I didn’t make my boss look like a crook even though that’s what he tried to do to me. 2,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bobby van Arnold wasn’t corrupt. He just knew how to game the system. “It isn’t cheating,” he insisted. “It’s working the loopholes so guys like us can make a living.” He underscored his point by poking me in the chest when I handed him my first weekly expense report after he’d hired me in 1970.
He grunted, “What’s this?” and went through all my neatly arranged figures and doubled them, turning $5 into $10 and $10 into $20. “How the hell can I turn in my expenses when send them this? You want to make me look like a crook?”
“But that’s all I spent,” I said weakly.
“So what? You think the producer is gonna be happy with a cheapskate publicist? You want him to think we don’t care enough about his film to spend the hell out of it? Fill out a new one and don’t make the same mistake.”
I quickly learned that movies weren’t a job, they were a racket. Bobby made this clear to me right after I doubled my expense report since the company was paying me poorly. That’s how it worked.
Bobby always made a big first impression. Standing six-foot-eight, he dressed like a cowboy with fringe jackets, boots, and a Texas drawl that made him sound both trustworthy and in charge. Our field office in Philadelphia repped the company’s releases in the Middle Atlantic region: Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New York State — but not New York City.
Like Willy Loman, Bobby had friends in every walk of life in every city. He knew doormen, newsstand guys, headwaiters and bartenders. Especially bartenders.
“I bet you five dollars you can’t write me a receipt for twenty dollars,” he said to one when we were having a drink after work.
“I bet I can,” smiled the bartender, who must have heard this before. He took one of the official receipts out of the center of the pad, rang up $20, and handed it to Bobby who said, “I lose,” and gave him the fiver.
“Now,” he turned to me, “I can either put this on my expense report, give it to you to put on yours, or swap it with a field man for another studio to put on his. Some people trade baseball cards. I trade receipts.”
Never mind my film school idealism. “Run down to the Post Office and mail these press kits to Baltimore,” he said to me another day, handing me a dozen manila envelopes containing 8×10 glossies and press releases for the company’s upcoming picture. “And get a receipt.” Then he showed me a round-trip airline ticket to Baltimore made out in his name for the next day. The fact that he could have driven from Philadelphia to Baltimore more easily than getting to and from two airports confused me.
“Why bother to mail the press kits to the newspaper people in Baltimore if you’re going there anyway?” I stupidly asked.
“Because I’m not going to Baltimore,” he said. He let my confusion fester for a few more moments. “Let me explain. You buy your airline ticket on your credit card to hit one of your key cities. You copy it and send it in for reimbursement. Then you cancel your ticket, which gets credited to your credit card, and you mail the press kits to everyone you would have seen in that city as if you’d gone there.”
“Don’t you ever have to really go to the city?” I asked.
“Of course you do!” he said. “You go there on tour with a celebrity or when there’s a new newspaper editor or critic you need to schmooze. You make it an occasion.”
If the studio knew of Bobby’s skimming, they looked the other way because he was good at his job. When there was a new star that they wanted to send on a publicity tour, Bobby would teach each latest discovery the ropes. “Never give anyone an autograph on a blank piece of paper. Because, in a crush of people, you never know what you’re signing, and later they can fill in anything from a promissory note to a contract. Never answer a question you don’t want to answer. Either say, ‘No comment’ or ignore it and just say what you want to say. Now let me show you how to shake hands. Brush everyone’s fingertips if you’re running a crowd on the Red Carpet. If you actually have to shake someone’s hand, jam yours all the way against their thumb joint so they can’t crush your fingers if they have rings on. And never, ever, ever,” he added, “get your ass lower than your knees if there’s a camera in the room. It makes you look like you’re taking a shit in the woods.”
The biggest publicity stunt Bobby pulled while I worked for him could have sent both of us to jail. I’m only spilling it now because the statute of limitations has run out. It involved a film called Panic and a character called the Panic Man that, I blush to remember, was me.
