Friday, January 9, 2009

A really good cigar

I started my first company, with a box of 25 cent cigars from George Burns.

In July of 1974 I drove out from New York to Los Angeles to get back into Television. I was 21 with my BA Degree in hand. Within two weeks I was working on the 1974 LA segment of the Jerry Lewis Telethon (more on that later) and very quickly built up a great rolodex as a talent coordinator.

About 2 years later Tom Hallick, who was one of the stars of 'The Young and The Restless', told me about a personal appearance he just finished in Springfield Illinois opening a shopping center. He was like a kid in a candy store. They paid him more money for one day then he made all week on the show. And he loved it.

They treated him like a movie star. He signed autographs, did local interviews and it was all first class.He told me that it took them almost a month just to book his appearance. The people in Springfield called the local CBS affiliate, who then called the network, who then called the agent, who then called the manager. And it went back and forth.

He said to me; '"Rusty, you've gotta meet these guys. You have everyone's number and it would be so much easier". I was game. I had two problems to overcome; first how do I make money and second why would I want to book personal appearances in shopping centers?

It took me about two seconds to figure out how to make money and make everyone happy. It took a month of planning, a trip to Dallas for a meeting with a guy named Buck Sappenfield, and a box of George Burns Cigars to figure out the rest.

George 'Buck' Sappenfield was the VP of Marketing for Melvin Simon and Associates. We had a 10 minute meeting in Dallas at the Shopping Center Convention, which was exciting enough by itself. I told him that I booked celebrities for TV shows and did a quick pitch on how I could make his life a whole lot easier for a 'small booking fee' which would include coordinating the travel and make it pretty much a 'turn-key' operation.

But I needed to 'prove' that I could deliver. He was holding a celebrity auction in 8 days at the Towne East Square in Wichita and needed something really 'big' and from Hollywood. If I could get something that would impress him, we were in!

We shook hands, and I knew exactly what to do.

Five days later, I got the call from Buck. He was ecstatic. A box of George Burn's Cigars autographed for his fans in Wichita.

It was the start of my first business, CTS and a 7 year relationship with one of the country's largest shopping center developers.
I went from a free box of 25 cent cigars to booking hundreds of movie, TV and music stars. We were booking multiple appearances every week all over the US and Canada. At one point, we had 12 pre packaged acts including; Fabian's Fabulous 50's Revue, The Ruby Red Slippers, Pac Man, Universal Studios Hollywood on Tour, Alvin and The Chipmunks and even Bob Speca The Domino Wizard.

It was crazy...and I don't even like Cigars!

My encounter with The Great One!

Which Way Kid....

There is nothing like Broadway.

And I was working there.Everyday I left school early to catch the 2:36 train in Baldwin to get to my job as a page for The David Frost Show at The Little Theatre on 44th Street. I was like a sponge, absorbing everything I saw and everyone I met. I have so many memories and stories from those days...this is one of my favorites!

It was a typical day. Everyone was getting ready for another night. Tony, the doorman at Sardi's was enjoying his early afternoon dinner. The box offices were busy selling tickets, and the offices above the theatres were humming with activity. A few doors down was the loading dock of The Times. They were getting ready for the midnight load when the big trucks carrying these enormous rolls of newsprint would be lining up to drop off their loads for the midnight print run of tomorrow's New York Times.

I was backstage at The Little Theatre, home of The David Frost Show where I worked as a page and cue card writer, when word came down from upstairs that Jackie Gleason was coming in from Florida to be the only guest for the entire show.

Jackie Gleason. The Great One would soon be walking through the door. For only the second time I could remember, David was on time because he knew better than to keep the Great One waiting.

He was so much more in person than I had expected. It was like watching the cover of Life magazine jumping off the page. He wasn't a big man, but he was larger than life. He had such a command of the room that nothing else seemed to matter. He was dignified, elegant, and smart.. he was The Great One. I could just imagine someone coming up to him and calling him "Jackie" and then walking away headless.

This was the second time that David had interviewed him, and he seemed to really enjoy doing the show. He wore a three piece suit and had his cigar. He was accompanied by his girlfriend...and they made quite a couple.

So now the show is over and it started to rain. Mr. Gleason arrives in the lobby from backstage. They are going to see a show at the Royal Box on 45th. I am standing behind him and he turns around and says 'let's go'...looking straight at me. I look at my boss, Jim McDonough with a 'go I go?' look in my eye and just grabbed an umbrella. And I am now walking behind the Great One (and his girlfriend) as they walk into Shubert Alley. The street was full of people, but no one bothered him.

We reached 45th Street and it happened.

He stopped and turned around and looked at me and asked: "Which way kid?"

You know how sometimes it seems like everything freezes in slow motion. That was what I felt like.

Then I heard words come out of my mouth, "Left, Mr. Gleason". We walked another 30 feet, I closed the umbrella, he said 'thanks', and they disappeared into the theatre.

I walked back to the Little Theatre, just glad that I remembered that the Royal Box was to the left.

And I went to school the next day walking just a bit taller.