Posts Tagged ‘Mary Wells’

“I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze…I smoked three to four packs a day. Everybody smoked at all times in all meetings…There was a tremendous amount of sex. I don’t know of a single marriage that survived that time.”
Jerry Della Femina
Called the original “Madman of Madison Avenue” who began his career as a copywriter in 1961*
USA Today article Does ‘Mad Men’ Exaggerate? Nope (2009)


My parents on their wedding day

My father, Charles W. Smith, was born on April Fools’ Day 1931. He would have been 81 today, but after a career in advertising he didn’t make it past age 64.

Last week, I blazed through watching the entire first season of the Emmy-winning show Mad Men—a mere five years after its TV debut. It didn’t take long for me to realize why I connected with the show. At age 30, my father walked away from being a pilot in the Air Force to start a new career in advertising. Not in New York City, but a scaled down version in the new frontier of Central Florida in the pre-Disney days of 1961.

He began his new career as a copywriter at McClellan and Associates, before moving on to other agencies and positions.

While they didn’t have the high profile accounts featured in Mad Men, that didn’t mean they smoked or drank any less. While I never saw my father out of control drunk, I rarely saw him without a drink in his hand. When I asked my mom about Mad Men she said, “I lived that life.” My father would entertain clients at the Villa Nova Restaurant or Freddy’s Steak House in the Orlando area and often didn’t come home for dinner—and sometimes didn’t come home until 2 or 3 AM. My mom and dad got divorced in 1968 before it came in vogue in the United States.

Divorce, alcoholism, sexism and affairs—and all that jazz— weren’t limited to the big boys in New York City advertising. (And I’m sure it wasn’t limited to just the advertising business.)

My father eventually left Orlando in early 70s to start his own advertising agency in Tampa called simply Smith Advertising. He had long left behind industrial Northeast Ohio where his father worked for more than 30 years at Youngstown Steel & Tube. A world he acknowledged only in passing. (Ironically, at the same time my father was growing up in the Youngstown area there was a young girl named Mary Wells from there who would go on to be president of Wells, Rich & Greene—one of the major New York advertising agencies in the 1960s.)

So it’s with great interest that I watch Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men navigate the world of his past, his family, his career, and the culture of the times. All in the warmly lit and highly stylized world of the 1960s—”The Golden Era of Advertising.” Of course, Central Florida of the ’60s was far from the glamour  surrounding Madison Avenue in New York City. Making my father not really one of the lowly Mad Men represented on the TV show, but simply an ad man.

But how I’d love to sit with my dad at the classic old school Bern’s Steak House in Tampa and spend the evening hearing him recount driving around in the Florida heat in his unairconditioned Volkswagen Karmann Ghia trying to drum up business. Learn more about how he was named in 1976 as Advertising Professional of the Year by the Tampa Advertising Federation— an award I only learned about after he died in ’95. If your father’s still alive, watch the music video below and then give him a call. There is power, grace and magic in stories.

P.S. If you watch Mad Men and/or work in advertising you have to check out this week’s Newsweek magazine (March 26 & April 2, 2012) with the cover Mad Men Goes Back to the Office. It not only features Mad Men, but an overview of advertising, as well as many retro-designed 60s ads of current products.

* That Newsweek Mad Men issue referred to George Lois, also born in 1931,  as ‘The Original Mad Man.’ He has a website that recaps his work on the “I Want My MTV” campaign and his year long MoMA exhibit of his Esquire covers.

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Scott W. Smith

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Before I take a circuitous route to point out yet one more connection between Youngstown and Hollywood let me first thank everyone for reading this screenwriting blog as it’s given me much encouragement in my quest to post daily. It’s not easy to write something original daily and finding odd connections really is a fun part of the process. Today is a good example.

My favorite movie with a Thanksgiving theme is Pieces of April. Granted, I don’t think there is a long list of films with Thanksgiving themes. So let me add that it’s also one of my favorite low-budget films of all time.  Odd or relevant connection to Screenwriting from Iowa? Number one: Pieces of April writer/director Peter Hedges grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Number Two: My recent posts have centered around Ohio, and Pieces of April stars Katie Holmes who grew up in Toledo.

But can I get from Toledo to Youngstown which has technically be the focus of recent blogs? Yes, but I have to take the indirect route via Cincinnati. Katie Holmes is married to Tom Cruise who lived for a time in Cincinnati as a teenager. The agent that got Cruise his breakout role in Risky Business was raised in Youngstown. That agent Paula Wagner, eventually became Cruise’s producing partner including all the Mission Impossible movies, Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

What prepared Wagner to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood?  Being born Paula Kaufman in Youngstown back in 1946 didn’t hurt. Just this month she returned to Youngstown for the first time in 30 years to give a talk at Youngstown State University and said, “I really attribute so much of what I’ve done to having grown up in this city…Youngstown is very much a part of me.”

