TMI Department: “Circus Halbert”

Tuesday, 3:39pm
Reno, NV
Well, you’re sitting back, in your rose-pink cadillac…” (Stones, “Dead Flowers”)

Howdy…

I’ve been going through shoeboxes stuffed with old photos, discovering treasure right and left.

Hard to believe some of this stuff is decades past, but since I’m forever being asked what it was like working so closely with Gary Halbert for so many years, I thought you might get a kick out of some virtual album-viewing.

This month, April, is the fifth anniversary of Gary’s exit from this mortal coil. He remains dearly missed, and the great work he accomplished in his career still reverberates loudly among entrepreneurs (including those who only learned about him long after he split).

I was just hosting our Platinum Mastermind group, in San Francisco, this past weekend… and damned if Gary’s teachings and stories didn’t pop up in the interplay frequently and with shocking relevance. His effect on the marketing world was profound. I am one lucky, happy bastard to have spent so much quality time with him as co-conspirator, partner and close friend.

In fact, I’m staring at my phone right now, knowing that if he was still alive, he’d be calling right about now. To chew over some absurd matter in life, to share business gossip, to discuss a book, to float new project ideas, to rip into life with gusto again and again and love every freakin’ second of it.

The teachings of Gary will endure. There are precious few videos out there with him, but that’s all right — his audios, which are plentiful, are like experiencing him in your brain, and I recommend them. His sons, Bondo and Kevin, are doing an amazing job keeping Gary’s prolific writings available (and relevant).

Still, you kinda had to be there in the room with him to get the full brunt of his personality. He was truly a force of nature, unique, powerful and unwilling to settle for anything less than spectacular in his dealings with the universe.

Anyway, if you haven’t read my post “For Gary” yet (which I wrote in the hours after learning of his unexpected, untimely passing) go here.

You’ll find multiple other postings related to the dude all over the blog archives, too. All free, of course.

But today, I’m just gonna share a few photos I’ve dug up, and maybe a related story or two.

Gone, but never forgotten, pal.

Photo #1: Up top, with Gary leaning against his car.

Okay, so I’ve been told it’s coral pink, not rose pink. (Remember, I’m red-green color blind.) And it’s a Rolls, not a Caddy.

Still, Gary loved the Rolling Stones (and the quote I open with, above)… believing himself to be the advertising world’s embodiment of Mick Jagger. And he was, too. I tried to teach him how to play guitar a couple of times (at his insistence), but what he really wanted was for it to be 1964 again… so he could form a rock band and rule the world.

We never trashed hotel rooms… but we did tour the country, and worked our stages with panache and boldness and a rock-and-roll attitude that shocked our audiences. Until, that is, Gary’s unique marketing advice broke through (thanks to the stunning results he insisted on compiling, in spite of the naysayers who wanted to keep business boring)…

… after which, it really did become a kind of road show. (See the Circus Halbert poster, below.) Each day was an unpredictable stew of surprises and horrors and gut-busting fun.

Favorite Memory: Gary bought that Rolls in Los Angeles, for his girlfriend. The big secret was that used Rolls Royces were actually pretty cheap — the folks who drove them mostly wanted only new ones. Still, it was a fancy freakin’ automobile, with all these vulnerable parts to it, and Gary was loathe to ever drive it.

One day, up in the Hollywood Hills, we had to get somewhere, and he decided I was gonna drive the Rolls — again, officially his girlfriend’s car. So we got in, and I tried to quickly familiarize myself with the cockpit. Looked straightforward enough, until I let off the parking brake before turning on the ignition. In a Rolls, the brakes don’t work if the car ain’t running.

Seriously. No foot brakes. The car was parked on a steep hill, and we instantly started rolling backwards, picking up speed.

Oh, wait, did I mention that the STEERING doesn’t work, either, with the engine off?

In a second, we were careening downhill, backwards, with no control. About to go off-road.

