I was out the front door and hailing a cab before I knew it, just happy to still be sucking air.

That afternoon--and I would have done it sooner but the PX didn't open until noon--I ran over and bought my dear friend Van Nguyen his Pentax.  Not the cheap model, the expensive one with the big black zoom hanging on the front that just might make his career.

Book 3 - Bennie Gallogrape


Back as far as the Neanderthal days at Bloom Township High School, I was writing and producing P.A. announcements for the Spring Fling, Homecoming and the SnoBall Dance and designing posters for the Clean-Up campaign.  I guess it was only natural that, one day, I should try to get into advertising.  After I earned a few college degrees and enlisted for three years in the army, I came back to Chicago and started looking around for a job with some sort of an advertising position lurking in the back of my mind.  But I didn't have any contacts or role models in advertising, which meant I didn't have the foggiest notion how to go about it.

No matter who you are and who you know, it's hard landing that first job as a professional creative person.  Even back then, there were forty or fifty applicants for every opening, so they hardly ever advertised in the papers.  I didn't know about the occasional want ads in Advertising Age, but I had heard that Ad Agencies NEVER EVER hired their creatives from employment agencies.  Employment agencies were considered the scum of the earth, and their workers were con men, shills and lackeys.  (It is only in retrospect I realize this is because ad biz people, outcast by the news biz, the art world, and real show biz, relish the few groups that they can kick around.)

Young and ignorant, I circled the ads in the Chicago Tribune and started pounding the pavement, looking for anything in some way related to the ad biz.  I told my mother I might not mind being in the rat race, because I was one of the rats.  I turned down a position selling tube and sheet steel because my father had been in that business in a minor key way, and I didn't want anything to do with it. I turned down a job selling life insurance, because everybody had the founder's book on positive living on his desk.  They told me how great it was, and they smiled and smiled, and it didn't seem natural.  After ten minutes or so, nobody quit and it made me nervous wondering which face was going to break first.  It wasn’t going to be mine.  I turned down a writing job with a paint factory when they told me I'd have to spend 30% of my time on the line, filling paint cans.  Not that I minded filling paint cans...Lord knows I’d done my time at the DeSoto Paint Factory in Chicago Heights, one of those summer jobs to get through college; but I could see 30% really meant 80%.

I had the same problem everybody does who wants to get in the business--no experience.  So I did what they always tell you--I created a batch of ads for clients real and imagined to show how good I was at thinking up advertising ideas.  I shot a photo of a seagull sitting on a garbage can outside Sal's Fish & Chips, and wrote the headline, "Sal's Fish Are Fresher".  Hey, I figured, a gull knows.  Six or seven things like that.

I managed to show my samples to a half-dozen of the advertising giants of Chicago--Will Grant of Will Grant Advertising, and some folks over at Tatham, Laird & Kudner--and they all said the same thing, "Boy, you don't have any experience. You gotta go somewhere and write catalog advertising.  That's the sure way to get your start, on the bottom.  First you do catalog, then you do small space newspaper for local clients, then you do local radio, then after some magazine and newspaper ads, you work your way up to national clients with radio and TV spots.  But you don't do nothing until you do catalog."

So I went to Sears and Montgomery Wards and places like that, and they all told me that their stuff was too important, they couldn't just hire a guy off the street to do catalog.

At about this time, one way or another, I heard that the Chicago mega-agency Leo Burnett Advertising occasionally had openings for junior copywriters.  I called, and, sure enough, they had a program where every blue moon they hired a would-be writer to run their film files department.  After a year or two of cutting together 16 mm sample reels, building presentation tapes on quarter inch tape, running 35 mm film on interlock projectors and sweeping up the floors in film files, the trainee was expected to have learned enough about Burnett products and made enough contacts to where he could be hired by one of the Creative Directors.

I called and found out the trainee program was run by one of the head creatives, Pete Franz, who also was a very big deal on the Gallo account, and yes, Pete himself would interview me a week from Thursday.  This sounded great, so I boned up on Burnett's client list and decided to do a storyboard for Gallo Wines, which had recently been written up in the business section of the paper as a very difficult and yet large and profitable account.

