THE TOURISTS IN their smelly, rented slickers in a gallery at the end of the tunnel to the base of Niagara Falls could tell that something was going on, all right, but what, exactly? Nobody had taken so much as a glance at the Falls for 20 minutes. They were all watching the action on a lower gallery that had been declared offlimits by the Niagara Parks Commission. There were a lot of funny-looking people down there. A guy wearing nothing but underwear and a pink Foxhead Hotel blanket. Another, sharpfaced guy in a yellow slicker holding a microphone. Somebody who kept saying, “You’re not wet enough, Sweep Lips,” and flicking water over the faces of the underwear man and the microphone man. A movie camera . . . “What’s goin’ on?” a tourist shouted down — only to be squelched by a cry of, “Shh, for godsake! Roll the camera! Action!” Then
somebody whipped the pink blanket off the underwear man and the microphone man aimed his chin at the camera and barked:
“George Petrie here with another of the famous Penman Fortrel-and-cotton underwear torture tests, the tests designed to prove beyond a doubt that Penman's Fortrel-and-cotton underwear for men is virtually indestructible. Today we are going to take Penman’s Fortreland-cotton underwear 2,700 feet above the Niagara River and drop it into the 22-mile-anhour current carrying it through the rapids.”
Then the underwear man did a frightened double, triple, quadruple take, and two big guys with “Penman Torture Test” on their Tshirts came running over and dragged him off kicking. Somebody said, “Cut!” and, “Beauty, beauty,” and the people who were standing around behind the camera broke into applause.
“Wait a minute,” somebody else said. “He had his T-shirt outside his briefs. 1 definitely would prefer to see it tucked in.”
“So tuck it in, Tiger Lily.”
By this time some of the tourists may have caught on that what they were witnessing was the filming of a TV commercial for the Penman Fortrel-and-cotton underwear folks, and that it was evidently some kind of takeoff on all those commercials that feature John Cameron Swayze retrieving a heartily ticking Timex from the fires of hell. There wasn’t a grin in the gallery, though. It may be that the tourists could foresee nothing amusing in a TV blurb based on the smug assumption that another TV blurb was worth a parody — especially one that was faintly amusing precisely because it took itself seriously. It may be that they were appalled by the wretched excess of the whole scene. But it’s more likely that they were busily composing postcards that began, “Dear George, You’ll never guess what we saw at the Falls . . .”
For all I know, the Penman pitch — it was scheduled to premiere on western CTV stations in mid-October — may be the greatest thing to come along since the Alka-Seltzcr jiggling tummies (which always made me want to reach for a Bromo). I would have to take your word for it if you said it was the greatest thing to come along since Tiny Tim. Those of us who observed the shooting during three days last July and August were so close to the project that we couldn’t see the underwear for the Fortrel-andcotton. We were like the apocryphal client’s representative who stops a bean commercial at a frame showing an enormous pile of beans, runs up to the screen and jabs at a spot in the middle of the pile. “I don’t like that bean,” he says.
To a print journalist, production seemed to be a logistic rather than an artistic challenge. The 60 seconds of color film ultimately cost about $20,000 and involved a technical crew of 12, four actors, a skin diver, a sky diver, a helicopter pilot with helicopter (at $160 an hour), a truck full of camera equipment, 50 packages of underwear, assorted agency men, beadles, sycophants, hierophants, gaffers and grips. The technical people each had his unionassigned role and / continued on page 63
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made it clear that a walk-off would ensue should the wrong man touch the right piece of equipment. The cameraman must not carry his own camera. The crew must not work for more than four hours without sustenance. A minimum number of bodies must be on hand for every take — even if it meant bringing them all back from Toronto for a single shot. And so on and on. The filming was replete with catastrophes and mere disasters. Some specially silksoreened Torture Test T-shirts had got mislaid between Montreal and Toronto, setting agency people afloat in double daiquiris. A camera malfunction cost a day. A passing cloud cost an hour. An actor’s insistence on taping plastic Penman bags over his new shoes, sheltering the bagged shoes with cardboard boxes and holding the boxes down with appropriate stones cost 15 minutes.