Gary and I looked at each other and screamed in unison. Doing the 3 Stooges proud.

The car slammed into the hillside and stopped. We got out and surveyed the damage — not much, it looked like. We decided to never, never tell the girlfriend. Pinky swear. I started the car (having figured out the idiosyncrasies of the damned thing) and we headed toward our meeting.

A block later, a Mercedes tailed up close behind and began honking, so I pulled over. It was David Caradine (“Grasshopper”), who had noticed our tailpipe was stuffed with dirt. Probably would have caused the engine to blow up. He got down on his knees and yanked out clumps until it was clean, then stood, smiled, and got back in his Mercedes, job well done.

I looked at Gary. “That was weird, right?”

“In a Rolls, we’re just part of the Hollywood Tribe,” he said, and we continued on our adventure.

Career Lesson: You really should try to know what the hell you’re doing before embarking on a project. However, faced with an obvious lack of knowledge and simultaneously causing real damage… at least get a good story out of it. (And no, I never drove the Rolls again, my choice.)

Photo #2: Gary at his Big Desk in the 9000 building on Sunset Blvd, with girlfriend…

I love this photo. It was a peak moment, soon after I joined his operation as a writer and co-hort. Clients were bribing us to take them on (and we had so many offers, we were turning down even stupid-lucrative projects with a shrug)… Gary had a stable home life in the Hollywood Hills and a great office with a great view… plus his newly-acquired boat, The Sea Hunt, was anchored nearby in Marina Del Mar…

… and I was having so much fun and adventure, I resented having to sleep at night to recharge. There was so much happening, so much to learn and profit from and laugh about, that you just never wanted it to stop. And it didn’t, for a very long and happy stretch.

We actually were a pretty tight advertising team, Gary and I. The now-infamous term “Operation MoneySuck” was coined to define Gary’s habit of closing the door of his office — locking the assistants and secretaries outside to deal with the small-shit problems (like the landlord making a fuss, the printer crashing, emergency calls flooding in, etc) — so we could concentrate on closing clients, plotting campaigns, and finishing copy.

You know — the activity that brings in the moolah.

Still… no one would ever confuse our offices with a “normal” ad agency. Gary had a peculiar quirk: He actually functioned better amidst chaos, than when things were calm. Wrote some of his best ads by hand in airports, putting off boarding til the last second. Liked to spread absurdly-false rumors to the staff moments before starting a seminar, so everyone was running around anxious, with tensions flaring (until we got hip to his scheme). He hated relaxed situations. Just hated them.

Favorite Memory: Once, while road-dogging around the Keys (definition: Goofing off), we swung by the office to “see how things were going.”

The place was humming like a well-oiled machine. Phones getting answered, files being filed, stuff gettin’ done. So Gary got busy screwing it all up. By the time we left, five minutes later, there were papers fluttering through the air, ignored phones ringing angrily, a chair knocked over with a crash, and everyone running around like the joint was on fire, with hair out of place and files spilling from their arms.

I swear that Gary never touched anything. He just gave some conflicting instructions, whispered something in a secretary’s ear that instantly set her off, and capriciously changed the deadline for some upcoming project. It was like introducing a herd of bison onto a smoothly flowing freeway — immediate chaos.

And we went back to our road-dogging, Gary smugly happy about another job well done.

Career Lesson: After a year as Gary’s sidekick, I dubbed his operation “Circus Halbert”, and commissioned this poster from an artist friend (Mark Landstrom) for Gary’s birthday. Because, like a real circus, what looked like barely-tethered madness was actually a well-tested method of getting stuff done. (The poster now proudly hangs in Bond’s home.)

I’d been toiling for “real” agencies and the largest direct mailers in the world until then… and I realized that getting actual results (like winning packages, and bloated profits) had nothing whatsoever to do with how well-run the office was. Or how close you operated to a protocol that made accountants and Vice Presidents happy.

