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.

 

I suppose if the president of these United States — and especially His Articulacy — can be criticized for his grammar, anyone is fair game.

And so, Dan Neil, writing in the Los Angeles Times, laces into National Geographic, of all things, for a faux pas of its own. Obama has taken lumps for imprecise use of the first-person singular personal pronoun — though heaven knows he gets enough practice — but with National Geographic the issue is adverbial.

To be specific, Neil points out that the National Geographic Channel has been running a spot announcement designed to reinforce “the brand” with largely vacant language. One gets the impression that Neil could live with the vacuous message if only it didn’t lead up to this tag line: “Live curious!”

Wiley Publishing, Inc.

In other words, friends, enrich your existence by being curious — but you got that the first time. How much of a tempest this is depends on the size of your teapot, but it does call to mind the campaign that those of a certain age will remember: “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” This slogan was used by Winston from 1954 until 1972, and its longevity had everything in the world to do with its effectiveness. English teachers and grammarians bristled and fumed, perhaps enlightening some who would have been unaware that a phrase in such a comparative construction must be introduced by “as,” not “like.” At the same time, the sticklers succeeded in calling even more attention to the rapidly growing cigarette brand.

At a certain point, Winston responded to the criticism with a new slogan: “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Presumably, “none of the above” was not an option.

For Dan Neil’s column, click HERE.

vietato_fumareCorriere della Sera is reporting today on a bill in the Italian legislature that would, among other things, require cigarette manufacturers to insert in each pack a leaflet identifying specific substances, including metals, that are present in the products and that may cause cancer. The bill also would ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18, require retailers to ask customers for IDs, and prohibit smoking in schools, including secondary schools. Smoking in schools is already illegal, but the law in that regard is widely ignored – something those familiar with Italian society won’t find surprising.

This bill is part of an ongoing government campaign against smoking in Italy, about 32.6 percent of men and 20.7 of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are smokers. The newspaper reported that the average starting age of smokers is 13, but seven out of ten smokers start when they are 12.

94px-italian_pack I can’t help thinking of a man whose last name was Romeo (pronounced ro-MAY-oh) who used to frequent my grandfather’s grocery store. Mr. Romeo was blind and made his way around town with a cane. We used to keep a stock of these little Italian cigars that only he would buy. But I don’t know where else he would have bought them, given his circumstances, and I don’t think he would have had much reason to live if he couldn’t smoke them. Heaven only knows what he was inhaling, but we wouldn’t have recognized him without one of those little stogies in his mouth. They stunk like hell, but they gave him a certain panache.

This story also reminds me of Nicola Mariano, our back-to-back neighbor, a man who had only one arm. He used to smoke De Nobili tobacco in his pipe. We had a similar relationship with Nick in that we stocked that tobacco just for him. Most people in their right minds wouldn’t have smoked that stuff even in those  days before smokers were officially designated as lepers. But Nick wouldn’t have been Nick if he didn’t wile way a summer  afternoon sitting on the bread box in front of our store, with that reeking pipe between his teeth, making wisecracks at our customers as they came and went.

My paternal grandfather wasn’t a smoker – at least, not while I knew him. One of the things he left behind was his army handbook. That would be the army of King Emanuel II, in which Grandpa served between 1906 and 1909. One piece of advice that the handbook offered the dashing young soldiers was that “lo smoderato fumare danneggia la salute” – intemperate smoking damages (one’s) health. By now we know that even moderate smoking can be lethal to the smoker and possibly those around him, but we would have had a hard time convincing Mr. Romeo and Nick, both of whom died in their 90s, and enjoyed themselves whilst they waited.