Wednesday, 2 September 2015

How To Be a Lampshade For Profit

Perhaps you’ve watched a TV commercial, listened to an announcer or character voice sell the product, and then said “I could do that.”

Lots of people feel the same way. And if they go out and manage to get an agent they’ll likely really be fighting to get that first gig. There are lots of people out there auditioning. And, for some agencies or producers, the proven talent wins. It’s easier and safer hiring the person you know than the person you don’t.

Here’s a neat little story from January 4, 1962. At the centre of the tale is Allen Swift who, at that point, had been a top commercial announcer in New York for close to eight years (he voiced the above announcer cartoon character in the Sugus Candy spot, produced by Pintoff Productions). And, as you will see, he suggests a little trickery and schmoozery to land a gig, though I doubt Swift needed to engage in either because he was immensely talented (and had voice acting experience prior to getting into the commercial field).

The Talking Pencil Bit
Or Life in TV as a Commercial Voice

Newspaper Enterprise Assn.
New York—“Thank heaven you’re home,” the urgent voice breathes into the phone. “Can you get over here by noon? We need a talking pencil . . .”
With minor variations, this desperate little scene it played at least 150 times a day in this desperate town, and probably another 150 times here and there across the nation.
For of all the vital jobs in the economy today, few are more important than casting director in TV commercials—especially nowadays when more pencils talk, more coffee cups sing and more trolls demonstrate products than ever before.
No Joke
It's no joke. Madison Avenue men sober up as soon as the topic is opened. With clients spending upwards of $50,000 for eight 30-second commercials today, it is terribly important that a pencil talk like a pencil and not like a lampshade or a cocker spaniel.
Most commercials are a group enterprise involving client, writer, artist, composer, market researcher, etc. And the trend today is toward a combination of animation to captivate the viewer and live photography to make his mouth water for the product. With the necessary conferences and client approval, it generally takes three to eight months to get words and picture approved.
At this point, it is turned over to the casting director to find the voices.
Special Task
This specialist is usually a woman, generally with casting experience dating back to radio soap operadom and, like Helen Trent, considerably over 35. Her job is to know who’s who in sibilants everywhere from New York to Hollywood. Her pay: between $200 and $400 per week. And as she has the power to award small parts that can earn actors thousands of dollars, she is often very popular.
But as she is employed by an advertising agency, she is also often very insecure.
“So,” says eminently successful commercial voice Allen Swift, “it is your job as an actor to make her feel secure.” You do this in several ways.
First, Swift says, if you’re a newcomer you make her rest easy by letting her know of your credits — the previous jobs you’ve had.
“If you don't have any, you make them up.”
Second, if the part calls for a talking pencil and she has auditioned 200 people already, you help share the responsibility. You ask her, with a tone of easy authority, if it’s to be a mechanical pencil or a wooden one, a round pencil or one with sides, a pencil with an eraser or one without.
“She has no more idea than you of what a pencil talks like. But once you’ve helped her think it through, you usually get the part.”
Few Audition
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that most of the voices in the 800-odd TV commercials now on the air are done by about a dozen actors. Several of the casting people queried by this reporter say they seldom call more than five or 10 actors to audition—and often only two or three.
A man like Swift will frequently be the only one called and will play all the voices on one commercial, ending the fiscal year with a fat $200,000 in recording fees and residual payments for each time the commercial has been played.
Once the cast has been picked for the job, it is then a simple matter to record the 60-second commercial. To protect herself and the agency, and give the client a choice, the casting director usually makes more than one version—15, 35, 103, spending about four hours at it. And nine times out of 10, the client picks the first.

If you don’t know, Helen Trent was the starring character of a long-time soap opera who raised the question if a woman over 35 (as she was) could find happiness and romance (she did on the very last broadcast in 1960).

And since we’re talking about Allen Swift, here’s one of many newspaper stories written about his career. It’s from August 16, 1968.

His Thousand Voices Include Soup, Nuts

NEW YORK (UPI)—Allen Swift has a well rounded career —“everything from soup to nuts,” he says.
Swift, known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” is one of the nation’s leading voice specialists in radio and television commercials. He recently provided the voice characterization for his 20,000th commercial.
“Having done the voice for a peanut and a voice in a soup commercial,” Swift says, “I’ve made the old cliche “everything from soup to nuts’ a reality.”
Swift has also been a pencil, a bathroom plunger, a herring, kangaroo, duck, mouse and numerous dogs, ranging from a French-speaking poodle to a cockney English bulldog.
The advertising industry recently gave him their annual “Cleo” award as best announcer for 1966-67 for his “Beloved Herring Maaven” radio commercial, now in its second year of-use.
Swift, a New York City native, says he began practicing and doing things with his voice as a child.
“Mimicry was my favorite pastime in school and later in the service,” he recalls. While in the Army, during morning roll call he would often answer “present” for his buddies who had overslept, imitating their voices faultlessly.
Swift says his “big break” came while he was supporting himself as a part-time comedian, part-time magician and part-time shingle salesman.
He auditioned and was hired or the “Howdy Doody Show.” During his three years with the puppet show, Swift estimates he did more than 50 different voices on the air. Advertising agencies which lad heard Swift on the Howdy Doody Show began calling him to provide voices for radio and television commercials and by 1957 the demand for Swift voices was so great he went into that field full time.
Swift, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children, estimates that he records about 15 commercials a week. He gets from appointment to appointment on a collapsible bicycle which he just folds up and carries into the recording studio with him.
Swift says his biggest challenge in the vocal field was imitating former President Eisenhower’s voice for the film “The Longest Day.” “His voice had no outstanding characteristic that I could pin down,” he recalls. “I finally had to watch newsreels over and over again to perfect it.”
Although Swift’s voice is well known, his bearded face is seldom seen on the screen. Isn’t that a little hard to take—a famous voice and an “unknown” face? “Perhaps it’s a little hard to swallow at first,” Swift explains, “but I’ve found that people in show business usually grab the chance to eat regularly, limelight or not. Many an actor is living in style thanks to an ability to be the voice behind an animated character or a good delivery of a commercial for radio or television.”

Thanks to Mike Kazaleh for the Sugus commercial.

1 comment:

  1. He was also one of Total Television's most dependable voice actors, starting with "KING LEONARDO AND HIS SHORT SUBJECTS" {"Odie Cologne", "Itchy Brother", "Tooter Turtle"}, right through "THE UNDERDOG SHOW" {"Simon Bar Sinister", "Riff Raff", et. al.}. I remember the Vita Herring "Beloved Herring Maven" radio spots.....