Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Your Call Is Important To Us. Really.

(Originally published in County Living Magazine, Early Spring 2017)

It all began in 1896 when Mr. Bell spoke into a strange looking device. “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Watson heard and came running, quite excited. Over the past 120 years, we have evolved to the point where the leader of the free world tweets his thoughts to millions from his smart phone. I guess that’s some form of progress. 
Yes, the telephone is one of the most powerful and versatile tools ever invented. Better than the microwave, power steering, and even the cotton gin. I’m not sure what the cotton gin is but my history book said it was important. I was going to add Slinky in here, since I saw one at a History Museum exhibit recently. But Slinky has limited uses. Like one.
I imagine a segment of our population doesn’t know what a dial telephone is. In fact, they may not even be familiar with the word “telephone.” They use smart phones, iPhones, cell phones, Galaxy, and things I’ve never heard of. Whatever you call it, whatever is in your pocket or within reach is still, at heart, a telephone. A communications device. Also a recording device. Sound and picture.
Here’s what got me into this telephone frame of mind. Recently I learned something about phone calls that surprised me. Pay attention. This is important. Your phone call can be recorded without your knowledge or approval. That’s right. Forty-two out of fifty states, including Missouri,  legally permit the other party to record your phone conversation.
I started thinking about this when I called a credit card company about an item that showed up on my statement, an item I didn’t remember buying. I dialed (strange word, “dialed”) the 800 number, which took me efficiently through my options, which I made note of because “the menu had changed recently.” How often do they change these menus? Seems like every 48 hours. This was after I pressed “1” because I don’t speak Spanish, except for “la cerveza” and “donde esta el bano?”(“Beer” and “Where’s the bathroom?”).
When I got to my destination, I was greeted with this news: “This call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.” You’ve heard that before, right? We’ve known of it for several years. Only now, after I completed my inquiry - it was for two bags of Irish oatmeal, called porridge, that I bought on Amazon - I hung up. That’s also a quaint notion. “Hang up,” as in “Replace the receiver on the cradle.” Anyway, I began to wonder about my recording session. 
How would they use my call for “quality purposes”? I talk pretty well on the phone but I wouldn’t call it quality conversation. Maybe they look for unusual attitude or unexplained hesitations. Is it my quality they listen to, or their employee’s quality?  And what about that “training purposes” thing? “Training who?” I wondered. I picture a classroom full of eager “sales associates” hanging on my every phrase, the instructor replaying my words while pointing out how nervous I sound underneath my glib remarks, obviously worried if someone has hacked my credit card or I was overcharged and had no chance to get a refund. You never know. 
But mainly I wondered if they had the legal right to do this. If perhaps they needed my agreement to be recorded. A few minutes with Google and I had my answer. Yes, they can. And only one party need agree. I also found out the real reason for this intrusion. It is to insulate the company from lawsuits. “Quality and training purposes” sounds a lot friendlier than, “If you’re thinking about suing us, don’t. You’ll lose.”
Look, I’ve got enough things to worry about besides my recorded calls. In a way, it’s nice to know I’m creating some kind of legacy. Maybe they will issue a “Best Phone Calls of the Year” someday. I’m sure mine will be included. Especially the one about porridge.

Breakfast Tip: This might be the best oatmeal you've ever had. I got it through Amazon. It's really made in Ireland! Try the variety with fruit bits in it too. Great way to start your day. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Past is Not Past - Part 1

I'm reading a book by one of my favorite historians, Lynne Olson. It is "Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England." It was written in 2007 but could have been written last week. It is a highly impressive work of research and writing.

I'm only part way through the book, but had to stop to share with you some relevant items. The situation, simply, is Chamberlain is Prime Minster of England, a small number of Members of Parliament oppose him, Hitler is overrunning Europe, and Chamberlain has returned from Munich and told the British people there will be no war, that there is "peace with honor" - because he gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot being fired.

Here are some excerpts. 

"At a time when British newspapers were enjoying a golden age, when more papers were reaching more people than ever before, the British people were starved of real news about the growing international crisis. They were told little or nothing about the deplorable state of British rearmament or the divisions within the government over Chamberlain's appeasement policy. ... 'When it came to news coverage, the real power rests with the government,' said Chamberlain's ambassador to Washington in 1939. 'We decide what to do, and then send for the newspapers and tell them to sell it to the public.'"

"(James Margach, a veteran political correspondent for The Sundays Times) 'From the moment Chamberlain entered No. 10 in 1937, he sought to manipulate the press into supporting his policy of appeasing the dictators...In order to cling to power, Chamberlain was prepared to abuse truth itself. He made the most misleading and inaccurate statements, which he was determined to see published so as to make his policies appear credible and successful. Quite simply, he told lies.'"

"The government did not directly censor the press... What Chamberlain and his government could, and did, do was prod the press to censor itself. During a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in 1937, Lord Halifax agreed with the Nazi head of propaganda about the need to keep 'the press in either country from making mischief.'"

