The McCann Time Capsule: Benny Goodman, Elvis, and Our Impact on Popular Culture
In 2002, on the occasion of McCann’s 100th anniversary, Ad Age published a special section in which, among other narratives, it told the story of the contributions that McCann had made to American popular culture through the broadcast programming that it packaged for clients.
Ad Age wrote:
“A century of admaking has left many McCann fingerprints on American popular culture. The company’s myriad Coca-Cola commercials are one example. But on at least two occasions McCann was decisive in genuine revolutions of content. The first was in 1934 when an executive in the radio department put a brilliant virtuoso, Benny Goodman, on NBC for Nabisco and changed the course of American music. The second came in 1956 when the agency bought a program for Nestle called ‘Stage Show’ and launched a far different icon—Elvis Presley—whose impact would be even more seismic.”
The radio department executive referred to is Josef Bonime, who served as McCann’s Music Director from 1930 to 1958. As his 1959 obituary in The New York Times related, he was an accomplished musician, composer and conductor in his own right. Born in Lithuania in 1891, he came to the U.S. as a child and began his career as the piano accompanist to the violinists Mischa Elman and Eugène Ysaÿe. In his role at McCann, besides composing and arranging theme music for McCann-produced radio shows such as “Death Valley Days, “Five Star Theater,” “Let’s Dance,” and Dr. Christian,” he also “discovered” Benny Goodman, introduced him to a national audience, and is credited with co-writing the bandleader’s theme song, “Let’s Dance.”
As Ad Age described in some detail:
“Joseph Bonime was to be the man who wrote the McCann-Erickson name into the musical history of America. The agency had won the National Biscuit Co. (later Nabisco) account in February 1934 and immediately moved to get its main brand, Uneeda Biscuits, into radio. Acting on a network survey of 18,000 listeners that showed dance music to be the most-listened-to programming, McCann decided to package a three-hour big band show called ‘Let’s Dance.’
“Mr. Bonime set out to find three bands. He assembled a standard sweet band himself led by Murray Kellner (Kel Murray for the purposes of the show) and picked a rumba group headed by Xavier Cugat for the second hour. He was casting about for a more modern band when one night in October he and his wife went to a New York theater to catch the closing night of a new band led by a top studio clarinetist he had hired for ‘Pick and Pat’ [another McCann show], Benny Goodman. Mr. Goodman trotted out every fresh chart in his book when he spotted Mr. Bonime and his wife. After a 45-minute set, they told Mr. Goodman they’d be in touch and left.”
Bonime decided he would audition Goodman for the Nabisco-sponsored show and, on Nov. 7, 1934, Bonime, other McCann staffers and several client and network executives sat in a boardroom and listened as “the Goodman band was piped in live through speakers from a studio at NBC.”
Continued Ad Age:
“McCann promoted the ‘Let’s Dance’ program heavily, with point-of-purchase materials in grocery stores before its debut on Saturday, Dec. 1, at NBC. It ran only four months, and Mr. Goodman, who played during the third hour, was heard too late in the East to make an impression. But he reached a huge audience in the West at 10:30. When he ended a disappointing national tour in Los Angeles, he suddenly met an explosive reception. Within weeks Mr. Goodman and swing music swept the country, making McCann decisive in igniting not only the Goodman legend but an age in American music.
“In choosing a theme song for the Nabisco program, Mr. Bonime picked Carl Maria von Weber’s waltz ‘Invitation to the Dance’ and commissioned a swing version for Mr. Goodman [Bonime himself is listed as one of the song’s co-writers]. When the show ended, Mr. Goodman adopted it as his signature and played it for the next 50 years, making ‘Let’s Dance’ one of the most familiar sounds of the century.”
As for Elvis Presley, his first national TV appearance was not on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in early September, 1956, as many think, but eight months earlier on a program McCann had acquired sponsorship rights for on behalf of its Nestlé client.
Ad Age wrote:
“Then in 1956 McCann-Erickson did for rock ‘n’ roll what it had done for swing a generation earlier. In 1955 Jackie Gleason decided to abandon his Saturday night hour format and do a season of half-hour ‘Honeymooners’ episodes. To keep control of the other half-hour on the schedule, his production company put together a vaudeville-style program called ‘Stage Show’ hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. McCann bought the show outright for Nestle for the 1955-56 season with no way of realizing what it had purchased.
“The ratings were modest but so was the investment. Then suddenly on Jan. 28 all hell broke loose when Jimmy Dorsey introduced Elvis Presley to his first national TV audience. The impact was immediate. Ratings soared as the Mississippi country boy riveted the nation and divided Americans in a great generational schism. Elvis would make five more appearances through the end of March, by which time McCann and Nestle were feasting on one of the greatest media bargains in the history of television.”