Smoke if ya got ’em

July 23, 2016

 

 

Johnny 1Madonna, Beyonce, Cher, Adele, Prince, Sting, Bono, Liberace.

Johnny Roventini?

Using only one name has been an effective marketing device for a lot of entertainers, and for none more effectively than for Johnny. When I was a young boy, my mother told me that my father had been at some public event the previous night, and that had met Johnny. She didn’t have to say his last name—none of us knew his last name; I knew immediately that she meant the diminutive bellboy who pitched Phillip Morris cigarettes.

Johnny 2

On radio, on television, in print ads, and in public appearances, Johnny was one of the most familiar figures of his time, with his snappy uniform, his tray with the written message on it, and his high pitched announcement: “Call … for … Phillip Mahr-rayss.” That’s how he pronounced it, as you can hear at the beginning of this Lucy and Desi ad.

Johnny, who was born in Brooklyn in 1910,  was forty-seven inches tall as an adult and weighed about 59 pounds. He was employed in the 1930s as a bellboy at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan in an era when hotel lobbies were elaborate gathering places. Uniformed bellboys were fixtures in these spaces, often calling out the names of persons for whom there were inquiries or telephone or written messages. The New Yorker used Johnny’s size as a promotional gimmick.

Johnny 3

Johnny came to the attention of Milton Blow, whose advertising agency had the Phillip Morris account. Blow brought a Phillip Morris executive to the lobby to watch Johnny in action and, according to Roventini, asked Johnny to page “Phillip Morris.” If that story is true, no one answered the page, but the impromptu audition launched the young man into what turned out to be a lucrative, forty-year career as the public image of the Phillip Morris brand. He also became one of the most recognizable celebrities of his time and was welcome in the company of everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Dwight Eisenhower.

Johnny Roventini’s fame was advanced significantly when Phillip Morris agreed in 1951 to sponsor the television series I Love Lucy, a show that was shunned by advertisers who in those times were afraid of the public reaction to a marriage between a Cuban man and an American woman. Roventini became personally attached to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and he and the sponsor stood by Ball after news reports that the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating charges that Ball had Communist connections.

I have never smoked a cigarette, but I grew up in an era in which smoking and cigarette advertising were pervasive. People of my age will remember the campaigns—”LSMFT” (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”), “Pall Mall (pronounced ‘pell mell’). Outstanding—and they are mild!” And the campaign that drove English teachers to distraction, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” But no tobacco campaign had Johnny’s personality.

After public awareness of the lethal effects of smoking led to a federal ban on broadcast cigarette advertising in 1970, Johnny continued to make public appearances on behalf of the brand until 1974. He died in 1988.

 

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2 Responses to “Smoke if ya got ’em”

  1. frankbergson Says:

    Yes, and later on many of the “Marlboro Men” died of smoking related diseases. According to Wikipedia- – –
    >>> Four men who claimed to have appeared in Marlboro-related advertisements—Wayne McLaren, David McLean, Dick Hammer and Eric Lawson[22] —died of smoking-related diseases, thus earning Marlboro cigarettes, specifically Marlboro Reds, the nickname “Cowboy killers”.[23] McLaren testified in favor of anti-smoking legislation at the age of 51. During the time of McLaren’s anti-smoking activism, Philip Morris denied that McLaren ever appeared in a Marlboro ad, a position it later amended to maintain that while he did appear in ads, he was not the Marlboro Man; Winfield held that title. In response, McLaren produced an affidavit from a talent agency that had represented him, along with a pay check stub, asserting he had been paid for work on a ‘Marlboro print’ job.[24] McLaren died before his 52nd birthday in 1992.[25][26]
    Eric Lawson, the fourth man to portray the smoking cowboy, who appeared in Marlboro print ads from 1978 to 1981, died at the age of 72 on January 10, 2014, of respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A smoker since age 14, Lawson later appeared in an anti-smoking commercial that parodied the Marlboro Man, and also in an Entertainment Tonight segment to discuss the negative effects of smoking.[27]
    The fifth and most famous of the ‘Marlboro Men’ lived a long life after fading from the public limelight. Darrell Winfield, a resident of Riverton, Wyoming, was the longest living Marlboro Man to appear on billboards and in advertisements. Leo Burnett Ad Agency discovered him in 1968 while he was working on the Quarter Circle 5 Ranch in Wyoming. Winfield’s chiseled rugged good looks made him the macho face of Marlboro cigarettes on television, in newspapers, magazines and on billboards, from the 1968 to 1989. Winfield was survived by his wife, a son, five daughters, and grandchildren. [3]
    There is a sixth claimant to the Marlboro Man title. In The Cowboy and His Elephant, written by Malcolm MacPherson, which is ostensibly a biography of Bob Norris and mainly focuses on his raising an elephant on his ranch, MacPherson describes how Norris came to be photographed for Life magazine and become the Marlboro Man for the next 12 years (pp. 65–69, 73).
    Another Marlboro Man died of lung cancer in 2008, Jerome Edward Jackson, aca Tobin Jackson, former owner of the world-renowned Mastiff kennels “Deer Run”.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    I can’t believe I’d forgotten Johnny so completely, or remembered him so clearly once you brought up his name. The other cigarette memory I have is of an old, old joke that’s been much embroidered. But this was how I heard it as a child, circa the early 1950s:

    “Moses said to the children of Israel, “Pick up your shovels, mount your asses and camels, and I will lead you to the Promised Land.” President Roosevelt said, “Lay down your shovels, sit on your asses, and light up a Camel, this is the Promised Land.”

    Other details and Presidents have been added since, including Reagan and both Bushes.

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