Sorgel-Lee, Part 1: Call Us SLI Multimedia Industries.
Reprinting and repurposing “Some Thoughts on 25 Years in the “A-V” Industry”, circa 1998 (as published).
This chronicle began in 1997 when I celebrated 25 years in the industry. I am updating it and representing it now because I’ve been around long enough to see patterns emerge that might be worth sharing. Even in high-tech media, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When I began, in 1972, we called what we did “multimedia”, which essentially meant, “anything but motion picture film, cause we can’t afford it.”
We were using two slide projectors, a dissolve unit, a tape deck, and a “pulse box”. The pulse box timed the slide changes to the soundtrack. The dissolve unit meant there was always light on the screen. And the images slowly dissolved at a constant rate of about a second and a half, which added a kind of sequential hypnotic beauty.
The appeal of this kind of slide show was that it allowed a great deal of communication for very little investment. We were smart enough to know the importance of the soundtrack to the success of the show (imagine Star Wars without John Williams) and to the perception of our efforts as being professional. We kept the entire slides horizontal, so as to not break the movie-style wide-screen look. Thus for the price of a couple of rolls of film, some reel-to-reel tape, a couple of records, and some voiceovers, we created an illusion. That’s value-added!
The “we” was my partner Ric Sorgel. We met senior year of college. I “hired” him as a photographer for the yearbook. I was photo editor my senior year, a post they gave to prior editors-in-chief. In the second semester, all your photographers took powders after their parents told them to get their grades up. Ric walked in with a sample sheet and a new Canon camera. I was stunned at the quality of his work, and, after teaching him to print black and white in the basement lab at the Journalism school, retired myself as a photographer and let him make me look good.
I had done slide shows in college. I was stunned by people’s reactions to them. In my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, I produced picture and music shows for the year-end publications banquets. A professor, Louis Belden, had introduced me to the Kodak dissolve control, which took two slide projectors and added a dissolve effect so that one picture from one projector would fade into the other when both projectors were pointed at the same screen area. I had done most of this work myself, with the notable addition of some excellent photography by Chuck Danis, a J-school student.
The difference senior year was that Ric and I created our first show together not out of random images but instead with photography and a soundtrack that tried to tell something of a story. The Dean of the school — he was not entirely well-liked or understood — was retiring. So were the seniors. It had been a contentious year, this being the end of the ’60s and all that. We tried to bring everyone together with our show.
At the “Top of the Marine”, a Milwaukee restaurant at the top of the (what else) Marine Bank Building, a couple of hundred students and professors and Jesuits heard a variety of editors, students, and activists rag on about this and that. Being Milwaukee, the beer was flowing freely. Finally, after a bunch of awards and dinner, our show ran. When it was over, there were tears, applause, and a general sense of love in the room. Hey, everyone was even sorry to see the Dean go (we had a little sequence of him driving his VW bug off into the sunset). Ok, the booze helped. But Ric and I looked at each other and said, “Hmmmmm…”
We talked about starting a business. I went home for the summer, to New Jersey. Ric lived in Milwaukee. Although I had been a summer reporter for my hometown newspaper, The Home News, and I had a lucrative offer, I wanted to come back to Milwaukee to start the business. Fact is, I had to come back to Milwaukee since I was short 3 college credits. Ric was too. In remedial language class (they have you read Don Quixote in English) Ric and I planned the business. We would produce slide shows, for money. For whom, we didn’t know. We’d talk more after the holidays.
I went back home for Christmas, without a firm commitment from Ric. His father, a famous Milwaukee industrialist, was after him to get a real job. I was going to avoid all that parental pressure by moving to Milwaukee, which my wife and I did, saying goodbye forever to job offers from Central Jersey. We returned to Milwaukee, with little cash and a lot of hope, and with no sign of Ric. Finally, in the second week of January, he came back from a skiing trip. He was in. And he had a couple of slide projectors! I had the tape deck. We looked around for a used dissolve.
On February first, he and his girlfriend at the time helped move my wife and I from 23rd street (Dahmer territory) to Cass Street (Northwestern Mutual territory), and our new one-bedroom efficiency apartment ($135 a month). We called the company SLI Multimedia, among other things.
SLI stood for Sorgel Lee Industries. It sounded big on those bingo cards you fill out for free information in the back of trade magazines. We got a PO Box at the main post office (Box 135) and used my phone number as our office number. My wife answered the phone, and Ric worked out of our “studios”, his studio apartment at Northridge Lakes across town.
Nothing happened for a month. Ric’s dad was already saying, “I told you so”.
We knew we had to scare up some business. We weren’t sure how, and we weren’t even sure what. Luckily, some friends came through. Ric’s friend Mike Kiefer ran an aluminum fabricating company called, oddly enough, Kiefer Corporation. We were paid $135 dollars to produce a ten-minute slide show touting this company’s kitchen sink fabrication capabilities. The Marquette College of Journalism, always interested in a success story, hired us to produce a graduation banquet show for the 1972 class, for $150 dollars. We were on our way.
We found a printer on 27th street, running a print shop out of his basement. The end result made it obvious we were his first customer.
Drunk with power (and with Andre’s Cold Duck, our Celebration Liquid of Choice), we “hired” my friend Dave English to make cold calls for us. We paid him $10 per contact, which led to many meaningless contacts. And, not quite clear on what we were selling, we convinced a mutual friend Mark Weber to design a “twin-dissolve box” to hold our slide projectors, cassette deck, and dissolve control, thereby making us look more official. We found out some months later that it had already been done. It wasn’t the first time we let technology wag the dog.
As part of our agreement, I insisted that despite Ric’s fairly comfortable financial status (his father had set up a nice trust fund for him) we would always be 50–50 in the business. This meant that, in essence, since I had no dough to put into the business, he couldn’t either. This may seem laughable today when cash is everything, but things were slower then. Chopped meat was 59 cents a pound, a 16 piece Meurer’s chicken bucket with potato wedges and a banana cream pie was 3.99, and a cold sixer of PBR was 1.99. We’d survive.
I’m writing this because I believe web pages should be updated and I haven’t been updating this one (brienleecreative.com, now obsolete) much. So, stay tuned, as I attempt each week to write a revisionist history of my career. I’ll cover the changes in technology, storytelling techniques, personalities (mine and others), and the various attempts I’ve had at making it big. I’m generally kind to everyone, so don’t be afraid to look this over if you think you might be in it.