Pat Weaver was the genius who really made TV into a business. Before that, you turned it on, you got the test pattern. When I came into it, advertising was changing dramatically. Since the days of J. Walter Thompson, advertising had always been the same. In every family there was one son who was given to the church, one went into finances because he was bright, another went into the family business, and the one who wasn’t too bright went into advertising. Could he drink! Could he talk! Was he social! After World War II, advertising stopped being a haven for the rich and became a place for smart young guys in their 20s and 30s. It was the beginning of the ethnics. There was no competition, and those young men became the leaders of advertising right on through the ’70s. They all learned about TV at the same time, in the ’50s. When I came in, it was like the Oklahoma land rush. It was something to race for, not “God, everyone’s done it before.” At first, TV commercials were more like radio commercials, sound with pictures. Very static stuff. Betty Furness would open the refrigerator door. It was live, and the things that could go wrong! One time she opened it and stood there with it coming off in her hand.
I don’t think we ever got women out of the kitchen in those days. We ascribed 1930s values to women. They virtually would have orgasms over a clean kitchen floor—”Wow! Look how shiny this is!” If a future society ever finds those commercials, they will think the women of this country were locked in a kitchen and their only joy was a sparkling clean dish, a shiny countertop. I remember those commercials so clearly. I used to deliver a parrot every day to The Carry Moore Show to squawk on cue for a live Tums commercial. There was Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, where the guys in their service station uniforms came out singing, “We’re the men of Texaco…from Maine to Mexico.” I can’t remember any commercials, including some I did last week, that I remember as well as that.
It was a lot more fun before the giant corporations took over, when advertising was a business of entrepreneurs. Today, you have to call nine people, nobody has the answer. We do Joe Isuzu, that’s really fun, but most advertising has become very dull. Everything about it is money. The first commercial I ever shot was for a motorcycle, a little putt-putt thing that was going to replace the car. That commercial cost $23,000. Today it would cost $300,000. They throw money at it instead of being creative. People were more forgiving back then if there was a mistake. Now everything is perfection. You’re talking about the indoor record for holding your breath when you produce a commercial that costs $400,000.
It was much more exciting to make commercials for $25,000 and have a client say, “Gee, that’s great.” I remember the Purina Meow Mix cat food commercial [“Meow-Meow-Meow”] that we filmed in 1974. The cat was choking on the cat food. I was looking at the footage with my partner, and he said, “You know, that cat looks like he’s singing.” We put music to it, and this choking cat commercial, which we call the “singing cat” commercial, still holds the record for the highest-scoring “recall” in history. Today, you couldn’t call the client and say, “Something strange happened. The cat was choking, so I put music to it.” By the way, the cat survived.