Telemarketing for Art’s Sake

We entered a place whose paint is a jaundiced peach, whose plaster crumbles, whose walls scream admonitions:




And young Ellie Cahill was saying into her receiver, “Now Jay, you know you can’t expect every performance to be great.”

You may have spoken to Ellie Cahill yourself–Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s list of prospects runs to 30,000 names. Theirs was the first theatrical phone room and soon everyone was doing it. If not everyone, then the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Immediate . . .

(“Who is the Immediate Theatre Company?” our wife asked the other day as she sat back down at the table and tore into her cold dinner.

(“They do some very good work,” we said.)

“This is the tenth year of selling subscriptions and the fifth year of doing a telemarketing component,” Jeffrey Ortmann, executive director of Wisdom Bridge, had told us (“telemarketing” being a euphemism if we’d ever heard one). “We went from 3200 to 3900 to 6700 to 9500 subscribers.”

But the future approach, said Ortmann, will be to sell “memberships.” We asked how. “None of it will be done by phone,” Ortmann said. “We think the basic theatergoing audience has been inundated, and it’s time to move on to other kinds of communications.”

We found Jim Casey’s phone room a block east of Wisdom Bridge’s theater on Howard, up the stairs of an oddly light, airy old building.

We told Casey his days are numbered.

“I’ve been in this business for six years and everyone’s always saying they want to phase it out, and no one can ever afford to,” he told us.

It was Sunday night. Across the room, Ellie Cahill dialed and dialed. “What they don’t realize,” Casey was saying, “is that Ellie, in the year she’s been here, has financed one whole production. People should be sending her roses and they don’t know who she is.”

Momentarily, Cahill’s voice filled the room. “This was the biggest maritime disaster in the history of the Great Lakes! Do you know how long a football field is? . . .”

Casey learned his trade at Morton B. Katz & Associates, fathers of not-for-profit telemarketing. Before he went independent, the firm sent him all over the country to help client organizations. For the last 14 months he’s been director of sales at Wisdom Bridge.

“I raised half a million dollars for the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven a couple of years ago,” Casey said.

Were they grateful? we wondered.

“No,” he told us.

“I don’t expect people to be grateful,” he went on. “Because they think what I do is prostituting of the arts. And they see the 15 to 30 percent commission for what I do as lost income.

“For every dollar they give me I turn around and give them three back, and they’re pissed at me!” Casey said. “Larry, would you give me a dollar if I give you three back?”

Larry Tyler laughed. A tall, solemn young black man, Tyler was sitting at a nearby phone studying a notepad.

One of Tyler’s joys is selling stuff by phone to people in places like Cicero who wouldn’t give him the time of day if they could see his face. Lately it’s been extended new-car warranties. Casey just hired Tyler to put together a sales force that will come in afternoons and call businesses. The pitch will be that theater ducats are good for entertaining clients and they’re tax deductible.

We asked Tyler what he’ll look for in the eight new dialers he must hire. “Total determination,” Tyler said. “There’s winners and losers. Winners always solve the problem. Losers always create the problem.”

Casey shook his head in admiration. “He has all the skills,” Casey said. “I just have to teach him the idiosyncrasies of the product.”

We wondered what those were.

Casey reflected. “With a theater,” he said, “it’s got to be more of a social call than a business call. You have to be ultimately socially manipulative.”

Later, he tried to elaborate. “People don’t want to say no to a church,” he explained. “People don’t want to say no to an institution on a pedestal. They don’t want to get off the phone feeling guilty.”

About what?

“Nobody likes to feel uncultured,” Casey said. Which led to a story about his triumph selling opera tickets in Dallas.

“It’s our job to treat them like children,” Casey said. “That’s the way I look at it. In a lot of ways it’s like raising children.”

And Ellie Cahill’s voice rose again, swollen by feeling. “It uses flashbacks to show what kind of man it takes . . . to be a sailor . . . to live the life of the sea . . .”

We’d seen the product, Ten November, a wonderful play. We asked Casey if Cahill had seen it yet.

“No,” he said. He said the phone room’s only night off is Saturday, and those performances are always sold out.

“Thanks to us,” he said.

On the Origin of Speeches

“How in the world could any journalist with an ounce of shame accuse Joe Biden of plagiarism?” said our friend on the coast.

“The issue isn’t plagiarism, it’s character,” we reminded her.

“I mean, to be denounced as a copycat by the pack!”

“The fourth estate is a mosaic of bold individual voices,” we asserted.

“I mean, if you took away George Will’s copy of Bartlett’s he’d be pumping gas in Pocatello.”

“George Will is punctilious about giving credit where credit is due,” we said. “Especially where it’s due Edmund Burke or Samuel Johnson.” And we pointed out that with Gorbachev writing his own material our nation simply cannot afford a forensic gap.

“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “It’s pretty damn suspicious, the way all this came out during the Bork hearings. I mean, if Bork gets in, there goes abortion, modern art, and non-Euclidean geometry.”

“All Biden had to say,” we told her patiently, “was this: ‘I am so moved to be standing before you here at the Iowa State Fair that I am reminded not only of a thousand generations of my own ancestors, such as they were, but also of Neil Kinnock’s.'”

Our friend’s rage was surrendering to common sense. “So what do you think got into him?” she said at last.

“The real story?” we said.

“Please,” she said.

“It’s not generally known,” we said, “that Joseph R. Biden was raised by someone who not only had the very same name but had it first. This of course was his father. Young Biden said to himself at an early age, ‘If I don’t even have a name to call my own, who’s going to expect me to write my own speeches?’ And so the die was cast. There was a telling playground episode in seventh grade when he told a school chum, ‘Ya hear about the new book! Run to the Outhouse by Willy Makeit. Haw! Haw!’ And the school chum said, ‘That is so old!’ and he lied desperately ‘Is not!’ His family despaired.”

(For more revealing anecdotes, look for “The Road to the Iowa State Fair,” our compelling 10,000-word report–though it could wind up closer to 20, depending on how many old school chums we manage to dig up–now in the works.)

“It comes down to this–” we told our friend. “Biden’s was a compulsion rooted not in seeking illicit rhetoric but in proving he was so utterly worthy that he could break all the rules.”

She thought about this.

“That is word for word what Gail Sheehy said about Gary Hart in ‘The Road to Bimini’ in Vanity Fair. Except she wasn’t talking about rhetoric.”

“Could be,” we shrugged. “When the hour comes for great language to be born it springs unbidden onto many tongues.”

She said, “Now I suppose you intend to bang out some Calvin Trillin number or whoever you’re trying to sound like this week.”

We really didn’t know what she was talking about.

“I mean here’s what pisses me off,” she lamented. “Joe Biden gets screwed blue and tattooed just because he makes one dippy speech! And meanwhile Ronald Reagan lifts not just his best lines but a whole goddamn World War II combat record out of old B movies and nobody gets on him for that.”

“Easily explained,” we said. “Ronald Reagan is an American original.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.