We were a small rebel band, solving problems as we went, far ahead of the main column and into territory that freaked out everyone else. It’s not an environment that just anyone can thrive in — you gotta have real entrepreneur blood in your veins, and a taste for risk that brings other men to their knees. Plus: A huge sense of humor about the whole thing.

Don’t sweat the small shit. And don’t allow “common sense” to overwhelm your instincts, once you’re proven to yourself that your gut has been trained to be right more often than not.

Photo #4: Trying to film the madness.

Yeah, yeah, we look like a bad late-80s Hair Band… but I swear to you this was all normal at the time.

Hey, go check out your own photos from 1990, if you were around then. Goofy glasses, gnarly haircuts (with perms galore), and zero sense of style.

Yep. We had to work our coolness with no tools. It was raw, and to my mind better: Nowadays, you can fake being hip by buying the right clothes and paying close attention to minute-by-minute style changes… and not have a shred of substance. Why you’d do that, I cannot fathom, but it’s pretty rampant in the culture.

Here, we have Mr Cool himself, the great Dan Kennedy… who had organized an infomercial centered on Gary, shot on this Key West wharf and in a Phoenix studio. Using my boyhood baseball hero, Dodger flame-thrower Don Drysdale (rotation-mate of Sandy Koufax, probably the best pitcher the game has ever seen) as the celebrity interviewer. (That’s him on the far left.)

I’m there to cause trouble (and keep Gary on track). His girlfriend did the girlfriend thang, keeping it from descending into a Boy’s Club.

Sadly, the infomerical never scored as a big hit. Dan did a great job, but it was a doomed experiment to try selling serious biz advice and advertising tactics to drunken late-night TV viewers. Didn’t work. Damn, it was fun making it, though.

Favorite Memory: Gary and I actually wrote some of the very first infomercials in the late 80s… when a client discovered he could book late-night spots on cable for nothing — literally nothing, it was FREE broadcast time because the stations didn’t believe anyone could sell anything at 2am, ever — and summoned us down to a local LA studio where he scored scrap time with cameras and sets. The dude got filthy rich before the cable TV world wised up and realized the bonanza that was late-night programming.

He really had the whole process nailed down: Cheapest studio time available, whatever set was laying around, zero production values (like lighting, make-up, or rehearsals). If he had secured an hour on, say, the BET network that night, then he shot exactly one hour’s worth of a show. No editing. Warts and all, that thing went live.

There wasn’t much writing for me to do, either. Mr. Infomerical had found some inventor who had a product (I don’t even remember what it was) that might sell on late-night TV. So I sat the inventor down and interviewed him for notes, looking for hooks and ways to position the thing as “must have”. Then I gave the notes to Mr. Info… who never bothered to introduce himself to the inventor before the cameras started rolling. The first minutes of tape had Mr Info chattering away like a used car salesman, while the inventor looked around asking “Are we filming already?”

At the hour mark, bang, “Cut!”, Mr. Info walks away to get the film in the can and sent to BET… while the next inventor is brought into the studio looking like dazed prey, and I set about grilling him for talking points. The infomerical would run that night (again, for free)… and if the phone bank in Utah lit up with orders, it ran again. If it bombed, it was tossed, and the next show filmed that afternoon ran in the following spot.

It was a ruthless assembly line, yet with almost no overhead. Mr. Info had figured out the game completely, and made a mint before the secret leaked out to competitors, who promptly introduced the current era of “real” informercials (which, last time I checked, required six figures in production costs and media buys before you even knew if you had a winner or a bomb).

Career Lesson: Everyone agrees that the early days of Internet marketing were like the Wild West — few rules, lots of opportunity, the entire game being created as we went.

Every detail of the way you now market online had to be invented, and the early years of this century are going to be the subject of books, movies and lore forever. Those of us doing the inventing were just clearing a path to get where we needed to go: A viable, safe place where good ol’ capitalism could thrive online.

