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  • Earle Levenstein

The Whole Deal

Cartoon illustration of a man in glasses penciling in a storyboard. Sketch by Earle Levenstein.Cartoon illustration of a man in glasses penciling in a storyboard. Sketch by Earle Levenstein.

I backed into the ad business.

It wasn't a dream I'd always had; wanting to join the circus or play for the Brooklyn Dodgers... or be in advertising.

No. Not in the cards.

My decades-long career in the ad game was all about financial survival.

I won't bore you with yet another recounting of my, well, challenging childhood; I really focused on avoiding the end of life as I knew it by reading minds. I was a prizefighter in the ring, anticipating my opponent's next move; never had any thought of winning, just not getting killed.

So, zipping right along: grade school, high school, and within six months of my college graduation, war broke out in Korea. I spent a few months in my father's business—robotic; not a decision, just, what else was there?—and I was drafted.

Basic training and assignments posted: pages upon pages of names to Korea, with just a handful of us to France and the WWII airbases we still maintained.

For those of my guys sent to Korea, it was a living hell.

For me in France, it was almost two years of peace, beauty, and a reawakening of my creative self.

An insane contrast for me: waves of guilt that I wasn't with my pals; interspersed with honest relief and thanks to the Someone in charge.

When I was discharged, I immediately started cartooning, and I remember my first sale, to a now-gone, weekly magazine, The Saturday Review and the note—which I have—from the editor, along with the cartoon: Two men in my idea of Greek costume, standing next to a structure of stone, one of the men saying "It's for walking under; I call it an arch."

In the months following, my cartoons appeared in Collier's, Look, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post; satisfying, but infrequent, paying very little, and for sure, no way to build a family. Came frustratingly close with a weekly cartoon idea for a newspaper: close, closer, and then—that same Someone in charge—they bought a new comic strip instead.

That was it for me: the straw that did what straws do and at that same time, I saw a TV storyboard, used then—and maybe still—by advertising agency art directors, working with copywriters to present TV commercials.

I bought some TV pads, sat down, wrote and illustrated a couple of commercials. I had a meeting with an agency group head, who asked if I could hang around for a while, he showed it to his supervisor, and late in the day, I met with the agency creative director who offered me a steady income and fun: the Stage Delicatessen, improvising comedy sketches in the park, turning out light-hearted TV commercials; dog food mostly, and of course—no secret—for me, dogs are the best people.

Piece of cake; then, I was promoted, and promoted again, with each promotion up the ladder, being further and further away from actually creating anything.

More products to advertise; big money for the agency, but not on my personal fun list: drugs and cigarettes.

More income, zero fun, zero sense of creative satisfaction.

To another agency as creative director; more money, whining and sniveling to my wife, a no-shit lady, who simply said; "Why don't you quit?" and came up with a great connection; as newspaper editorial cartoonist.

It was a whole other world; a joy.

Three years of great satisfaction: the Nixon years. Some elevating comments, from a Supreme Court justice, a governor, a newspaper editor.

Then, the newspaper sold.

Back into the ad game: my own agency this time, with a totally different product: furniture. No cigarettes, no drugs, just lovely furniture. Mostly family businesses; years of helping dealers all over the country.

Real people, real product; no fast talk, no quick bucks; business, but clean: one-on-one.

Then, enough's enough. Retired.

Now here I am.

Me, myself and I.

Talking my brains out.

Whatever comes to mind.

Spilling the beans.

Just me talking to you.

Really satisfying for me.

OK for you?

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