Working For Buttons
April 15, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
When I first entered the business in Chicago, I only had one contact. An actress I met at Northwestern gave me the name and phone number of her agent. I really had no idea what to expect. As a theatre actor in Indiana, I didn’t need an agent. So, I had no idea how to go about finding an agent or acting work in Chicago. I didn’t even have headshots. All I had was a resume of the plays I performed in.
I had only one phone number so I called it.
My friend’s agent was Shirley Hamilton. In 1972, Shirley’s office was a very busy place. The first time I walked into the office it was filled wall to wall with actors I had seen on television and in plays on my trips to Chicago. I felt like I was in way over my head. But, I had a meeting with Shirley and a couple of other agents in the office, and they gave me the name of a photographer to shoot some photos of me because they needed pictures to submit.
The photographer was Sally Geisel, and she shot some really good pictures of me. Sally told me I was funny and photographed well. The agents in Shirley’s office liked the shots and said it would be okay to for me to check in with them.
For the first month I would stop in once a day to show my face and say my name so they would get to know me. But I would also stay and talk with other actors to find out how they found work. And then I would call the agency at the end of the day to see if there were any auditions I could go on the next day. At the end of the first month, I netted no auditions. It took almost another full month of checking in twice a day for agents to start remembering me. One day one of the agents took mercy on me and got me a job as one of sixty extras on a Sears Commercial.
That was enough to keep me going.
But the agents at Shirley’s suggested I try to register with other agents. They really didn’t know what to do with me. So, I hit the street and registered with every agent I could. I registered with Emilia Lorence, A Plus, The Seaman Agency, M.I. Agent, The Geddes Agency, Norm Schucart, Eileen Slater, and even Playboy. I got to meet a bigger network of people, and I checked in at more places every day.
Finally one day, I got a call from Shirley’s office for an audition. They were going to only put five actors on the audition, and I was going to be the fifth. I always liked auditioning last so I was pretty excited. Each of the actors didn’t stay in the room long, but the actor who went right before me came out of the audition angry.
He threw the script at Shirley, and questioned why she would put him on an *#%?x! audition like that!
Shirley apologized to him and soothed his ruffled feathers. Then she smoothed out the copy of the crumpled script he threw at her, and she handed the script to me and said: “You’ll be perfect for this.” So, I walked through the door and won the audition because I was the only actor desperate enough to do the job.
Shirley remembered I was a graduate assistant in the Scenery Department at Northwestern, and the producer wanted an actor who could set up scenery and act. So, I was the perfect person for the job.
I hired on the spot to do a five-minute show, four times an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week, for five straight weeks in shopping malls. So, I did 240 performances in five weeks. In the advertising business, this type of show is called a trade show. Shows like these usually involve meeting consumers in public places and giving them something for free. This show was for Standard Oil. I did a little comedy, showed a film, and then passed out free replica historic presidential campaign buttons. Mall patrons also got a chance to win a replica Model T Ford.
I was paid $250.00 a week for malls in Chicago, but in Indianapolis I got a per diem of $125.00 a week to cover my gas, meals, and hotel rooms. (Two years earlier, the Army was paying me $89.00 a month so this seemed like a really good paying job to me.) But, getting this job was a turning point in my career. I finally won an audition in Chicago, and I was paying an agent a weekly commission. By doing a job no body else wanted, I guess I proved I was willing to be easy to work with and I let the agents at Shirley’s know I was grateful for the work.
When I told them of my adventure doing forty shows a day in a shopping mall, I think they felt sorry for me and started putting me on better auditions. My next audition was for a local Detroit television commercial as a spokesman for a carpet store, Beckwith Evans Carpet, and I won that audition, too. (Since they gave me my first commercial, I still recommend them to anyone who needs to buy carpet in Detroit.) And I even got to join AFTRA as a result of doing that commercial which led to me get many more auditions and commercials. But the Trade Show job helped me get an agent, and it was my first big break in Chicago Advertising.