However, us old-timers knew the bigger secret: EVERY marketplace in history starts out like the Wild West, and follows a similar path to acceptance and viability. It all comes down to fundamental salesmanship and street-level psychology… plus a few copywriting chops, when you’re ready to go after bigger markets.

My career spanned the re-emergence of direct response direct mail (which had gone largely dormant in the 70s), the invasion of the infomercial, the rise of toll-free and reverse-toll (900) phone numbers, the biggest self-publishing boom since Guttenberg inked his first sheet, and the explosion of the Web. (And Gary’s career went even further back, to pre-computerized mailing and the hey-day of print ads.)

And yet, it’s all just different vehicles for a killer sales message. The fundamentals do the heavy lifting, always and forever.

Photo #5: Preparing to prowl and howl at the moon…

Gary and me in his Key West hovel, just before he moved to Miami Beach. Gary left Los Angeles (shortly after we met) because he claimed it didn’t have enough truly sunny days. The guy needed massive quantities of Vitamin D from the sun, and got surly when denied his fix… so he researched the places available boasting the most sunshine, and promptly moved there.

Personally, I despised being a “local” in the Keys. Fun for a day or two, but grinding after a week or more. Hot, humid as hell, populated by drunks, reeked of sulphur, hot, humid, hot and hot year-round. I like my high desert multiple seasons, thanks.

But we had us some times down there, yes we did. He never stayed anywhere very long, though — went from the North Hollywood Hills semi-mansion, to the famous Bahia Mar hotel in Fort Lauderdale, to a trashy compound on Vaca Key (and then a bitchin’ little house on the marina next to his boat), to an entire two-story heritage building in Key West, to multiple apartments in Miami. Working his way north, south and elsewhere.

Favorite Memory: On our first visit to Key West, we docked late and headed out to the tourist area (foolishly) to find a hotel. We made his son Bond sleep on the boat.

But the island was all booked up, even at the usurious rates they charged. Finally, we stumbled across an old hotel on Duvall Street that not only had rooms available, but was absurdly cheap. Like, $14 for the night. So Gary and I each snagged a room, and went back out to cause some trouble downtown.

What we hadn’t noticed — and the signs were obvious — was the hotel we’d picked was so cheap because the rooms usually rented out by the hour. The primarily gay clientele checked in, partied, and left all night long. The plumbing didn’t even work (a dead cockroach fell out of the showerhead when I tried to turn it on). And there were no locks on the doors.

At two a.m., exhausted from travel and carousing, we barricaded the doors of our rooms and tried to catch at least a few z’s while the hotel remained as busy and loud as a prison riot.

Bond was the only one who got any sleep that night, peacefully rocked into slumber by gentle waves. And he never, never let us forget how we thought we’d snookered him into staying on the boat.

Career Lesson: You can get too cocky trusting your snap decision-making process — it’s a trap for all successful entrepreneurs, and the consequences can be brutal. I’ve seen many a biz owner hit it big, and believe his success was all based on his personal mojo and mysterious ability to just be a great marketer right out of the blocks.

And it just ain’t so. You tend to forget the hard work that brought you your early successes (just like women forget about the pain of childbirth, I’ve been told)… and your memory gets warped by your Ego. Your goddamned Ego, which needs to be strangled daily and locked away somewhere safe in your brain… or it will create constant havoc with your ability to make good decisions.

Personally, all of my failures in business and in life are the grist of my best stories. As long as we lived through it (or most of us did), there’s a story to be told. And within that story lies a lesson that may or may not have been learned.

The key to a long, full and successful life is to recognize this, and embrace it, and keep learning.

Also: Learn to laugh at yourself. We’re all Bozo’s on this bus, essentially slap-sticking our way through the universe, shaved apes believing we’re actually noble creatures bending Life to our will.

Ha.

Just, ha.

Photo #6: On the Sea Hunt, heading to paradise.

