From the 1950’s to the late 1970’s the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) held their annual Convention in the spring in Chicago every three years and in Washington each inaugural year. As the size of the Convention grew beyond the ability of Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel to handle the exhibits, it was moved into the huge McCormick Place Convention Center along the shore of Lake Michigan. As time passed complaints grew about the extortion and under the table payments required by Chicago Unions to setup exhibits and theft was rampant when the exhibits were torn down. Las Vegas stepped forward and the convention moved permanently to larger facilities, and wonderful weather causing a multi-million dollar loss to the Chicago economy.
Big Bill’s early sales career started as the Automotive Sales Manager for the Omaha World Herald newspaper. Later he earned a promotion to a similar position at William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Herald Examiner. During those years he was a frequent guest for social affairs and sales meetings at Hearst’s fabulous California San Simeon Castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean. On those occasions, Bill became acquainted with numerous movie stars and people in the entertainment business, such as Gene Autry, Buddy Rogers and Mary Pickford.
One evening during the Convention I was alone in our Hospitality Suite about 8:00PM when this totally inebriated cowboy entered the room. Much to my surprise it was Gene Autry dressed in these beautiful boots, a tailored gabardine western suit and the biggest cowboy hat I had ever seen. I introduced myself to Gene and slurring his words he asked for that “SOB” Bill. When I told him that he was out for dinner Gene said that at least we could give him a drink. He ordered double bourbon and fell into a chair.
One of our new salesmen got the drink and came skipping across the living room singing a once popular cowboy song, and Gene said, “You dumb SOB! That was Tom Mix’s song, not mine”. With that he downed the drink in one gulp and staggered to the CBS suite. At that time Autry was retired from feature films, but still did a half-hour TV series, owned one of the top Television and Radio stations in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Angels major league baseball team. Poor Gene.
Our company represented Buddy Rogers’ radio station in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, which was a gift from his wife, Mary Pickford, to keep Buddy busy in retirement. Buddy had been a big successful co-star with his wife in the silent film days and into the talking picture era. Buddy came up with the idea to call the station KFBI, because it would give his news reporters an advantage over the competition…and it did until an FBI agent appeared and threatened legal action for misrepresentation. Unfortunately the station never rated very well and made a little money, but it was great for Buddy’s substantial ego.
One night while working our Hospitality Suite in the Blackstone Hotel, in walked Bill with our client, Buddy Rogers, and two young, tall, lovely, well endowed ladies who were introduced as “Network Press Representatives”. Even in his 70’s Buddy cut a fine figure and he drove the ladies crazy. He caught my eye on his entrance with his bright yellow camel hair over coat, just like the one Warren Beatty wore in his Dick Tracy movie years later. After a round of introductions and the preparation of drinks, Bill, Buddy and the two “Press Representatives” adjourned to one of the suite’s bedrooms. At the time I didn’t think anything of it and kept busy talking with other clients that had assembled.
Suddenly, in walked the legendary Mary Pickford wearing a snood, swaddled in furs and a ton of makeup. The furs caught my attention because there were heads of animals with eyes and teeth looking at me. My heart was pounding, because I knew Bill, Buddy, and the two girls were in the next room. I introduced myself to Miss Pickford and asked her to please take a seat and offered her a drink. Mary said, “I’ll have a double gin, no ice, and where in the hell are Bill and Buddy?” Thinking quickly on my feet, I said that they were in another room pitching an advertising schedule for KFBI to some advertising representatives. With that Mary took out a cigarette and put it into the longest cigarette holder I had ever seen and said, “Young man please go and find those two bad boys and tell them to get their asses in here within the next two minutes.”
With those instructions I went around a corner of the living room to the bedroom door and knocked. Hearing some soft giggles I knocked again and finally opened the door just as Bill and Buddy were about to have a fandango or something with the two “Press Representatives”. When I told them that Mary Pickford was in the other room they both became ashen and quickly dispatched the two “Press Representatives” out the other door into the hotel hallway.
With that done, Bill and Buddy damn near knocked me over charging out into the living room to greet Mary. I clearly remember Buddy saying “Oh Mary, my dear, I am so excited to see you.” and Mary’s response was “I know you two bastards were up to no good, but how much money did you get for KFBI?” Shortly thereafter Mary and Buddy departed for points unknown and Buddy thanked me profusely for my gracious hospitality.
Bill just winked at me, then said that that was one of the closest calls he ever had, and a vodka martini was definitely in order!
Several weeks later, I received a very nice hand written note from Buddy on fancy PickFair stationery expressing his appreciation for my discreet handling of the situation, and he hoped that he would be able to reciprocate at some time in the future. I never saw either Buddy or Mary Pickford again, and frankly I hoped I would never experience a repeat performance of that evening. I remember thinking that if this is what show business was all about I didn’t want any part of it, and if I was in show business I didn't like tending the elephants.