When I auditioned for television commercials in the 1970s, a subtle yet humorous resistance to feminism still existed toward emerging women.
I had worked for an ad agency right out of college in the early 1960s, then taught high school English. But several years later, I was sequestered in the Long Island suburbs, raising three children, and missed being part of the action.
My husband, Jerry, worked for several "Mad Men" advertising agencies in Manhattan. I said, "Hold it, wait for me!" I hustled into the city to act in "real people" commercials. I bought the products they were selling and figured I would be a natural.
I signed on with a few talent agencies, got myself on a Real People modeling agency "head sheet" — a photo and resumé of my skills — and trekked around the city on "go sees." I did an ad for Ms. Magazine, posing as a woman trapped at home in a freshly painted wooden box. When the fumes overwhelmed me and I felt lightheaded, the photographer said, "Good, we don't want you to look too pretty!"
I was featured in ads selling the birth control pill and arthritis remedies for a tennis player. I posed as a secretary (we shot the ad at the home base of Penthouse magazine on the Upper East Side of Manhattan). I also was hired for a Sominex sleep aid and a special bra for still-sexy women who had endured a mastectomy.
In 1976, I auditioned for a Cheerios commercial. The part called for me to play basketball. "This job is mine," I thought. I had played varsity basketball in high school and college, before Title IX, and when I was home alone with my first child, I actually stuffed a basketball into the carriage and went looking for a court to shoot a few layups.
The Cheerios spot called for a mother and father having fun playing basketball with their two kids. The sales pitch was simple: A family stays healthy when they "Pow, pow, power with Cheerios!"
Basketball tryouts were held at a Park Avenue gym. During the scrimmage, the ad agency guys from Dancer Fitzgerald and the TV crew were showing off and started bashing me on the head under the backboard, jostling for the rebounds. To steer clear of the melee, I stepped back and took on the role of cheerleader — just like a girl — and congratulated guys who thought they were Bill Bradley, scoring from the corner.
"If I don't get this job," I thought, "it's back to teaching school!"
My agent called at noon the next day and told me I was hired. I was to meet the crew in Manhattan in four hours and drive to Princeton for the shoot. I couldn't reach Jerry to tell him I was going to New Jersey, so I parked my kids with a neighbor until he got home, and I arrived in Penn Station during rush hour. I spotted two neighborhood friends, asked if they had seen Jerry and they started yelling all through Penn Station, "Has anyone seen Jerry?" Commuters joined the search, yelling for Jerry. It was hilarious, but no luck!
We drove to Princeton, settled in at the Holiday Inn and started the shoot at 6 the next morning.
I was having fun, but the director kept yelling at me through the bullhorn to cool it. "You just knocked your 'husband' out of the frame fighting for that rebound," he shouted. "This is not a game, it's a commercial. And you're not Walt Frazier!"
I was confused. They hired me because I could play basketball, yet they kept telling me I played like a man. Bottom line — they were ticked that I was a better player than Max, the actor who was playing my husband, and I was showing him up on the court.
I also perspire when I play sports, but the feminist issue still lurked under the radar, and women were not yet allowed to look sweaty, so they gave me 15-minute breaks throughout the day to dry off.
That evening, I heard loud noises and scuffling in the room next to mine, then sounds of shattering furniture and glass. The commercial director, whose room was down the hall, called me and asked what was going on. I ran into the bathroom, put on my jeans and a sweatshirt over my nightgown and locked the door.
I suddenly heard pounding on the outside door to my room. The director had come to rescue me; he was barefoot, bleeding and was wearing only boxer shorts. We ran outside, past the broken window from the next room. Glass was strewn all over the outside walkway, and we went back inside to the lobby. I told the night manager to call the police, that I was the mother of three children. He refused and said things always happen on his shift.
The next morning, we learned that a group of New York businessmen had driven to Princeton to watch a Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers hockey game. They broke up the room when the Rangers lost.
Luckily, the agency guys told us the rushes from the previous day's shoot looked good, so we drove back to New York.
A week later, my agent called, told me that General Mills had decided I played basketball much better than Max and that my face looked too red. They bought me out of the contract and replaced me with a woman 10 years younger who couldn't play basketball.
Feminism still had a long way to go.
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