Picture It--Beverly Hills, 1980: I Was Paddington Bear For a Day at Saks 5th Ave.
Everyone in their lifetime should spend at least one day in an animal's furry suit, in whose head is housed a tiny fan....the one that creates a flow of air, not the one who wants an autograph.
In January 1980, I drove from my Houston hometown to Los Angeles to see if I could parlay my two years in pro radio and three years in retail records into something more substantial in the record biz, in the home of the entire industry.
Unfortunately, the biz had just experienced something of a crash in ‘79, so prospects of joining a label’s promo, sales or merchandising department seemed grim, at best:
A handful of odd temp jobs was in the offing, and becoming an anthropomorphic, animated, omnivorous ursidae was one of them. But first, a couple of other thankless jobs emerged to help pay the bills.
A High Paint Threshold
Within my first month in N. Hollywood, I responded to an ad for outside sales that required no experience. It was a stereotypically shady, slimy, and scammy company, with a tiny office in a small, several-story office building on Hollywood Blvd.
We were each given a small hand-truck, on which we loaded several cheap, cheesy, framed paintings (which I’m sure were acquired by them for dollars a dozen), mostly landscapes. We’d get dropped off in front of a nearby office building, and were assigned a floor or two to cover. The idea was to sell these paintings, door-to-door for the office workers to use for their office decor.
Our approach, trained to us by our “leaders”: KNOCK KNOCK. “Yes?” Pause. Another knock. The idea was to make it appear we were being asked in, and not just barging in as, of course, we were! KNOCK KNOCK. “Come in!” I cracked the door open just enough to poke my head in, and show just a corner of my box of mock Manets and knockoff Nyholms resting on my dolly.
This would give the “mark” (anticipating an inevitable sales pitch) a chance to say something like, “Whaddaya have there?” “I’m sorry….what’d you say?” I was trained to pretend I didn’t hear them the first time, again, to emphasize the notion that they were asking me in!
The person behind the desk would repeat their question, and I’d sound suitably surprised to make it all sound like quite the happenstance I’ve got something resembling paintings with me!
“Oh, you mean THESE!?” “Yeah, what have you got there?” was every worker’s reply in this well-choreographed ruse. “Well (sir or madam), it just so happens…….” Shameless. I can’t recall if I ever sold a painting, but we each had a quota, and I didn’t last a month, so…..on to the next! The need to pay rent provided the ultimate propeller:
Just Plane Folks
One temp gig had me working in the shipping department of an airplane parts assembly plant, Whittaker Controls in N. Hollywood (they assembled motors for Pratt & Whitney, and we’d receive a “Req,” or parts requisition form to pick the parts and fill an order), not far from my apartment. It was so far away conceptually, though, from my previous half-decade of being behind the mic in radio, and from working in retail records.
Two anecdotes worth preserving emerged from those several months: One day I wasn’t feeling up-to-par, with cold or light flu symptoms. I stopped at the store on the way to work, and picked up a pack of sinus capsules or something similar.
I wasn’t paying full attention and failed to pick up a non-drowsy formula medication! You guessed it…I was filling orders and picking airplane parts, all morning, nearly bumping into walls, so stricken with drowsiness, I could’ve fallen asleep standing up with no problem! I must have “awakened it off,” somehow, before driving home!
Needless to say (and quite thankfully), this temp job was short-lived also, although lasting a few more weeks than the painting scam. On my last day there, I wrote on little cards the same thing, and placed one in each of about a dozen empty, out-of-stock airplane-part boxes:
“Greetings! You’ve encountered an invisible part, newly developed expressly for Pratt & Whitney! Just pick the number of parts your Req calls for, and if you find this box empty, kindly see your manager for any updated incoming shipments of a re-stock.”
Is it any wonder I couldn’t hold a career, much less a job?
Earning the Bear Minimum
One day, my sister-in-law, then-GM of the Beverly Hills Saks 5th Avenue, found a one-day job she thought I’d be interested in: “Would you like to be Paddington Bear for a day?” “I’m sorry….would I like to do what to whom, where?”
I’d like to think it would be needless to say that I’d never heard of this fictional character in children's literature who first appeared in 1958 in the children’s book, A Bear Called Paddington, who’s been featured in more than twenty books written by British author Michael Bond, and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum (and others).
I arrived at the famously tony department store in the heart of Hollywood’s TV, music, and film community at the appointed time on the appointed day. This would certainly be wildly different than selling faux paintings to people who wouldn’t want them, or even schlepping airplane parts around a concrete warehouse!
Apparently, Paddington was to make a personal appearance that day to either sell a new book, or maybe shill a new line of kiddy clothes. The costume was as heavy and hot as you’d imagine. The head was enormous, as it had to have room to house a battery-operated fan, ostensibly to ward off heat exhaustion.
I know I walked around the store a lot, but don’t recall stopping and actively doing anything, like fronting a book table, say, or talking with patrons. I’m sure the store had signs around tub-thumping the book, as well as Paddy’s presence.
As can be seen from my previous temp gigs, I just can’t leave well enough alone, and this furry day was no different! Noticing the way the high-class, high-net-worth clientele managed to so easily ignore me (like they see a benign 7-foot-tall bear walking around Saks every day!), I decided to have a little fun:
Recalling a favorite I Love Lucy scene (you’d be amazed at how frequently I do that on any given day), I took a newspaper with me on a trip up and down the store elevator during a break. I opened the paper, held it out in front of me with my massive, fuzzy head tilted just so, and even chuckled a couple times, as if reading a comic strip.
With half-a-dozen patrons in the elevator each way, NO ONE said a word, asked a question….nothing! And, all this sans benefit of a laugh track!
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