Now, although Leo Burnett the man, the myth and the legend, has said some wise things about advertising, and his company has shaped a lot of images over the decades, the men who toil there are sometimes looked down on for creating "Midwestern breadbasket" advertising with folksy characters:  Farfel the Dog.  The Jolly Green Giant.  The Marlboro Man.  Charlie Tuna.  The Pillsbury Doughboy. Kellogg's Tony The Tiger.  Snap, Crackle, Pop, Rice Krispies.  The Keebler Cookie Elves.

Those unruly Gallo Brothers, on the other hand, were apparently using Burnett to hire fine artists and so create some sort of snob appeal for their wines.  I decided that was laughable.  What Gallo really needed was more of the Burnett style image. And so I created "Bennie Gallogrape" for them.  Bennie was a plump, energetic little guy who went around extolling the virtues of the Gallo wines.  I was going to write a jingle to go along with my idea, but when I couldn't find anything to rhyme with "grape" but "rape", I gave it up in favor of some snappy dialogue between Bennie and these other grapes who weren't quite so good but who also wanted to be in Gallo wines.  The spot ended with a gentle but wise narrator telling us voice-over how all the grapes want to be Gallo, but it's tough, things being what they are in the premium wine business.

The grand meeting where I presented my storyboard was attended by three or four middle-level Burnett creatives, in addition to Pete Franz.  One of them rudely pointed out that Bennie Gallogrape owed everything to Tom Rogers, the Burnett senior writer who had created Charlie Tuna.  As Tom was in the room, my face was red as a beet.  Pete came to my rescue, saying that it was a "good, inventive knockoff", and if I'd used the same dialogue in a Charlie Tuna spot, they'd all have liked it.  Tom said nothing, just smiled a little bit.  Later, I found out the three younger guys, all hotshot Assistant Creative Directors, had voted against me, overruling Tom and Pete.

So much for Burnett.  I was walking down Michigan Avenue, killing time until the electric came to take me back south to where I was living in the old homestead, when a guy waved at me from behind a desk in the World Employment Agency.  He was middle-aged and bald, and his suit looked rumpled and shiny at his elbows and the seat of his pants.  I gave him a little wave and hurried on past.  He came to the door and yelled, "Hey, you looking for a job?"

"Yeah," I said in a low voice, "but they don't want me."

The guy looked like a used car salesman.  He hooked me by the lapel and tugged me into the office.  It didn't take much.  I was drifting in my sorrows like a piece of olive-green seaweed.

"Sit," he said.  He pointed to a fold-up chair across from his desk.  "Now.  Who don't want you?"

"Leo Burnett don't want me."

He itched a scratch somewhere on his back.  His shirt collar and sleeves were frayed, and there were dandruff flakes caught in the big catsup spot on his tie.

"How do you know?" he asked.  He burped and I smelled garlic. "I just was there.  They said no."

"Who said no?  You gotta name?"

"Pete Franz."

"YOU just talked to Pete Franz?  What's YOUR name?"

I told him, adding that it didn't make any difference, Pete had already said no. "No doesn't really mean no," the employment agency guy said. "Not all the time."  He scratched under one arm, "Now, if I get you this job, they ain't gonna pay me.  Do YOU agree to give me ten percent of your first year's wages?"

"Yeah, sure."

I signed the contract while he looked in a sloppy notebook and then dialed a number.

"Pete," my man said, scratching under his other arm with the rubber eraser end of his pencil, "you didn't give the guy a chance.  You didn't even see half his stuff.  I got it all out in front of me here.  He's brilliant, I tell you--brilliant!"

Ten minutes later, I had another appointment at Burnett, this time to see Pete Franz without the three harpy Assistant Creative Directors.  Two weeks after that I started as copy trainee in film files at the best agency in town.  Six months after that, I was promoted to junior copywriter, working on Kellogg's cereals and Nestle Chocolates.  In a few months I was writing radio and TV spots, working on new product development, and learning how to stick motion picture film together.

So don't let anybody tell you it can't be done, or give you rules on just how to do it.  None of it means a thing.  You can slam-dunk with your elbows, catch the pigskin with your feet and slide into first base backwards.  You figure it out for yourself, whatever works.  And keep on trying.  Eventually, through a marvelous process known only to the few, the brave and the true--and now, you--even well- meaning but laughable grape dudes like Bennie Gallogrape and his grape buddies become transmogrified into the finest of wines.