Panic was a thriller by the gifted Czech director Jan Prokosh. A serial killer stalks the population of a small town murdering people in the most disturbing manners: he somehow learns what scares them most in the world and uses that knowledge to literally frighten them to death. He kills one man by locking him in a public bathroom with a dozen hungry rats. He gives an elderly school teacher a heart attack when he fills her bed with cockroaches. He even sends a public transit bus off the road by playing the sound of a Vietnam firefight for the driver who was a war veteran. The audience knows who did it early on, and the tension comes from wondering how a police detective — himself deathly afraid of spiders — will catch the killer before he learns of the cop’s arachnophobia and strikes first.
Bobby arranged an aggressive “spot the Panic Man” promotion with the town’s most powerful radio station. I’d stand at a specific address at a given time of day and the DJ would reveal where I was so some astute listener would find me and win a first-class trip for two to Europe with all hotel, meals and expenses paid for by World Pictures. It was a hell of a promotion.
I wore a transistor radio with an earpiece tuned into the radio station. The catch was that identifying me didn’t count unless it was within thirty seconds of the radio station announcing my address.
My suspicions began when I realized that Bobby always chose storefronts that didn’t have numbers. I let it pass; the more on-air promotional announcements that were made before my capture, the more publicity the movie would get. Finally, while I was on duty at Broad and Walnut across from the Bellevue-Stratford, the announcer said, “We have a report that the Panic Man is on the prowl again.” He read the plug for the film then said, “The Panic Man is standing across from the city’s most famous hotel and if you catch him within thirty seconds from now, the all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii is yours. Now PANIC!”
Within seconds a young young woman bear-hugged me from behind and we both tumbled to the pavement. Then a man of about thirty reached down and grabbed my shoulder, shouting, “I win, I win, I saw him first.”
“No way,” said the women as I helped her up.
“You pushed me aside!” the man insisted.
“Stop kidding yourself,” the woman returned. “I heard the announcer say ‘PANIC’ and saw the Panic Man. I was the one who got to him first, not you.”
“You couldn’t have heard,” the man said. “You don’t even have a radio.”
The woman said nothing, but held up her purse, which had the radio station coming out of it. “Now let’s see your radio,” she challenged. The man turned his head to reveal an earpiece. Then they both faced me. “Well?”
I stalled. “I wish I could say that both of you could win, but it wasn’t a tie and I have the bruises to prove it.” I nodded toward the woman.
“We’ll just see about that,” the man said, stalking off.
The woman’s name was Catherine and I said, “We have some paperwork to fill out. Would you care to come with me to my office?”
“Is that an invitation?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s an invitation to come to my office. That’s where the paperwork is.”
The three of us headed back to the office: she, I, and her smile. When we entered, Bobby begged off of a phone call and he was not smiling. After introducing himself to Catherine, he said to her, “Would you have a seat out here, little lady? My assistant and I have to call the studio and let them know we have a winner.”
Once we were alone, Bobby said grimly, “Are you absolutely sure she got to you first?”
“Not only did she get to me first,” I said proudly, “she beat a really obnoxious jerk who lied about it.”
Bobby took a deep breath. “That really obnoxious jerk was the son of the radio station’s sales manager. We had a deal that, in exchange for a large commercial buy on top of the travel promotion, the sales manager and his wife would win the trip to Hawaii. We had you chasing wild geese all week, but when it came time to actually have a winner, we told Richie – that’s the son’s name — where you’d be. Unfortunately, that young lady got to you first. It’s gonna take some fancy footwork to untangle this.”
“What’s there to untangle?” I asked. “Just give the girl the prize and tell the sales manager sorry.”
“You’re so young,” Bobby said, shaking his head. “The prizes were all reciprocal deals with the radio station. They’re in trade for commercials, and unless they go to the sales manager, they don’t exist.”
“Why can’t the studio pay?” I said. “Surely this can’t cost more to fix than one day’s perks for a movie star.”
“The studio can’t know about it,” Bobby sighed, and for the first time I saw worry lines on his forehead. At that moment, I remembered a lesson from a broadcast ethics class. “Isn’t it illegal to fix a broadcast contest?”
No response from Bobby.
I went on, digging myself in deeper, “If we don’t make good, Catherine would have every right to bring the matter to the authorities. Why would the sales manager risk his station’s license on a deal like this?”
“He didn’t,” Bobby declared. “I did.”