"Hypersensitive to any criticism, Chamberlain deeply resented questions from journalists that he regarded as implying criticism of himself or his policies. Sometimes, after being asked such a question at a briefing, he would pause and, in an icy tone, ask the offending journalist which newspaper he represented. Everyone present recognized the query for the intimidation it was meant to be."

And finally:
"Chamberlain was particularly incensed by allegations that he was becoming authoritarian. Once, trembling and pale with fury, he summoned Margach and a few other top political reporters to Downing Street to complain about some such attack. 'I tell you that I'm not dictatorial, I'm not intolerant, I'm not overpowering!' the prime minster shouted as he repeatedly pounded the table. 'You're all wrong, wrong, wrong, I tell you! I'm the most relaxed and understanding of people! None of you, I insist, must ever say I'm dictatorial again!"

I invite you to make your own comparisons and draw your own conclusions.
More to come at a later date.
Thanks to Lynne Olson for granting me permission to quote from her book.

"Troublesome Young Men" by Lynne Olson

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Debbie, Donald and Gene: A True Story

This is the story of a book. Not just any book, but a special volume signed by three special people. Right now it sits on my shelf in the hallway, where it's been for the past several years. I hadn't looked at the book for quite some time, but recent events caused me to take the book off the shelf, blow the dust off, sit on my couch and revisit those three signatures.
The story begins over forty years ago, in 1974. Gene Kelly was in St. Louis to open the new season at the Muny Opera in "Take Me Along." Kelly had been - and still is - one of my favorite entertainers - actor, dancer, singer. Gene and movie musicals were the gold standard of entertainment, for me and for most of the nation. One night during that week he was here, I went to see the show. I brought with me a book I had bought the previous year, “The Films of Gene Kelly.” I belonged to a movie book club and bought most of what they offered. I had a steady income in those days.

When I was in high school, I worked at the Muny as an usher, so I knew the manager, Ed Steinhauer. He was a friend of my dad. Ed was not an outwardly friendly man. He seldom smiled, seemed distant, yet made sure I always got good seats. During intermission on this particular night, I found Ed standing at his usual post on the ramp where the customers enter the seating area. I asked him if he would have Gene sign my book. He said he would try, and I could get the book after the show. 

After the finale, and a standing ovation for Gene and the cast, I hurried to Ed’s station. He was there. No book in his hand. Before I could say anything, he said “Come on back.” He led me backstage, to the dressing room, and introduced me to Gene Kelly, who was in the process of changing clothes, wiping off makeup, and sweat from his performance and the St. Louis humidity. We shook hands, I mumbled something like “You’re terrific” or “This is a real honor” or something equally inane. To this day I have no idea of what I said. It didn’t matter. He took out a pen - with green ink - signed my book, and said something like “Thanks, kid” and handed it back to me.

I don’t remember anything else about that night except holding the book very tightly until I got to my car. That, I thought, was that.

Jump forward now about twenty years. Sometime during the mid-’90’s, while working at D’Arcy Advertising, I got involved with the Variety Club of St. Louis telethons and wrote the outlines and scripts for a few of them. Mike Roarty, head marketing guru at Anheuser-Busch, was a key member of Variety and responsible for bringing in many big-name stars. Mike loved show biz as much as he loved the beer biz. This one particular year he brought in Donald O’Connor.

On the day before the Telethon, we had a run-through at the Chase Hotel Khorassan Room. Donald was very relaxed and approachable. I had brought the Gene Kelly book with me. During a break in the rehearsal, I sat at a round dinner table next to Don (I’ve gone from Donald to Don, you’ll notice), we talked about his house in Sedona, Arizona - which he had just moved into - and how he felt about being so far removed from Hollywood and the film community.

While listening to him, I had this strong feeling that I never wanted the conversation to end. I just wanted to sit next to him, for as long as possible, and listen to this remarkably talented man. During a lull in the conversation, I slipped the Kelly book out of the envelope, slid it over to him, and told him I got Gene to sign it. He said, “Where’s your Films of Donald O’Connor book?" and laughed. I was trying to come up with a humorous response when he added, “Don’t worry. There isn’t one.” Then he picked up a pen, opened the book, and said “Where do you want me to sign?” I told him page 134. The “Singin’ in the Rain” page. He signed it. He also signed a 5x7 black and white photo of himself, stuck it in the book, and slid it back to me.

Two out of three!

Now came the third and final step: Getting Debbie Reynolds signature. This part of the story begins in Las Vegas. In December of 2000, my wife and I were in Vegas for 3 or 4 days, staying at the MGM Grand. I saw an ad in a tour guide for the Debbie Reynolds show at the Orleans Hotel. Of course I hadn't brought the book with me, never thinking that she might be in Vegas. We didn't go see her show, I'm sorry to say. At the time there were other shows we were more interested in and time was short. But I had to get her to sign the book. So I wrote her a letter, on MGM Grand stationery, explaining the situation, where I was staying, when I was leaving, and included my home address and phone number. I went by the Orleans and left it at the desk for her. Two days later I returned to St. Louis, having heard nothing from Debbie. Weeks went by. Nothing.

