SMART BEFORE MY TIME
I saw an ad the other day for the new “Smart” car. It reminded me that I had a life BEFORE I became “Lloyd Thaxton.”
My Hollywood career actually began pitching used cars on TV. The above picture might have been me doing one of my commercials …
“This car has been designed as the car of the future with many "smart" features that address today's crowded urban traffic and rising energy prices. Don't be fooled by its charming, futuristic look, the SMART will surprise you with its handling, its stylish, roomy interior for 2 passengers, and its innovative design.”
Actually, this advertising copy is not a 1957 TV commercial. It is from a recent press release for the brand new 2006 “Smart Car.”
The picture was actually taken in 1957 and shows me as the proud owner of my very own brand new 1957 BMW Isetta. Proof that I was truly a very “smart” person, way ahead of his time.
1957 was also the year I arrived in LA. After seven years, I had quit my announcing job at hometown TV station WSPD in Toledo, Ohio, packed up my 1957 Oldsmobile with all my possessions, including a wife and three kids, joined a contingent of millions of other Horace Greeley young men before me, and went west..
“Oh I'm packin' my grip and I'm leavin' today,
cause I'm taking a trip California way
I'm gonna settle down and never more roam,
and make the San Fernando Valley my home.”
Before I left Toledo I had devised my own unique job search criteria. My plan was to not ever think of myself as being unemployed. There is a job classification called “Head Hunter.” These are people who search for other people to head companies, i.e., CEOs, managers, etc. Taking the lead from that, I designated myself as a “Job Hunter.” My job would be “to find a job.”
Once in California, I got up each morning, put on my skinny suit and tie, had breakfast, kissed the wife and kiddies goodbye, and headed for Hollywood. At the time, there was only one Freeway to Hollywood and it ended right at the Hollywood city line. So, the trek was 15 miles of city streets each way. But, hey, I had a job to go to.
My office was a bank of pay phones adjacent to the lavatories in the basement lobby of a hotel next door to the Broadway Department Store on the corner of Hollywood & Vine. Couldn’t be a more “Hollywood” office than that. With a pocket full of nickels (Nickels?), I spent the day calling various advertising agencies, radio and TV stations and the production offices of the big three networks. My goal was to set up appointments and give my job pitch.
What has all this got to do with the smart-looking car in the picture? Well, I had to consider this about my “Job Hunter” job. It paid NOTHING. And, though gas was only about 28 cents a gallon in 1957, my Oldsmobile was the Hummer of its time regarding gas consumption. I knew that, just like today, the price of gasoline could be my Achilles’ heel.
That is when I saw the ad for the BMW Isetta. “50 miles to the gallon” it touted. That meant I could go more than five times as far as with my faithful Olds guzzler. I became the first person in my neighborhood (possibly in the entire Valley) to own the car of the future.
Every morning I opened the front door of my house and entered the front door of my car (yes, the Isetta did have a front door) and headed for my “office.”
I loved that car. It not only saved me a bundle in travel expenses, it was responsible for my first laughs from California audiences - my neighbors and my fellow commuters on the Hollywood Freeway.
Speaking of that, the top speed of the Isetta created a slight problem. The Freeway speed limit was 60 mph. The Isetta speed limit was also 60mph. Most cars companies like to advertise their “0 to 60 in 15 seconds” statistics. With the Isetta it was “0 to 60 in 15 MINUTES.
Here’s my worse case scenario: There was this one stretch of the Hollywood Freeway that I would always dread. It had about a one-mile long 30-degree dip that went back up a 30-degree incline before it leveled off again. In order to keep up with the traffic, I had to really push it to the limit on the downward dip in order to keep it going with the traffic on the up-hill climb. Going home one evening I pushed it up to about 70 mph going down hill. “Woweeeeeeee,” I yelled as the little Isetta’s engine screamed and the car’s skin buffeted like the space shuttle re-entering earth’s atmosphere.
And then all hell broke. In the middle of all this shattering cacophony of sound and fury, an eerily loud and very ominous bang was heard somewhere in the subterranean bowels of my noble craft after which everything suddenly grew quiet as a cemetery. I coasted to the sidelines in disgrace.
A quick inspection revealed that the transmission had been blown completely out of the bottom of the car and nuts, bolts and gears were all laid out neatly behind. Even though I can laugh today every time I think of it, it was quite humiliating at the time to sit there and watch the rest of the world go by in their supped up gas guzzlers.
But, there’s the happy ending to this story. The last laugh, you might say. My tiny car’s equally tiny transmission cost me just 59 dollars and change (paid for and installed) and I was on the road again. Proof that everything in life is relative.
Besides, my “job hunting” job paid off and I ended up doing car commercials for the next year (for pretty good money). I continued using my little smart looking car until I had put aside enough funds to purchase a brand new all-white Ford Thunderbird Convertible with white and red leather seats (I did mention “pretty good money,” didn’t I?).
I have to think that it was my love for my little Isetta that made me so convincing and successful at selling cars on TV. So good, as a matter of fact, that I was later able to sell myself as a TV dance show host.
There is a line in Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’s famous “2000-Year Old Man” routine. Mel, as the old man, is asked what his job was 2000 years ago. His answer, “Hitting a tree with a stick.” “Hitting a tree with a stick? What kind of a job is that?” asks Carl Reiner. “Hey! 2000 years ago, hitting a tree with a stick was a good job.”
50 years ago, “Job Hunting” was a good job; especially if you happen to have had a smart little car like mine.