Elvis and Me



I had an Elvis “sighting.” Nearly turned into a “Slighting.”

Some background. The prime time television special “Singer Presents Elvis” was programmed in late 1968 to a record audience. This was Mr. Presley’s first public appearance since 1961 and considered to be his comeback show.

That was just one of the many prime time television specials the Singer Consumer Products Division, under the direction of Alfred di Scipio, executive produced and sponsored. Singer Presents…Tony Bennett…Burt Bacharach…Patsy Kline...The Wizard of Oz. You probably know — even some will recall — that time was when a lot of television programming was directly produced by sponsoring companies; think, soap operas. Later on, companies would underwrite special productions (Hallmark, Mobil, IBM). And now, programs are almost all produced by independent production companies with the commercial time sold by the programmers.

Singer would probably have backed an Ella Fitzgerald special. I was with Al’s entourage at a night club where Ella Fitzgerald was performing. He spoke with her privately after the show. Alas, nothing came of it further to television. I got to be part of that scene after attending the December 31, 1969 New Year’s Eve Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at 30 Rock. 

My reason for being there was to be sure that upon arrival at the ground floor entrance to the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Mr. di Scipio and his party would be seamlessly wisked up by elevator to the stage floor and seated. Any hitch and it would be my very life. That night Singer had all the network commercial spots for its advertisements. A big promotional deal, for sure. They had already been a regular weekly advertiser on the Tonight Show; that was during the time when Ed McMahon would do the commercials live. I once attended a rehearsal for one of those spots. Ed seemed to be a bit of a prima donna; only just one quick read and only a special ad agency copywriter to deal directly with the talent. Egg shells everywhere. Careers on the line.

I promise you I will get to the Elvis “thing” very soon. But, you must be wondering how come I came to be part of those goings on. In 1968, the year of its 100th Anniversary, I joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City. My very first assignment as account executive was to the Singer account. In that role I was also involved with all the advertising that was produced and placed to promote the TV specials.

So, in the fall of 1968 the big push was to get the Singer Presents Elvis special ready with a big audience for its December 3, 1968 air date. The agency art department was given a file of show photos to use in its tune in print ads. There was one photo which was selected which featured Elvis in his bad boy, black leather jacket and pants. Looking back on some of the footage of him in the show it is hard to get why the fuss from the parents of those screaming teen age girls. He is such a handsome, clean cut devil. (Same like with the Beatles … such nicely trimmed, if long, haircuts and angel faces.) I guess it was the “devil” that was there in the leathers that was all the concern.

Well, it turns out that there was something majorly wrong with the photo. I’m talking the kind of problem that, if not corrected, could leave even an Ad Biggie like my über-boss, Gene Secunda, out in front of Bloomies selling pencils. (Anyone remember that guy who was always at the southwest corner of Bloomindale’s on the Lexington Avenue side selling No.2 yellow leads? Or, an even more obscure memory … that heavy set fellow seemingly always at the corner on 5th Avenue and 50th in front of Alfred Dunhill always in a long overcoat, fedora and earmuffs with a sandwich board with lengthy hand scribbled message decrying the injustice of his divorce. Who was he really? An undercover cop? An angel? Or, just some nut?) Here's his picture. His name is Harry Britton. Look him up.

OK, the photo. But, first, you have to get a feel for the sensitivity of things around all matters Elvis. He was a superstar already and, as such, commanded special handling. Then add in the Colonel Parker factor. Iron-fisted-manager. His reputation is a thing in itself, and is fully documented by many others should you choose to browse into that. My only taste of the Colonel’s temperament was hearing from my colleague, Ray Castner, after he came back from a trip to Las Vegas where he travelled to get the Colonel’s approval on a layout of an ad to promote the show. As one layout was being lifted out of the carrying case, it fell to the ground. Colonel Parker flatly said, “Leave it there.” A whole trip to LV from NYC just to have your work dismissed over a slight slip. There was another ad version and it was approved. But with also an indelible impression that Colonel Parker was not shy about letting you know who was BOSS. Mistakes would not be tolerated. The little people were dispensable.

So, finally, with that background, get this. It turns out that, in the photo being used in the ads to promote the show, there’s Elvis, all in black. He is turned with his right side to the camera, microphone in his right hand. He is standing in a dark background, the audience in low light. His left arm is obviously not visible from that viewpoint, but his relaxed hand can be seen just in front of his body, looking like some sort of long “thing” hanging out from his pants fly. You get the picture. Well, this would not do. At all. Ever!

That was not the least of the problem. Compounding the photo problem itself was the fact that the ads were already on press with the magazines. The most problematic was the two page, 4-color bleed, letterpress engraved version being printed into the November 28, 1968 edition of Life Magazine. As explained to me, there were four color plates with black in each. So every plate at the magazine print facility had to be “punched up” to blot out the offending section of the image. This was before computer technology in the printing process; the correction was all by hand, requiring the touch of a diamond cutter. Fortunately for all of us, the correction was made successfully. If not, the ad would have to be pulled. Muchollato dinero, señor. So it went unnoticed. No one to the wiser, as my mother would say about keeping mum to mistakes that were corrected so no one need be told.

I'm feeling the statute of limitations are off this little episode. So, if you can get your hands on a copy of that ad you can look carefully and see that in the area where the problem was corrected, there is a dark muddy looking patch; like not such a good retouch job. But it passed. 

Whew! Viva Las Vegas! Elvis, pray for me!

(Just where the 4 X 5 color chrome of that photograph is…don’t ask. But, it ain’t me, for sure!)

***Remembering my one other time at the Tonight Show in NYC sometime in around 1969-1970. My then fiancé and I were sharing a little private moment during the show, when this little old lady turns around and quite sternly shushes us. Well, what an honor! It was none other than Miss Miller herself!


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