Iron Workers, Linda D., and El Robbo’s Arena!
The Metropolitan Block Building, 1012 N. Third Street, was built in 1890. It was next to Usingers, kitty-corner to the Milwaukee Journal Building, across the street from discount shoes, a greasy spoon, derelict bars, and Mader’s Castle-like German Restaurant.This massive five-story office building had once housed many of the city’s offices and courts, until the building of City Hall in 1896.
We bought 35mm slide film at Reimers Photo, its main tenant, and had our processing done at Pro-Lab, a 35mm slide film processor that had taken space on the “Metro Block”s second floor.
We were looking for office space, but as often happens, fate stepped in and pushed the envelope. Pro-Lab wanted out of their space. On a sales call, Ric was effused about the possibilities. I wasn’t convinced until I saw what Pro-Lab was leaving behind — two unfinished film “changing booths, constructed within their 400 or so square foot space, that screamed “audio studio!” to me.
We took over the lease, for $200 bucks a month. We bought white ceramic letters to pin to the door: “S-L-I Multimedia”. The “I” cracked as we pressed it on.
Our neighbors were the Ironworkers Local Union office, a toy train importer, and beneath us, Roman’s Bar, which had cheap beer, the thinnest chili imaginable, and a good jukebox. There was also the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, and Black Forest Imports. No wonder,it was renamed “Old World Third Street”.
We — actually Ric — went about decorating the office. He went to K-Mart and found (for twenty bucks a roll) some amazing striped carpet that best could be called “Rainbow” — it was like a large bath towel. We erected, with his brother Dave’s help. a wall helping break the office into two sections and finished off the changing rooms into audio booths through the use of paneling, leftover carpet, and a glassed-in hole in the wall to make one of the sections an announcer’s booth.
We were in the office for three years. And in retrospect, those were probably the most amazing three years of our existence. During that time we went from two or three “jobs”, to a spectrum of continuing relationships, borrowed money from a bank, got our staff size to six, and became the “hot shop” in town.
In the previous chapter, we mentioned some of our selling philosophies — always having something to show the potential client that seemed to relate. As an example, we quickly got work from all the major arts groups, thanks to my high school friend and college roommate Mike Krawczyk. Mike was P.R. Director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. They needed a “slide talk” for their speaker’s bureau. He asked if we were interested — we were. There was a modest cash payment involved. That show can be viewed below. It’s rough, and it’s a best guess recreation of what it looked like as projected slides, but it does give a hint of the style and creative techniques that would be our hallmark throughout our careers.
The Rep begat the symphony, begat the Art Museum, Begat UPAF, begat the Library, etc. Industrial shows (how to make valves) begat other industrial shows. And by volunteering to produce the Milwaukee Advertising Club’s Awards show, we exposed our talents to a wide range of advertisers and agencies.
Ric and I did all the hands-on for the first 18 months or so, Then, realizing we had more work than we could handle, we first sought to find someone who had a combination of both of our qualities — i.e., could write, shoot, sell, edit, and also bring an additional dimension to the firm.
That person was Rob Riordan. Son of a storied newspaper writer and P.R. man, Rob was accomplished in his own right. He was a shooter /writer for WBAY in Green Bay. he had been the editor of the Newspaper at Marquette. He was into politics and politicos. He had heard from the grapevine we were hot. And he wanted in.
I thought this was cool. Rob was two years ahead of me at Marquette, and had been one of the people, like myself, that held title to the cherished “906 North 14th Street party Apartment a block from the J-School”. I knew he was damn good if a tad bit more serious about things than either Ric or I. And he did film, based on his reporter’s job at WBAY in Green Bay (Packers! Woo!). We wanted to be fully multimedia; videotape at the industrial level didn’t yet exist, and he was our ticket to motion.
Ric was less enthused, especially when Rob attached a string — if it worked out, in a year he’d be a partner. “Yeah, sure”, we said, looking only at the amount of labor we could get for $125 a week (significantly less than his market value, Rob would later remind us).
But a handshake deal was done, additional office space was taken, and Rob added new contacts, stature, and capability to the combination. Soon he took over a great deal of the writing from me so that I could concentrate on the audio and general creative direction.