“If he was worried about the spray why didn’t he stand barefoot?” said an agency type.
“Stop suggesting simple solutions,” said an actor. “You’ll ruin the industry.”
In Niagara Falls the production corps headquartered at the Foxhead and polka-dotted the lounge with butter-linen trousers and twinkly elfin boots. First on the scene were Dick Crighton and Conor Quinn, account supervisor and account executive, respectively, with the Montreal office of McConnell Eastman Ltd., the agency handling the Penman account.
“We’re liaisons between the agency and the client,” said Crighton, whose grey hair was rakish at the sides, like David Niven’s in Separate Tables, and who affected a red paisley kerchief knotted around the throat. Quinn, a young Irishman, who was all in green, said Penman’s would be the first underwear commercial ever done in Canada. “Lord, we don't want to shock,” Crighton added. “They'll go out of their way never to shoot head on. All you might see is a flash of flank.”
The others — producer Tom Moore, writer Jim Morris, Paul Herriott of Herriott Productions (whose crew did the actual shooting), bearded photographer Peter Reusch and an assistant — turned up later after a reconnaissance of the site. Moore, hirsute and articulate, got in a nasty frame of mind when somebody mentioned the CBC, whose commercialacceptance department had cleared its throat and advised that it would not consider screening any message whatsoever on behalf of underwear, men’s. (CTV had welcomed the script with open arms.)
“Those pig-headed finks,” snapped Moore, his face pale within the parentheses of extravagant sideburns. “They’ll show pit commercials for Ban. They’ll cut bras in half, for godsake. So we bend over backward to do a pleasant underwear thing and it’s no go. Arbitrarily, without even seeing it. some dictatorial pinhead turns us down. Our thing is so inoffensive! In the scene where the demonstrator is being hauled off by the goons under the Falls there might be a little zap of buttock. Two frames —
zap — and it’s gone. Only at the CBC would they stop at those frames and ogle.”
The CBC’s rejection represented a stupefying setback in the Penman campaign, geared as it is to getting some of the old pizazz into the saggy underwear market. Penman’s is a 100-year-old firm whose image, according to Crighton, who has had the account for nearly three years, was “oldy and moldy with a square, trapdoor approach, you know, known as a bit of a bore on the subject of long underwear, just like Stanfield’s.” That is, until Dominion Textiles bought out Penman’s and instituted a new-loom policy. Crighton can take some of the bows for the “More of a Man in Penman’s” bus and subway posters whose crotch shots revolutionized poster merchandising earlier this year. Meanwhile, Penman’s modernized its plant and achieved the capacity to underclothe half the men in Canada. The commercial — linked to a radio campaign and hopefully the first of a series of TV torture tests — was the product of four months of think tanks, brainstorming sessions, market and motivation research, five-martini lunches and agonized pacing on the wall-to-wall. “And then to be undermined by some little . . . twit ... at the CBC,” said Crighton.
(Barry Donnelly, assistant supervisor of the CBC’s commercial-acceptance department, explained firmly but calmly that Penman’s position is hopeless. “No treatment could make a men’s underwear commercial acceptable at the present time,” he said. “We maintain an arbitrary list that stems from the basic question of good taste. We’ve opened up to the extent that we’ll accept brassieres and foundation garments, but still no panties or men’s underwear, I’m afraid.” Donnelly had nothing to do with the decision on the Penman’s script. It seems that the commercial-acceptance people are as overworked as everybody else at the CBC, with scant time to consider each application on its individual merits. Six department reps have the authority to reject unsuitable material. In contentious cases Donnelly or supervisor John Angeloff is consulted, and from there the chain of command leads to Ottawa and along a tortuous route to the office of the president himself. But Penman’s got no further than the desk of one Sheridan Gunn, a rep.)