Gary loved boats and scuba, and was elated to have located one of the original Jeffries dive boats created for the early 60s TV series “Sea Hunt” (which starred Lloyd Bridges as a scuba diver, which is funny because Lloyd hated the ocean and never went underwater for any of the episodes… or so I’ve heard. Good story, anyway.).

I knew a little about small cabin cruisers, because my Pop had ordered one from Sears back in the fifties (seriously — you could even buy pre-fab houses from Sears back then), which arrived in a series of boxes that he had to construct. Had one Mercury outboard engine, a cabin that slept two comfortably, and was the coolest playhouse I had as a kid. He got rid of it before I hit my teens, though, so my memories were a little weak…

… but I seemed to recall that wooden boats were a bitch to maintain. Fiberglass was much more efficient.

But Gary wanted the mojo of that ancient Jeffries, and he had it shipped to Florida when he moved there about a year after I joined his operation. I refused to move, so I became bi-coastal (racking up 100,000 miles on Pan Am very quickly).

On the first trip there, Gary decided his son Bond (then still in high school) and I needed to learn how to scuba dive… so we took the course offered at the Bahia Mar hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. The idea being that we’d get certified, then truck on down to Key West and dive the underwater National Park there (a coral reef). Many stories stem from this simple beginning (including having a former British Special Forces drunk as our teacher, who took us for a wreck dive on our first deep-ocean qualifying dive in the Atlantic, against all PADI regulations) (it was super-cool, though).

This photo is on the Sea Hunt, of Bond and his Pop, cruising down the interstate waterway on our maiden voyage.

Favorite Memory: I’m sitting here laughing, just trying to pick a single memory I can write about here. That damn boat and I have a long, long history together, and I’ve got stories about it that serve as anecdotal evidence both of Gary’s genius and his capacity for creating pandemonium.

Soon after this shot was snapped, though, Gary decided to take a nap… and handed the controls over to me. I, who had never steered a boat before (and certainly not one with crossed-up rudders like the Sea Hunt) (which later explained many of the frequent accidents and collisions with piers and other boats). I did my best, but once we hit an area littered with crab-traps, I was toast. I promptly snagged a buoy rope, which wound around the prop and left us stranded in the water.

Damn it. I put on my mask, and went under to see if I could unwind the rope. Very shallow water, very choppy, with the boat going up and down five feet or more… and I was almost instantly conked by the hull and knocked unconscious for a moment. I awoke floating in seaweed, with Bond pulling me aboard. Bond grabbed a knife and went back under, managing to cut the rope and free us, and off we rumbled again toward the middle Keys.

The boat had failed in its first attempt to murder me.

Career Lesson: The key to long-lasting success… especially when you’re moving fast, and risking mucho while stumbling along doing your thang in strange waters… is to have trustworthy pals watching your back. Cuz we all do stumble, yes we do…

Photo #7: Hot Seat action.

Here’s a scene from one of those infamous $7,000-to-get-in Hot Seat seminars in Key West. (This might have been the time the tropical storm hit and flooded the town — and hotel — and cut the power… which left the entire audience with nothing to do on Day Two except wander downtown and get roaring drunk on Duval Street. They claimed it was the best seminar ever…)

That’s A-List writer David Deutsch behind Gary (who, from the way he’s standing, is deep into either his famous “sorting mail over a trash can” speech, or his biz-op tale involving rutting porcupines).

Favorite Memory: My main job at these events was to be Gary’s straight man — I was on-stage the whole time, keeping track of what was going on, prodding him with tips, and (most importantly) trying to make him spit up coffee laughing.

We were merciless with each other, and held faux-grudges (keeping score on who had the most recent “win” at making the other look silly). As I’ve said, Gary liked operating within chaos, and I did my best to keep things unhinged.

At this event, there was a long, serious spell where some attendee was droning on and on about their marketing woes… and as I scribbled notes, I leaned over to Gary and mentioned that — if you scrunched down and leaned over a bit — you could look up the dress of the woman in the third row.