A couple of months later, I was sitting at my desk at home, working on my iMac. D'Arcy was a thing of the past. I was gone and so was the agency, in that order. Free-lance writing now took up much of my days. The possibility of getting a response from Debbie was very distant. I was looking at the gray February day outside my window when the phone rang. 
I answered. 
      A woman said, "Gerry? Is this Gerry Mandel?" 
     "That's right," I said, figuring it was some fund raiser or cruise line. 
     She said, "This is Debbie Reynolds." Sure, I thought. Obviously a gag from a friend. 
     "Debbie Reynolds," I said. "Okay. Seriously, who is this?"
     She laughed, the delicate sound of music in her voice. "Is this the Gerry Mandel who wrote a letter about signing a book?"

I don’t remember the rest of our conversation, but it was something along the lines of her saying, "I've been very busy but want you to know I'll be happy to sign your book. You can send it to me.” She gave me her home address, in North Hollywood, and asked me to include a return envelope. I had the book in the mail the next day. Double-wrapped, insured, tracking number, signed receipt, etc etc.

Then I waited. And waited. A month went by. Another month. Oh, great, I thought. She wants to keep the book. Or somebody else took it. Or she spilled a cup of coffee on it and is embarrassed to return it. I mailed her a note, politely inquiring if she got the book. A week later the phone rang. No, not Debbie. Some man. Her assistant or helper or pool boy. He told me “Miss Reynolds has indeed received the book, has been very busy, but will get to it immediately.” He wasn’t lying. A few days later I received the envelope with my handwriting on it. Inside was the Gene Kelly book, signed by Debbie. Also included was her autobiography, which she signed, as well as an ad for her show at the Orleans, which she also signed. And a lovely note.

In January of 2017, two weeks after Debbie and Carrie left us, TCM released “Singin’ in the Rain” in theaters across America, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the original release. I saw it twice, the first time with a group of friends who made the night even more special. The movie was better than I ever remembered.

There was a time, a few years back, when I had considered selling that book. On eBay or AbeBooks or a Hollywood auction site. I figured it might get a few hundred dollars, maybe more. But I didn’t do it. And I won’t. Unless the offering price is so outrageous it could put Mary Lee and me in a condo in the Bahamas and maybe a Bentley. Yes, everybody has their price. But until that offer comes in, the book stays on my shelf. Protected by a vicious golden retriever and a hi-tech security system that plays "Good Mornin'" very loudly.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Spike, Harry and Enos at The Chase

January is a good month to search for old stuff and get rid of it, maybe even sell on eBay. Which is what I had planned for a menu I found in my files but now I think I'll keep it.

The menu is autographed by 3 famous people, one on the front, two on the back..famous to many anyway. I think the year is early 1951, although there is no date on it.

This is the Chase Club, at the Chase Hotel in mid-town St. Louis, still a highly regarded hotel just across from Forest Park. My parents used to go to the Club almost every Sunday night. This particular night, they took me to see Spike Jones and the City Slickers. I was a big fan of Spike - still am, really - and loved seeing him in his plaid jacket, along with Doodles Weaver, George Rock, and the rest of the crazy gang. Spike's autograph is on front of the menu.

Here's an idea what was offered on the menu and the prices.
- Lobster cocktail $1.90
- Hot Deviled Chicken Livers Rolled in Bacon $.95
- Mock Turtle Soup .50
- Lobster ala Newburg  2.75
- Broiled Lamb Chops  2.30
- Choice Tenderloin Steak w/French Fried Onions   4.50
- Spike Jones Special: Spaghetti w/Meat Balls   2.85
and for dessert, Chocolate Cream Pie   .35
Almost forgot: you could get a cup of Sanka for 30 cents.

As I was considering whether to put this up for grabs on eBay, I looked at the back of the menu. There are two autographs there, lightly written in pen or pencil, I'm not sure which. One is Harry Caray. The other is Enos Slaughter. So I know it was a Sunday night, the Cardinals weren't playing, and there must have been other players at the Club that night. And there must have been a couple of babes at the table with Harry and Country Slaughter, but that's just a guess. 

Many years later, I would work with Harry in advertising. He had moved to Chicago and was the voice of the Cubs. We needed a Budweiser campaign for Chicago, so Harry became our "Cub Fan/Bud Man." My son Gregg was there for the shoot. Harry sold a lot of beer for us. 

But that was to come later. This night at the Club, he was the voice of the Red Birds, Enos was 5 years past his famous dash from first to home on a hit by Harry Walker in a World Series game against the Boston Red Sox, and Spike and his City Slickers had a hit with "Cocktails for Two." 

If it hadn't been for this menu, I probably would've forgotten about that magical evening with mom and dad, meeting Spike, Harry and Enos, and enjoying a big slice of Chocolate Cream Pie.