Soon we were working for Schlitz, First Wisconsin, and NML. We even began doing filmed PSA’s for our charity accounts, some of which made major splashes. And then, for the second Ad Club presentation we did, we were able to mix slides, film, audio, and celebrity appearances into a cohesive presentation that was surely a combination of the best of all our talents.
In those first few years, we quickly moved from emphasizing the technology of slides to the brainpower behind them. Evidence of this was the hire of Linda Duczman, a 1973 Marquette grad. Recommended to us by beloved J-School office manager Ed Pepan, Linda met the qualifications. She would work half a day as a secretary receptionist, and half a day as a writer. She did our books, answered the phones, improved our location interviewing style (many of our charity shows consisted of interviews cut into continuity in the classic documentary style of the ‘60\\), and eventually took on the writing of the “everyday” script.
But here’s Linda’s Story, in Linda’s words:
25 YEARS IN A-V
Call it “luck.” After almost 25 years I am still involved in “multimedia,” because, as luck would have it, the Appleton Post Crescent called two weeks too late … the PR Director of the Milwaukee Rep decided he needed a salary increase more than a PR Assistant … Ed Pepan had a job “lead” … and, I had only the vaguest idea of where I wanted to be professionally in 25 years. So, when Brien Lee, Ric Sorgel and Rob Riordan offered me the job of Scriptwriter/Receptionist/Bookkeeper for Sorgel-Lee Multimedia, I took it
After a few months, I asked why they hired me. I’d asked the same question when I finished a PR internship the previous summer and should have known better. Then I’d found out I was one of 3 applicants — the first never made the interview, the other arrived, boyfriend in tow, explaining that she hoped to pursue a career in hospitality management. And there was me.
Ric, Rob and Brien agreed I was singularly unimpressive. But lucky me, I was again outstanding in an exclusive field of candidates. There may have been another applicant. Also, I would work cheap, was not put off by the office’s beach blanket striped carpeting, and failed to notice their new scriptwriter would lack a phone, desk or typewriter.
I knew Ric and Brien vaguely from Marquette. Ric had taken a remarkable sequence of photos of a co-ed slipping and falling in the mud near the Student Union. He’d rushed off without helping her up; the photos appeared later in the Marquette Tribune.
Brien was a stern faced journalism major who always walked fast, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. As yearbook editor, he’d produced a highly creative book whose highlights included a photo of a toilet bowl and a “record” review of the year in sound.
Rob came from a Milwaukee “journalism” family and had graduated from Marquette just before my freshman year. A news cameraman in Green Bay for a few years, he had just joined Brien and Ric that Spring, bringing them his film expertise.
My first script is buried deep in the paper trail of clutter that documents my longevity. I strongly suspect it is not the literary equivalent of an early Picasso, so it will remain “lost.” It may have been written for either Lutheran Social Services or Cutler-Hammer — two of Sorgel-Lee’s earliest clients.
LSS remains memorable, because the client insisted on adding the phrase, “And so it goes …” to the wrap-up. That was not the level of “brilliant” word play I wanted in my script. In fact, we may have forgotten to record it when the soundtrack was produced. And so it goes …
Cutler-Hammer was a better experience. Our program was selling the services of their tool room to the company at large. Howard, a retired gentleman who was script contact told me I’d handled the subject so well, he wondered if I’d like to be a tool and die apprentice. Now this was fun.
As prehistoric as “then” appears from “now” and a computer age perspective, “technology” was one of the major attractions of multi-media. Still images moved “like film”, dissolving one into another. You had a powerful, component package of words, voices, music and images. Not unlike the world of web pages and computer graphics today, 20-somethings in young companies worked on technology’s cutting edge.
In time for my first day on the job, they had acquired a desk, chair, phone and a big blue, IBM Correcting Selectric on which to type final script drafts. We consumed boxes and boxes of correcting tape.
We also consumed vast quantities of audio and cassette tape. I learned to wear big ear muff headphones and “cut” tape using a straight edge razor and an old 1/4 inch deck with exposed heads. I used my first professional microphone and wind screen. I learned that a good audio person could save an interview recorded with insufficient signal, or too hot — but he wouldn’t be happy about it. We were always rummaging for RCA’s, phono plugs and adaptors and eventually I learned the difference.