Delivered, of course, just as Gary was sipping coffee. He managed to keep it down, but was so distracted during the ensuing Hot Seat — twisting his body and dropping the mic so he could lean down to get it, all in ways that had the audience wondering what the hell was going on — that I nearly lost it stifling my laughter.

It was almost better than the time Gary dropped his pants in front of the Mormon audience at a Utah seminar (to prove he wasn’t wearing women’s underwear, as I had publicly accused him of earlier in the event). Ah, but that’s another story…

Career Lesson: Life’s a grind when you take everything too seriously. You need to find that balance where you can have fun, while accomplishing a lot. You’re no good to anybody if you burn out.

Gary lived life with gusto and a sense of awe. Every freakin’ day was an adventure, both good and bad. (Also both screamingly funny and heartbreakingly sorrowful. That’s life.)

Okay, that’s all for now.

If you guys like this kind of trip down Memory Lane, maybe I’ll do another post like it. I’ve got more photos I’ve found. In fact, here’s one last one.

This is one of my favorites. It’s at Gary Bencivenga’s amazing seminar in New York. Though I’d actually worked with Gary B before (writing bonus reports for him in the 80s), I’d never met him. What a treat.

Joe Polish, Gary, Gary B and I posed for a shot at the after-hours party, and Joe had it matted and framed (and then gave it to me). Gary B liked the shot a lot — he dubbed it “The Four Amigo’s”.

I’ll end by saying I wish all of you the same kind of rollicking, ass-kicking life I’ve enjoyed. The way to achieve it isn’t hard, and there are no obstacles that can hold you back that others have not already faced and defeated.

You just need to get after it, and learn your lessons.

Gary remains such an important part of so many people’s lives because he was a role model. Not one you’d want your kids to emulate, particularly — he could make hash of his personal life, and did so regularly.

But he did it with grace, and humor, and a deep love for life and his fellow humans. What he did well, he did brilliantly. And what he did wrong, he did with enthusiasm and the sincere hope that things would work out eventually.

We’ve all got to come to terms with our own peculiar vulnerabilities and blunders and dark needs… and how we do that defines who we are. Nobody’s perfect, and most of us are shit-weasels struggling to get a handle on the game. (Gary referred to himself as The Head Shitweasel, by the way.)

This was fun. I’m still chewing over that decades-long adventure with Gary, which ended too soon. I hope you enjoyed me sharing some of it with you.

Stay frosty,

John

P.S. This is good.

Just had a long chat with Bond and Kevin, Gary’s sons. I hope they climb into the comments section here to add, rebuff, or expand on these stories.

Meanwhile, if you’re jonesing for more Gary, Kevin has slapped up a special page with a screaming deal on The Brainstorm Tapes hereexclusive for you and other readers of this blog post.

I’m on the tapes — it’s a session we did before holding the first big seminar (“The Seminar Of The Century”, at the Century Plaza in LA, which featured Jay Abraham, Joe Sugarman, Michael “E-Myth” Gerber, and a circus-worth of other stars). You can hear Gary honing his chops, telling many of the stories that later became well-known staples in his events.

No one had figured out how to do real Hot Seats yet, either — we finally nailed it during that later seminar. Here, we relied on tried-and-true “brainstorming” to solve business problems.

It’s powerful stuff. If — as I have been teaching folks for decades now — you understand how critical the fundamentals of great salesmanship are to becoming mega-successful…

… then you’ll want to grab these tapes immediately. (Just as all the top writers devour old books like “Scientific Advertising” and “Think And Grow Rich”, so too are these tapes an amazing treasure trove of timeless wisdom and mojo.)

Kevin, as a gesture of good will to blog readers here, also added a special bonus.

It’s a smokin’ deal, again exclusive and special only for blog readers.

Go here to check it out, if you’re so inclined.

 

 

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