Groucho

In 1968 or there about, I was the art director on the Sony account. Peggy Courtny, my writer, and I were assigned to do Sony’s first TV commercial. It was to announce the introduction of Sony’s Trinitron color TV. To make the announcement, we thought using a celebrity was the way to go. Not a creative solution perhaps but one guaranteed to get attention and possibly some free publicity.

After going through dozens of possibilities, we chose Groucho Marx, who hadn’t done a commercial since his TV show, “You Bet Your Life.” His agent said he would do it for $100,000, which was like a million dollars in today’s money. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of money in our budget.

So, here’s where the creative part comes in: We came back to the agent with a counter-offer. We made a long list of every product and every model Sony made – TVs of all sizes, stereos, tuners, portable and clock radios, you name it, and offered them all to Groucho in lieu of the $100,000.

Groucho said he had a lot of nieces and nephews and grandchildren and all that free booty was too hard to resist so he accepted. We flew him in from L.A. and had a pre-production lunch meeting at the Palm Court at the Plaza.So far, so good, right?

Groucho’s PR person let it be known that Groucho was going to do a Sony commercial. Leonard Lyons, a columnist for the New York Post, picked up the item and wrote that Groucho was in town to do a Sony commercial. He followed that with a quote from Groucho. “That should get even with them for Pearl Harbor.”

I can’t tell you how much that thrilled our Japanese clients. They decided to cancel the shoot.

To make a long story a little shorter, everyone at the agency, from Bernbach down, was now in a disaster aversion mode. After the dust settled and tempers died down, the Sony clients changed their minds and decided to proceed with the commercial after all. Groucho and Leonard Lyons agreed to publish another item after the shoot was completed. It read, “Groucho is returning to L.A. after doing a Sony commercial” with Groucho adding, “The folks at Sony were just wonderful. It was one of the best experiences I ever had.”

But wait, there’s more.

The shoot itself was a nightmare. We wanted an irreverent Groucho with the attitude he had in “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera.” Now, granted Groucho was pretty old at this point in time but somehow he had no idea what we were talking about. On camera, he was sitting in a chair with his legs crossed and delivering the lines as if he was a straight announcer…take after take.

We lucked out (sort of) on one take. Groucho lost track of what he was saying, glanced at his feet, and added the phrase, “which happen to be my shoes.” This of course made no sense at all but we all rationalized, “hey, that’s Groucho.”

We completed the commercial with that take and it actually went on the air that way. I don’t remember if this part of the story is true: I think the commercial ran only once.

Gary Geyer
DDB Art Director
1961-70