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Second Place - "Ya Got A Great Futre Behind Ya"

1998 Anne Horton Writing Award
Second Place
"Ya Got A Great Futre Behind Ya"
Richard Gjonola

When I was discharged from the Army in 1960, the U.S. economy was in great shape. A good paying job could take as long as two or three days to find! I should know; I ended up doing just that about a half dozen times in just one year!

About this time -- the late Fifties, early Sixties -- when young couples danced, (old ones, too, for that matter,) they actually held each other. Oh, yes, they did! Examples of this quaint custom can still be seen in old movies! Couples glided, ever so gracefully, around huge beautifully appointed, romantically lit ballrooms like the "Aragon" or "Trianon," in Chicago.

These ballrooms were every bit as lush and elegant as any found in opulent French palaces: Glistening marble floors; enormous crystally, spangley chandeliers which were installed not so much for their light as for their auras and ambiance; red or blue or burgundy colored, plush drapes, covering thirty feet-tall windows, and, of course, an enormous, carpeted, curved staircase, leading from the impressive lobby up, up, up to the main room; and last, but not least, at the far end of this edifice to poise, grace and civility: The orchestra! Not a mere band, mind you, but a full-fledged, twenty or twenty five-piece orchestra. Just walking into that place and hearing that band, and seeing all of those beautiful people floating 'round and 'round that floor was more than enough to encourage anyone to learn how to dance like that -- and that's where I came in.

It was during this period -- the waning years of the "Big Band Era" -- that I got my first post-service job. I was hired by The Great American Dance Studio as, ostensibly, a "Ballroom Dancing Instructor."

I say, "ostensibly," because my job, really, was to sell the various dance courses to the "prospects." I was the guy who, when a prospect called the Studio in response to its newspaper ad, gave her her first free dance lesson. This lesson was nothing more than an excuse to give a sales pitch to the prospect. I taught her just enough to convince her that, "My dear, you have marvelous potential. You're what we call 'a natural'." The fact is, I could have convinced a three-legged orangutan that she had potential. Come to think of it, some of those prospects looked... oh, never mind.

Now, one thing I must tell you is that at about this time, the ballrooms, big and small, were all going out of business. "The Twist," "The Fish," "The Mashed Potatoes," and I don't know what else, were all coming into vogue. From now on, any dummy with two left feet and an I.Q. of a hybrid mushroom, could walk out onto the "dance floor" of a neighborhood bar or lounge or "joint" and dance! You "danced" here, and your partner danced 'waaaayyy over there.

Dancers no longer glided around a beautiful marble floor, wearing their best duds and making sparkling conversation. No. They now gyrated on a two square-foot plot of dirty, cracked, cheap floor tile, dressed in jeans and "T" shirts that they came home from work in, and with silly grins of feigned ecstasy on their faces, ground their pelvises in no particular pattern and to no particular tempo. Enter: The New Era of artless, graceless, mindless, tasteless exhibitionism!

"Why," I thought,"in this day and age, would anyone want to learn to do the waltz? There's no place to do it anymore!" Ah, but mine was not to wonder why; mine was to sell, sell, sell! And sell I did. So well that by the time her first Cha-Cha lesson was over, my prospect, this unfortunate, lonely old woman, wanted to sign up for our $24,000 course.

Yes, I said $24,000! You see, the courses ranged in price from $6,500 to -- if I'm lyin' I'm dyin' -- $250,000! Do you believe that? It's true. A quarter of a million dollars. I'd never heard of anyone having signed up for one of those, but they were available. I mean, for that kind of money you could have, literally, gotten Fred Astaire, himself, to teach you. But, I digress.

Having sold the sweet old thing on coming to the studio once a week for the next two years, (at $240 per), I now had to get her to sign the contract.