Gravely voiced Jerry Davis from Chicago was our own personal, 3M Rep. 3M pioneered “convenient” slide projector-tape recorder combinations. These single suitcases weighing 50 plus pounds would pass no test for ergonomic correctness. A physically small person, I tried to make carrying them look effortless as we “proved” to clients their bulk did not out weigh their convenience.
The early days of A-V were filled with dust, cans of compressed air, paper, plastic and glass (Wess) slide mounts; ortho film, colored gels and thousands of gravity feed slide trays — 80 and 140’s. I learned “photo” speak — bracketing a half stop up and down. We “push processed” film.
We learned even simple technology can be fickle when the trusty Kodak dissolve unit failed to advance slides in the First Wisconsin Center program during a sales call. There was the rag time music cue, but the flapper next to the RCA Victrola did not appear on screen. In manual override mode, Brien reached for the unit and pulsed us through to the end of the show — cut- cut- 2 second dissolve- cut- cut …
The Spindler and Sauppe Dynamic Que Dissolve became state of the art, then AVL’s Show Pro series of dedicated multi-media computers. And in what now seems like over night, there were more computers, 32 projector shows, video and finally video projection …
One of my all time favorite pieces of music is the “Eighteenth Variation on a Theme of Paganini.” I think of multi-media today, computer style, as the eighteenth variation on a theme of communication. It is components joined to tell a powerful, more exciting story. It is so different from what A-V was 25 years ago. And, it is so very much the same.
I think we’re still paying off the IBM Selectric.
I know we’re still paying off our screening room.
Multi-Image In the Round
After producing a monster multimedia show in the round for the Milwaukee Art Center (“The Urban River”, one reason Milwaukee is finally Riverwalk Crazy), we decided we needed a showroom to show our stuff in. We were making money, so we went after a loan. The M&I, and a decent guy by the name of Dennis Finnegan, bit. They loaned us $20,000 to build a “state of the art” multimedia projection room, in office space across the hall that looked like it had been last occupied just prior to city hall opening.
We were able to build up our audio studio — from a single four-track deck and a six-dollar Olsen brand battery operated mixer to a couple of tape decks, a nice mixer, pro-turntables, and an old “Roberts” tape deck Rob brought in. We loved the Roberts; it didn’t raise the tape off the heads so you could edit (splice) tape easily. We ran cables from the studio into the booth and used the voice talents of our friend and later employee Steve Lutomski — usually at night, though, when the traffic at Roman’s was down. (We had a deal where we could call them to pull the plug on the jukebox so long as we stopped in after the session).
Our staff consisted of Ric, Rob, Linda, Brien, Steve, Greg Latsch (photography), and Dave Sorgel, Artist (and carpenter). We were working for the Journal, all of the Arts, TV6, Schlitz, Howard Johnson’s, A&P, and a host of others.
We would break the tension with occasional games of Nerf basketball in “El Robbo’s Arena”, a large open space where Rob’s desk would have been had we gotten him one (actually, he was in another room next door.)
Linda mastered the art of fixing the Xerox machine (the one where you fed the master into the machine and Xerox charged you six cents a copy). We ate lunch at the Press Club. Occasionally we (sometimes me) would get drunk and blow off an afternoon. We had parties to celebrate anniversaries, new jobs, birthdays, you name it. As far as we knew, we were unique. We like that. Of course, this story was happening all across the country with other misfits just like us, and an industry was brewing.
We were learning to play with the big boys. We were doing meetings for the Credit Union Executives Society (A former employer of Linda’s), Schlitz, and high profile PSA’s for everyone (the Rep, Library, Symphony).
My own personal watershed event was landing a big multimedia show for the Milwaukee Journal, to tout their “Availabilities” to local advertisers at the Performing Arts Center. The result was a 45-minute piece of multimedia that covered the history of Milwaukee, the history of the Journal, and a laundry list of neat places in the Journal you could advertise. I wrote a script that was ok. And then I went to the Journal’s 3rd-floor conference room for a script review with what I thought might be two or three people, including Jack Koller, our contact, and marketing Director Newell Meyer.
I opened the door to see about 20 people seated around a table! How I survived that review, I’ll never know.
We were having our share of success, and handling it well. For now, the balance of pressure, release, and success was just right.
Then I got a phone call on the Saturday before Christmas, 1975, from Steve Lutomski. In his inimitable voice, he said “Sorry to wake, you but the building’s on fire.”.
“No,” he added, “I’m not kidding”.