Wednesday, 8 April 2015
Stan Freberg and the 61st Second
Freberg was no fan of rock-and-roll, political correctness, or the inanities of electronic media programming and advertising. He took no prisoners in “Elderly Man River,” a truly marvellous sketch where he butchered the lyrics of a Stephen Foster classic beyond recognition so it couldn’t possibly offend anyone. He saw through the showmanship of Elvis Presley and Johnny Ray by slashing and slicing their hits “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Cry,” technically and lyrically. His Jeno’s Pizza Rolls TV commercial seems to have been sparked by his umbrage that someone other than The Lone Ranger could dare to co-opt The William Tell Overture. “Green Christmas” took aim at commercialism of a religious holiday (Freberg’s father was a minister) before Charles Schulz did the same thing with some kids in a Christmas TV special. Some of his satire is awe-inspiring. You listen to it and can’t help but admire the cleverness and appreciate his intellect.
Parody was in his arsenal, too. His Jack Webb-inspired “St. George and the Dragonet” could be said to have sparked an entire comedy record industry.
And that was only the tip of the... well, I’d say “Fre-berg” but he’s used that one already. He began his entertainment career as a voice actor in cartoons. Warner Bros. fans (he worked for Columbia and UPA as well) can probably pick out a favourite. They’re liable to disagree on his best work; Freberg worked on great cartoons for a couple of directors. He moved on to the puppet show “Time For Beany,” eventually walking away with collaborator Daws Butler. Evidently Freberg didn’t think a lot of Beany’s creator, Bob Clampett; he went on TV with a Cecil-like creature and Clampett promptly sued. Children’s and comedy records followed, then his huge career in advertising. Sponsor magazine profiled him and his ad philosophies in its edition of October 14, 1963. You can read it (in pdf form) HERE.
I don’t have any personal stories about him; he spoke at a seminar locally years ago that was beyond my price range to attend. So allow me to purloin part of a feature story by Bert Prelutsky of the Los Angeles Times from June 25, 1967. Ken Sullet quoted in the story worked with him on the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. The other voice actor mentioned not only did an incredible amount of commercials using a variety of voices, he was the best part of “The Alvin Show” as inventor Clyde Crashcup.
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During the first week of February he [Freberg] was to record eight radio commercials for a Chrysler campaign. The dual points of the campaign were that Plymouth had a tremendous selection of new models and colors, and that Plymouth dealers would go to any lengths to make you a deal on the one car just right for you. The eight spots were about one such dealer’s going mad trying to sell a Plymouth to a customer who couldn’t even decide what he wanted for breakfast.
One such recording session began at 5 in the afternoon at Radio Recorders Stage B, on Melrose, one of the only two studios in town with acoustics good enough for Freberg. (The other is at Capitol). By 1 o’clock in the morning, Shep Menkin, one of the best men in the business, who’s play the Plymouth dealer in the campaign, still hasn’t said line one into the mike. The reason: Freberg has been on Orange Drive all evening with a block-long extension cord, recording a passing cavalcade of Plymouth Furies. Up and down the street he’s had them for hours. At one point, though, a metallic gray Jag drove by with a For Sale sign in the window. Freberg jumped into one of the passing Furies. “Follow that Jag!” he tells the driver. Twenty minutes later he returns. It turns out he’d driven a metallic gray Jag on his honeymoon and he’s decided to buy this one.
In 1959 he married his secretary, Donna Andresen. Today she’s irreplaceable, not merely as a wife, but as one of the few people in the business he feels he can count on. She works in the studio, helping to edit the spots, sees to it that he meets deadlines, acts as a buffer between her husband and a sometimes belligerent world of clients, and serves as Freberg’s first reactor to new material.
A bright, attractive blonde in her 30s, she answers the question why Freberg works himself so hard: “He feels he has to do it the right way every time. I guess he thinks someone won’t get it. He even gets worked up reading his stuff to me. I tell him, you don’t have to sell it to me. But you can’t change him.” But she tries, anyway.