Her father was a fighter pilot in World War II and also a prisoner of war, and went on to run a steel mill in Youngstown. “Youngstown was founded on steel and we all have a spine of steel,” said Wagner at her Youngstown talk. It was at the Youngstown Playhouse where Wagner began acting as a child. (The same place advertising giant Mary Wells began acting at age 5.) She was known as a talented actress at Hubbard High School and then earned a BFA in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (just a little over an hour’s drive from Youngstown).

Wagner performed on Broadway and off-Broadway before heading to Los Angeles with $500. to her name. She ended up being an agent at Creative Artists Agency where her clients included  Demi Moore, Val Kilmer and Oliver Stone. She formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and the films they have produced together have earned around $3 billion at the box office.

And I thought it was impressive that former Youngstown resident and current producer/director/writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies) had a box office total over $1 billion. Is there another small city in America where people raised there went on to have a key role in movies that have earned around $4 billion?

Most recently Wagner has started a new company Chestnut Ridge Productions and is slated to produce the film version of Miss Saigon. What’s the significance of the name of her new company? Guy D’Astolfo reports, “Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge. That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township”

So if you’re a screenwriter from the Youngstown area use that back of steel to get connect with Wagner. Remember, there’s no place like home.

By the way, if you’d like to see what Youngstown looked like back around the time Wagner was born watch the 15 minute movie Steel Town that Mike Gaunter, a news producer in Youngstown sent my way via You Tube.

Scott W. Smith

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“Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”
Bruce Springsteen

I don’t know if it’s common for kids growing up in Poland, Ohio to dream about living aboard a yacht someday, but that’s the short life story of Mary Wells.

When I was a kid I first learned about Poland, Ohio and I wasn’t thrilled by it. It was located on my birth certificate as the place where my father was born. I knew nothing about the town, or even the country of Poland, I just knew there were lots of Pollack jokes and I wanted no part of that.

My dad left Poland, Ohio soon after he graduated from Spingfield-Township High School and went to Ohio State Univesity, which after a stint in the Air Force prepared him for a career in advertising in Orlando and Tampa.

Looking back my father had a 30+ year run in advertising and later in life for his labor he had a lovely condo in St. Pete Beach that looked over Boca Ciega Bay & the Gulf of Mexico. After he died I visited Poland, Ohio for the first time to see where he had come from. I walked around the remains of the Youngtown Sheet & Tube at Struthers and imagined what it would have been like for my grandfather to work a lifetime in a steel mill. (I must have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” a hundred times while driving around because that’s where Yellow Creek referred to in the song is located.) My father had come a long way.

But it pales when compared to Mary Wells’ journey. Born and raised in Poland, Ohio she fled to New York at 17 to study acting and where she ended up as a copywriter in the era of Mad Men.

She worked her way up from copywriter to CEO of Wells Rich Green (WRG).  In 1969 she was already inducted into the copywriters Hall of Fame. She was the driving force behind helping change the image of New York with the “I Love New York” campaign. And at one time she was the highest paid woman in advertising and sold her company in 1990 for $160. Million.  And that’s just the quick overview. You can read her story in her book A Big Life (in Advertising).

Now she has homes in New York and the West Indies as well as the little boat she likes to spend time on as she travels the world.

One of my favorite quotes by Wells; “Of course, I’m a legend. But it’s not because of any great gift I have. It’s because I’m a risk taker.”

But where did she get her creative start? She began acting in plays at The Youngstown Playhouse at the age of 5. (America’s oldest ongoing community theater.) She was only three years older than my father and I’ll always wonder if their paths crossed somewhere like the Poland Library or if she ever saw The Charles Smith Band perform.

But she’s one more example of a creative that rose up from flyover country to accomplish much.

And I also wonder when the Mary Wells story will end up on the big screen. I’m not the first one to envision Michelle Pfeiffer playing Mary Wells. I hope the movie gets made someday and I hope the opening shot is in Poland, Ohio.

Wells’ yacht is featured in Architectural Digest December ’09.

As a side note, Youngtown is where the Warner brothers (Jack & Sam)  of Warner Bros. Studios fame spent much of their childhood. And it’s where they began their own journey in the film business when they screened a copy of The Great Train Robbery.

Related post: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

Scott W. Smith

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