July 23, 2016
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.
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 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.
January 25, 2015
Joe Franklin, who died yesterday, once did a live show at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, here in New Jersey, and a colleague of mine went to cover it. He came back with several anecdotes that confirmed the impression we already had of this unique personality who had been a fixture on New York radio and television for decades. For example, my colleague related that after the show a young man introduced himself to Franklin and explained that he was trying to get started in a career as a comedian. Without taking a second to think, Franklin said, “Meet me on the northwest corner of Times Square and Forty-second street at ten o’clock Monday morning. I’ll make you very happy.” And he made the young man happy by taking him to the WOR-TV studio and putting him on that day’s talk show.
When my colleague’s story had been published, he decided to go to Manhattan in person to deliver copies to Franklin. I accepted the invitation to go along. When we arrived at the studio, Franklin was in the last quarter-hour of his show. Once the broadcast was over, we approached Franklin, and my colleague introduced me and turned over the tear sheets. Franklin grinned and, without missing a beat, said, “Why don’t you guys come on the show?” Mind you, he had never seen me or, for that matter, heard of me before. “What would we talk about?” I asked him. “You can co-host the show, interview the guests.” And so we did.
Sometime after that, my colleague and I were discussing Joe Franklin with others in the newsroom, and I said, “I’ll bet that if we called him up and asked if we could come on the show again, he’d say yes.” My colleague decided to test that theory. He said he wasn’t sure Joe remembered him, but the sentence was hardly spoken before Joe blurted out a date, and we went on again.
We had no illusions about any of this. Joe wasn’t Dave Letterman. It was probably a constant challenge for him to fill his dance card. Still, he had a lot of friends and he often scored a guest with somewhat more status than we had. In fact, on one of the shows we were on, one of the guests was Charles Hamilton, who was one of the best-known handwriting experts and autograph dealers of his time. He had debunked the so-called Hitler Diaries in 1983. But even when his guests were from the middle of the pack, Joe had a genius for appearing enthusiastic. He probably made a lot of folks feel good about their careers despite evidence to the contrary.
He was a combination of pitchman, raconteur, purveyor of nostalgia, and carnival barker, and he was quintessential New York. He ought to be out there on the square in bronze, hanging out with Father Duffy and Georgie Cohan.
January 14, 2011
One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.
Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”
As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.
That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.
The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”
Of course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.
Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.
The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.
While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.
Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.