I escorted her out of the "Party room" and into one of the "Signing rooms," where we sat down at a desk, opposite each other. I reached into a drawer and pulled out a standard contract. I took two pens out of another drawer, handed one to her, and smiled. She smiled back. She was so much looking forward to something that I knew would never materialize. I mean, where the devil was she going to go to dance the rhumba, the waltz, the tango, or any of the outdated dances that she was going to learn? Had she been younger, prettier, I wouldn't have balked, but, as it was, I said, "Ma'am, you don't need this. If you really want to learn to do the Cha-Cha, ask one of your friends to teach you. It's a very easy dance, and it won't cost you a dime."

She blinked. That's all; just blinked.

"Did you hear what I said?" I asked. "It's crazy to pay $24,000 to learn something you'll never be able use except here in class! You can do a whole lot of better things with twenty four grand, right?"

"But I don't mind," she said, "Really."

What to do? What to do? This poor (not in the monetary sense, obviously) woman was someone's mother -- grandmother, more likely.

Okay, she's probably very lonely; she can probably afford the tuition; she's probably infatuated with me... and I don't care; I'm not gonna do it!

"Excuse me," I said, and went to the party room. I found the manager. I told him, "Look, I've got a prospect in the office who wants to sign up. You can have it. I'm going."

"Where you going?" he asked.

"I quit. I can't do it. I'm sorry, I can't."

"Whataya nuts?! You sold your very first prospect and you're leavin'? How much does she want?"


"You're crazy! You know that?! That's twenty four hundred bucks in commision!"

I started to walk out.

"Hey, fella!" he shouted, "Ya got a great future behind ya!"

Incidentally, less than a year later I read that the owners of The Great American Dance Studio had been indicted for fraud, deceptive practices and some other stuff. I wasn't surprised.

My next job was selling "Great Books of the Western World." This, I thought, I could do. Books are good. Books are valuable. Books are a genuine investment in anyone's future, right? Well....

"Great Books of the Western World" is a division of "Encyclopedia Britannica," therefore, one would think, a rather prestigious operation. I have no overwhelming proof that it's not; however, I, like everyone else, don't like strong sales pitches. I particularly don't care for "canned pitches."

A canned pitch is a memorized "script" from which the salesperson does not deviate. Even if asked a question during the "performance," one does not break stride. If possible, one ignores the question and just keeps plowing through the monologue. If the prospect persists with the question, the salesperson says something like, "I'll answer that in a minute," hoping the prospect will forget what he or she asked by the time the pitch is over. The practice, to me, is disingenuous and smacks of "high-pressure."

Now, although the selling of "Great Books..." didn't involve door-to-door selling, it was the closest thing to it without being it, ie: you worked off of "leads." A "lead" is generated when a prospect mails in one of those annoying post cards you find stuck into the middle of your favorite magazine. When the prospect mails in for more information, or for the free tote bag the ad promises, the sales rep. has the prospect's name, phone number and address. Once a tenacious pitchman has got that, you can bet a salesman will call!

My first "solo" pitch (after my week of training was completed) was to an African American grandmother of twelve, in Evanston. She mailed in one of those cards, our telemarketing people set up an appointment for me, and I was on my way.

I arrived at her old, three-story, frame house, which was in dire need of a new paint job, at 7:00 PM, and the granny, looking like Hattie McDowell in Gone With The Wind, escorted me into her living room, wherein sat about twenty people of various ages! "Wow!" I thought, "What a reception!"

"Sit here, on the couch, please," said Granny.

I did.

"Now, what's this all about?" she asked.

What a perfect set up for my pitch! I opened my brief- case, took out the eight-square-foot, beautifully illustrated, oil-cloth presentation aid, spread it out on the floor, took out my trusty, plastic pointer, and began my spiel: "Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the world's most prestigious institutes of higher learning, has put together and is offering, for a limited time only, (I know, I know, "limited time only," is redundant, but it's a phrase familiar to the ear, so it was part of the pitch for this "institute of higher learning"!) twenty four of the greatest books of the western world!"

