Inventing The Commercial
THE IMPERIUM OF modern television advertising was born in desperate improvisation
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Frolick was younger and frankly curious about television. So one Tuesday night he asked Scotty if he could tag along to Wanamaker’s to see TV in the making. As he recalls it, “The studio was behind Wanamaker’s music department, in a tiny area rented by WABD, Alan B. DuMont’s flagship station in New York City. When it came time for the commercials, an announcer stepped up to the camera and read a typewritten script.”
Frolick was stunned. “Here we were on television, with moving pictures, and we were doing radio commercials!” The copy chief at the agency sensed Sy’s interest in TV and assigned him to relieve Scotty of the Tuesday night follies at Wanamaker’s. Three weeks later Scotty quit his job and moved to another agency to work exclusively on print ads. That left Sy Frolick as Mr. Television at the Richards agency: writer, producer, casting, wardrobe, everything. Mr. Television proceeded to teach himself the business.
One day the U.S. Rubber people said, “Be sure to mention that Keds are washable.” Immediately Sy thought, “We should demonstrate that.” So he asked the WABD production crew, “Why don’t we get a washing machine in here and show how clean the Keds come out?”
“Aw, come on, Sy,” they all moaned. “We don’t have any running water.”
“Well,” said Sy, “there’s a men’s room down the hall. We can hook up a hose in there and wash the sneakers while the show’s going on. Then at the end we’ll show them nice and clean.” That’s what they did. And it worked.
Soon Keds had a Friday-night show for teenagers broadcast live on WNBT, NEC’s New York station. The set design was a simple forties soda shop. Frolick named the show “Campus Hoopla,” and the following year it was broadcast on the “network” that now linked Schenectady, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington.
To give the commercials more pizzazz, Frolick created the Keds Cheerleaders and wrote them a cheer—possibly the only commercial cheer ever written:
Then Frolick canvassed model agencies for teens who looked like cheerleader material. He met one pretty blonde girl who had just come to New York to become an actress. He had her in for an audition and instantly hired the young Eva Marie Saint.
Thirty years later Frolick happened to see Eva Marie Saint appearing on the Johnny Carson show. Carson asked her how she got her start in show business. “I was a Keds Cheerleader,” she told him.
“Do you remember the cheers?” Johnny asked. According to Frolick, “She not only remembered the Keds cheer, she remembered every move that went with it. She popped up and did her Keds routine for thirty million Johnny Carson fans and got a huge round of applause.”
Television commercials became an important first step for more than one aspiring talent. They paid better than off-Broadway or summer stock, as much as ten dollars a day in pre-union days. They combined the close-up intimacy of the movies with the real-time, real-life spontaneity of the stage. In some ways they were more demanding than either medium.
As always actors had to learn their lines and hit their marks. But they also had to keep one eye peeled for the red light on the cameras—there might be three on the set—that told them which one was live, while staying aware of the countless wires and cables that littered the studio floor, waiting to trip the unwary.
Most important, they had to deliver all their lines “to time.” The commercials were almost all exactly sixty seconds long. Not fifty-two. Not sixty-seven. Noncommercial segments were just as rigidly timed. So performers learned to speed up or slow down their speeches. This implacable time discipline was unknown in films and theater. Only radio actors learned to pace themselves so precisely.
A live TV show usually shared its studio with the sets and cast of the sponsor’s commercials. During commercial breaks the noncommercial performers were expected to freeze in place and remain absolutely silent for the minute when the commercial players did their turn. This usually took place in a quiet corner of the studio, away from the main action, but even so, an audible background sneeze, squeaky shoes, or a fit of giggles could throw the client into a tantrum. Commercials, lest anyone forget, paid the wages of everyone in the studio.