A knock at the door broke his reverie. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” Catherine said, “but I have to get back at work. Can I give you my name and address?”
I said, “Sure thing.” She stared past me at Bobby, who, gentleman that he was, stood and offered his large hand.
“How do you do, miss,” he started, every pore offering charm. “I’m Robert van Arnold representing World Pictures. May I say congratulations and, by all means, tell us how to find you. We’ll want to get photos, announce your name on the air, and make all the arrangements.” After I showed her out the door, Bobby said to me, “She seems like a nice girl. Do you think you could get her to change her mind?”
“I don’t think so. She has a pretty good tackle and I wouldn’t be surprised if she also had a lethal left hook.”
“This is serious,” Bobby said. “The prize has already been committed to the sales manager. The tickets and all the reservations are in his name. It has a cash value of ten thousand dollars if someone had to pay for it and, at this moment, that someone is me.”
We closed the office early. I spent all day Saturday worrying and all day Sunday wondering why I had wasted all day Saturday worrying. This wasn’t my fault. I had done my job. Nobody even offered me a kickback. Then it struck me that even thinking this meant that I was already corrupt because my complaint wasn’t that I was being used, but that I was being used for free.
“Bobby,” I called him at home Sunday night, “I want to do something to help.”
“It’s too late,” he said curtly. “Catherine Whelan — that’s her name — left word on the office machine that she’s talking to her lawyer because the radio station announced some guy as the winner, not her. She said if we don‘t make good on the promotion she’s going to take it to the District Attorney.”
“What happens now?” I asked.
“I’ll have to call the studio.”
“What are they going to say?”
“Let’s put it this way: the phrase ‘good work, you’re getting a raise’ won’t be part of the conversation.”
“Why didn’t you tip me off about the deal?”
“Would you have gone along with it?” Bobby said.
“You’re just answered your own question.”
Monday morning, Bobby was already in the office when I arrived. “I spoke to the coast last night after we talked,” he said. “They’re picking up the cost.”
“Great!” I said. “Where did they find the money?”
“They told me to fire you.”
“But I had nothing to do with it!” I protested.
“I didn’t say it was your fault,” Bobby answered. “But I had to blame someone. Don’t worry, you’re young. Nobody knows who you are so nobody’s gonna saddle you with it. Anyway, never trust anybody who hasn’t been fired at least once.”
“So now I can be trusted?”
“I’m just sorry we can’t be a team anymore. I enjoyed having someone look up to me for the last couple of months.”
“You’re six-foot-eight,” I said. “I couldn’t help it. But now I know how small you can be.”
“Look, kid,” he said with his most avuncular manner, “I’m sorry about this. The publicist is always the second guy to get fired. The first is the caterer. It comes with the territory. Since nobody knows what we do, they never give us credit when we do it. They all think they earn the coverage because they’re so popular and they never remember that we’re the ones who made them famous.”
He reached into his pocket, peeled off two one hundred dollar bills, and handed them to me. “This is from me,” he said. “Out of my own pocket.”
“I can see this winding up on your expense report as a trip to Maryland.”
“Delaware,” Bobby corrected with a smile. “Maryland would have been four hundred.”
From what I heard on the radio, Catherine and her fiancé enjoyed their trip. Nobody ever proved that anything was amiss about the Panic Man contest, but that didn’t stop World Pictures from changing its expense account policies. Within three months, the company issued air travel cards to its personnel, meaning that all tickets would be paid by the accounting department rather than by reimbursing individuals. The studio even set up its own travel division to keep the commissions for itself. I wonder how they heard they were being scammed.
I held a few more jobs in movie publicity but lost my taste for it when I got fed up with the kind of films that I was being asked to promote. How can you do innovative publicity when every picture looks the same? Besides, these days it’s all about spending millions rather than using ingenuity. Every now and then, though, I see a master publicity stunt that makes me wonder if Bobby is back at it. It might be London’s Big Ben playing the James Bond theme, or an entire section of Super Bowl fans holding up cards that spell a movie title, or a smart phone that comes loaded with a new film soundtrack whether you want it or not. That’s the kind of thing Bobby van Arnold would do. And even if he didn’t, the fact that I think he did says something everything about him.