To make a long story short, they sat there, eating it up. At the end of the pitch, I then bring out two examples of the book's bindings. One, your average, run-of-the-mill, cloth-covered kind, the other: "Rich Morocan Leather-Bound!"

The cloth-covered version went for something like $350.00. The "Rich Morocan Leather-Bound," for about $1,700.00, and either version could be paid off in the space of two years, for a small (if you consider 10% small) service fee.

The grandmother asked me if I would be kind enough to step into the dining room while they discussed the situation. From the dining room, I could hear everything. I could hear them all explaining how, if they cut back on movies and lunches and clothes and I don't know what all, they could afford the leather version. My heart went out to them. I was tickled pink that on my very first solo outing I was going to bring back a sale, but the $1700 version? That was crazy! That was going to amount to about 75 bucks a month, for the next two years! In 1960, that was quite a bundle.

"Mr. Richard! You can come back now!" Granny called. "We're going to take the good set."

"Ma'am," I said, "I can sure appreciate your concern for the education of your family, but the only difference in the two sets is the covering. The cloth-covered books are just as fine."

"Well, I know, but I just think that we should have the good set." She then let out a laugh and said, "These babies are going to be usin' them a whole lot, right, children?" I couldn't do it. No, I just couldn't do it! I know how people are. You know how people are. I mean, I just presented a script that took a dozen marketing experts two years to put together; a script that implied, ever so subtly, that just the mere buying of these books would result in a house full of geniuses;. a script that worked beautifully -- and Granny fell for it.

Well, I wasn't the one to close this deal. I tried to explain to her that everyone of these books can be had at her public library for free! If the kids really are interested in reading them, they could always do it that way.

"Mr. Richard, are you going to sell us those books or not?"

"No, ma'am, I can't. You don't need the seventeen hundred dollar version, ma'am. The other one contains all the same books, with all the same quality!"

"Thank you, Mr. Richard. I guess we're finished, then," she said, as she opened her front door to let me out.

I guess she called the company the next day to complain because the day after that I was asked to turn in my brief case, my eight square-foot presentation aid and my plastic pointer.

"I never heard of such a stupid thing!" my trainer called after me, as I walked out of his office and down the stairs to my car. Yeah, well, I don't have to make money that way. Not me, man!

If, by now, you're thinking that "Sales" was not my forte', I have to agree. Certainly not my forte' when I had to face my prospect and try to sell something I didn't believe in, so when a friend of mine suggested I get a job selling over the phone, I jumped at the idea.

The next week I began "telemarketing" for the Chicago Tribune. For one thing, I thought, there's nothing wrong with getting anyone to read a newspaper. For another, the price was commensurate with what the reader got. In fact, subscribing to the Trib's home delivery option actually saved the customer money; it was perfect.

After two weeks of eight-hour days, I made exactly one -- count it: one -- sale. That came to the whopping sum of $1.80 a week! If we consider the cost of my lunches, gas, parking, etc., this job was costing me about thirty bucks a week for the privilege of sitting in a "boiler room," with a phone pasted to my ear, making a fool of myself by trying to get people, who were probably all Democrats and wouldn't read the Trib on a bet, to subscribe to it!

Well, for the next seven years I had many jobs, doing all sorts of things for all sorts of companies, until, don't ask how, I became an actor. One thing led to another, and eventually I became one of television's most successful pitchmen. That's right. The same guy who couldn't sell water in the desert, was now the most successful spokesman Tipton Appliances, in St. Louis, ever had. A series of commercials I did for Toyota became the most successful campaign they ever launched. Shortly after becoming the Burger King, I was able to knock off Ronald McDonald as the most successful corporate symbol on TV.! So, the bottom line is, I guess: When all else fails, try acting! What the heck, it worked for Reagan. All I have to do now is figure out what my platform is going to be when I run for Governor of Illinois -- which could work, so long as I don't have to look at the voters while I'm telling them to vote for me.