Freberg admits, “My wife is waging a campaign—less procrastination, less deliberation, less vacillation. I’m the guy in the Plymouth spots who can’t make up his mind.”
The Great Vacillator, in fact, is the nickname Sullet has given Freberg. “Never,” he advises, “go out for dinner with Freberg. You’re in a restaurant, sitting with him and four other people, and it begins.” Sullet suddenly gets a nasal twang in his voice, a pretty fair approximation of the Freberg delivery: “ ‘What are you having? The prime rib?. . .You think I’d like it?. . .You’d recommend it?. . .You really think I ought to have the prime rib?’’ He goes around the entire table that way. Finally the waiter comes and Freberg asks him what he should order. ‘The lobster, huh?. . . You’d recommend it highly?. . .I’ll be happy with it?’ So he orders the lobster. Suddenly he’s stretching his neck and staring over our heads at a table halfway across the room. ‘What’s that woman having over there? A London broil?. . .It looks kind of good. . .Waiter! Waiter!’”
Back at Radio Recorders, it’s 1:15 a.m. Freberg has gotten the Furies recorded and has made an offer on the Jag. He and Menkin are sitting at a card table, discussing the spot. In the sound booth, Donna and a couple of engineers are chatting and growing old.
Menkin and Freberg are trying out different readings. Finally they’re ready for the mike. After a few false starts, they go through the entire spot. Because of a nine-second Plymouth tag, they have only 51 seconds to work with. They finish the spot. It sounds good. They look at the booth, where Donna is shaking her head. It’s 10 seconds long.
Freberg throws his pencil at the music stand. “Who says a commercial has to be 60 seconds? Who’s the FCC anyway?”
They make a few cuts in the copy and try another take. This one is longer than the first; they’ve delivered their lines slower.
At 2:15, Freberg takes a vitamin B12.
By 2:30, they’re on take 21. It’s a good one, but the time is still two seconds too long. Freberg wants “One more take, just one more. . .” They do another take. Still two seconds too long.
At 2:35, the Frebergs argue about the wisdom of trying to fix the spot at this time. She wants him to go home. He wants to record. He wins.
At 2:37 he’s down on the floor doing push-ups.
Menkin stands watching. “Sun flower seeds, wheat germ, vitamins; he swims in his pool every day. He’s a nut about that stuff.”
Freberg disagrees. “I’m not a health food nut. I just eat more healthily than most people.”
It’s 2:53. They have managed to cut one of the two troublesome seconds out. Freberg is in the booth now, with his stop watch. “It’s a 61-second spot no matter how you slice it. Well, I’ll just tell the Plymouth dealers there’s something wrong with their watches.” He’s kidding.
He and Menkin go back to the mikes and wage war against a second of time. By 3:05 they’re still losing.
“Tell me what to do,” Freberg says to Donna. “If you want me to stay and try again, I’ll do it.” Everybody laughs.
Finally at 3:45, somehow they’ve done it. A poor battered and bleeding second, its tail between its legs, has crawled off to recuperate. It will be back, though. A battle’s a battle; a war is something else. And in Freberg’s experience, the 61st second has never failed to come out swinging when the next bell rings.
In the next two days and nights, Freberg’s supposed to record seven more spots. He won’t. He’ll have six spots completed when he sends the campaign to Detroit on Thursday morning.
During his recording sessions, he will suck on Pine Brothers honey cough drops and special vocal lozenges. After eight or nine hours in the studio, he will break out his Lif-O-Gen oxygen unit and take a few deep breaths, and then keep going into “The Golden Hours,” his apt name for overtime.
In the end, Menkin will say “That Freberg can really fuss away time. He comes up with a sensational product—but he wastes too much time. It’s not necessary.” Of course, it is necessary. It’s necessary because that’s the only way Freberg can function.
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Want more Freberg? Seek out his 1957 radio show on CBS on-line. We’ve got some old newspaper articles quoting him HERE and HERE. But the best way I can end this post is to direct you to Mark Evanier’s remembrance of him HERE. Mark’s pretty insightful and articulate, too.