Does anybody really care about underwear? Yes, as a matter of fact. “Men’s underwear can be fascinating,” said Crighton. “The lower the interest in a product, the more subtle the techniques of persuasion. The whole rationale of the subway posters was to get women looking at something that has been utterly blog. We are trying to make it fashionable in a manly way. The woman does the buying, but the man has some influence. He doesn’t want fairy knickers. Basically, we all agreed that the commercial should be humorous. Humor in a commercial is a feather in the cap of consumers — it suggests that they don’t take themselves that seriously — and it denotes a certain amount of sophistication, a devil-may-care attitude, on the part of the client. It’s a happy thing, all around.”
Or, as somebody put it in a premise
For some, $1,000 for a minute pitch
that accompanied the script, doubtless for the benefit of the devil-may-care client: “This commercial’s comedic or humorous content is based upon the comedy of the absurd. Through the implementation of this visual and aural form the pertinent copy points, applicable to the product, are made in a forceful yet nonetheless entertaining manner.” They like to read that sort of stuff, up in the executive suite.
Concord prevailed on the site. “We askedl for bids from an elite group of producers capable of turning in something that’s magic.” said Jim Morris. “Thank God Paul Herriott got it. He has already made dramatic changes in the script.” (Herriott suggested two locations be changed from above to below the Falls to show white water in the background.) "As soon as I saw Jim's script I was wildly enthusiastic,” said Herriott. “It's not often that anything of this magnitude comes along.” After a take. Herriott would say. “Beauty scene.” and Mike Williams. who played the underwear demonstrator, would respond extravagantly. “Passion Flower, you are so nifty.”
Well tanned after appearing with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum in a western shot in Mexico. Williams was selected by Tom Moore on the basis of his ability to do a double take in the opening scene. For the announcer Moore had decided he needed “a presence who was recognizable from his appearances on TV without being identifiable.” He found just the fellow in New York: George Petrie, who has a recurrent role in The Edge of Night. as a prosecuting attorney and frequent bit parts on The Jackie Gleason Show. I couldn't place him until he told me that he'd played Freddy the assistant bus dispatcher in 20 out of 39 of the old half-hour episodes of The Honeymooners.
Both actors see the Penman commercial as an easy buck and hope to appear in the projected sequels. In the olden days — back in the 1950s — a
lot of performers would rather languish than bark on TV. But the ethic changed and. as Stan Freberg has observed. somebody, somewhere, must have enough money to make Elizabeth Taylor herself hold up a can of pie filling. Most Canadian actors would take a pie in the eye to get the union minimum for principal performers: $95 per eight-hour film session. plus residuals, which are worked out according to a complex division of markets and screening schedules over 13-week cycles. Established performers negotiate considerably higher film fees than $95. But the real money is in the residuals. Williams and Petrie could reasonably expect to pocket $ 1.000 each for a series of one-minute Penman pitches.
I suppose I can divulge that the climax of the first Penman's Torture Test comes when the demonstrator is dumped from a helicopter. Williams’ stand-in was a tall, thin skydiver named Bill Cole, who ejected at 2.700 feet wearing a change of Penman’s and a tiny, piggyback chute and freefell 1.000 feet on his back while the intrepid Peter Reusch (who has survived four air crashes) shot him from the chopper's open door. This sequence was filmed up near Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe and aroused widespread curiosity among the locals. especially when Cole, still in his underwear, walked into the Cedar Cliff Manor Hotel for lunch after landing successfully in a field.
Spirits were buoyant during that last beery lunch, with everybody chattering at once in strange, upbeat media talk: “On Monday there should be something to look at rush-wise.” “It better be fast in case we have to do that little goody over the big pond.” “You love me again. Peaches.” “You bet your sweet bum-bum.” “Stanfield’s and Harvey Woods are just so yetch.”
“This would be a great commercial,” said Jim Morris, “if we didn't have to show underwear.” ★
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