C-list celebrities I have known — or — the glamorous life of a rustbelt PR guy

My name is Bill, and I’m a blogoholic. I’d planned to stay away from this place until May 15, but found too many reasons to indulge my addiction.

PR is a pretty glamorous career, isn’t it?

I field that question 2-3 times a semester.  It’s usually posed by a freshmen who’s watched way too many reruns of “Sex and the City.” Yep, Samantha Jones sure had fun. But that’s not PR — at least not here in the Rustbelt.

“You mean you’ve never worked with celebrities?” they ask. Well, yeah, I have. But we’re not talkin’ Brad & Angelina. My celebrities were from the “C” list — great folks with interesting achievements, but we never worried about eluding the papparazi when they came to town.

I spent my career in blue-collar towns — Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo —  cities A-list celebs fly over but seldom visit. It’s easy to be famous in those towns.

My “Famous 5”

In the spirit of social media, I’ve decided to mimic one of the latest memes on Facebook:  “5 Famous People I’ve Met.”  But in this case, “famous” is relative.

birdMark “The Bird” Fidrych was the toast of Major League Baseball in 1976 when, at age 21, he went 19-9 and posted the best ERA in the majors. Injuries plagued him after that dream season, but anyone who followed the Tigers that year will never forget The Bird’s antics. When Mark got into a jam, he would turn his back on the hitter, pause for a moment and talk to the baseball. He was one of a kind. Mark died this past Monday at age 54.

I met The Bird oh-so briefly in 1980, his last year in the majors. I was 27 and my career was just taking off. Mark was 26, and his career, at least in baseball, was pretty much over. Mark came out an hour before game time to sign autographs for families my client was entertaining at the stadium. I arranged the session and personally handed Mark his honorarium of $125 cash.

squirtBilly Albaugh, aka, “Little Squirt.” I can’t find an Internet link to Billy so you’ll have to take my word on this one. I met Billy in 1978 when he was the official spokesman for Squirt soda pop. I was hired to handle his promo tour of Detroit, and it was no easy pitch. You see, Billy was a dwarf. That’s right, a 3′ 6″ dwarf who proudly called himself “Little Squirt.” It was un-PC even 30 years ago, but clients do funny things sometimes.

Billy shilled for Squirt, but his message was really about people with disabilities. “You know, every time a developer equips a building for people with handicaps, it also helps short people,” he said. (ADA wasn’t passed until 1990). Billy said he was especially thankful for the low profile urinals. After all, he drank a lotta soda pop while on the road. I still have the Squirt salt-and-pepper shakers Billy game me 30 years ago. He’s one of those C-listers I’ll never forget.

blatnickJeff Blatnick won the Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in 1984 after recovering from Hodgekin’s lymphoma. His heroic story as a cancer survivor is more gripping than Lance Armstrong’s. But Jeff labored in an obscure sport with little popular or media following. Still, his “comeback” story made him a favorite on the banquet circuit, especially in his native Upstate New York.

That’s where I briefly met Jeff — two or three times if memory serves — while I helped clients promote their charity banquets. According to wikipedia, Jeff is a high school wrestling coach and still works the rubber chicken circuit as a motivational speaker. His story remains inspirational some 25 years later.

kaplanStanley Kaplan. Chances are you know someone who turned to Kaplan, Inc., when trying to raise his or her college board scores. I handled Kaplan’s publicity tour of Buffalo back in the mid-80s, and it was no easy sell to the media. After booking a few radio interviews and a morning TV show, the education writer at the town’s only daily paper turned down my pitch saying it was a “tad commercial.” Duh!

But sometimes you get lucky. Turns out the writer mentioned my pitch to her editor later that day. As it happens, the editor’s daughter had boosted her SAT scores by nearly 100 points by taking the Kaplan course. Result: a major feature story in the Buffalo News. Whew! There’s a fluffy line on Kaplan’s web page that says: Our mission is to help individuals achieve their educational and career goals. That’s pretty much what Kaplan told me when we had dinner more than 20 years ago. He got rich doing it, but he was the real deal.

Coondog Okarma is famous for eating.

Coondog Okarma is famous for eating. (blogcleveland)

Dave “Coondog” Okarma made his name by eating — “competitive eating.” He set his first world record in 1974, snarfing down 45 hard boiled eggs in just over 8 minutes. Coondog also is a world-class competitor in speed eating of hotdogs, hamburgers and donuts. Alas, I never publicized an eating contest, but met Dave only last summer when I bought his mom’s house here in the Rustbelt. The other Sledzik blogger lives there now, and last I checked his rent is current.

There were more celebs along the way. In 1980, I spent a weekend in Cincinnati with country music legend Marty Robins. And let’s not forget the day I spoke with Howard Stern on the phone, back when he was an obscure potty-mouthed DJ at Detroit’s W4. I made more money than Howard back then. Not sure what went wrong, as I’m smarter and way better looking than that dude.

I know what you’re thinking. Who? And so what? But that’s PR in the Rustbelt, my friends. Welcome to my world!

4 Responses to C-list celebrities I have known — or — the glamorous life of a rustbelt PR guy

  1. Rob Jewell says:

    Hey, welcome back. No point fighting the blogging addiction.

  2. guhmshoo says:

    Well, the first stage in dealing with addiction is to admit you have a problem.

  3. Shelley Prisco says:

    Howard Stern needs to find seclusion in the Earth’s core somewhere. He really has no value in media. At least you have credibility. What does that jackass have??? Bad hair, to name one example, and virtually no credibility where it really matters. Credibility isn’t a requirement in the entertainment (in his case… the smut world)industry. No need to compare…

  4. Michelle (Rusnak) Singleton says:

    Billy Albaugh was my great uncle (my paternal grandmother’s brother). Thanks for mentioning him here. He was a fantastic man and we as children always looked forward to his visits to Mingo Junction, Ohio.

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