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13 April, 2010

"JOHNNY" WAS MY IMAGINARY FRIEND

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I came across some research the other day revealing the fact that about two thirds of children have played with imaginary companions by the age of seven.  I found the information not only interesting but somewhat personally redeeming because I could be included in that two-thirds figure after a good 65 years of thinking that I was just a tad different as a very shy, day-dreaming pre-schooler.

Between the ages of three and five, my pretend friend was quite real to me with a particular look and unique personality.  "Johnny" was a playmate when I did not have one for real.  We had conversations and a lot of fun together.  I'm not sure if he substituted for an older brother in my imaginary world, or if he was just my best friend.  Regardless, I looked up to him as someone with whom I could confide...He was a good listener and always there for me when I needed him.

I even knew what Johnny's voice sounded like because, you see, he came to me over the radio airwaves in the living room that I shared with my mom, dad, grandfather and dog Spot.  Johnny only ever said four words on the radio but boy, were they ever distinctive:  "Call for Phil-lip Mor-ree-is!"  To this day, any reference to Philip Morris always causes an indescribable sensation in the pit of my stomach. 

It was only toward the end of my childish pretending, some two or three years later, that I finally saw his picture for the first time in a Life Magazine ad and came to understand that my good friend Johnny was actually  a radio commercial pitchman for a cigarette company known as Philip Morris Tobacco.  My parents were the first to explain to me that he was a real-life hotel bellhop by the name of Johnny Roventini who was only four feet tall and 70 pounds soaking wet. 

Very briefly, this is his most unusual story.

In 1933, advertising executive Milton H. Biow, the principal of the Biow Agency in New York City, was managing the advertising account of Philip Morris cigarettes. Biow had an idea to bring new life (literally) to the mature "bellboy with tray of cigarettes" campaign. He had heard of the distinctive voice and appearance of Roventini and one day, along with Phillip Morris executive Alfred E. Lyons, went to the New Yorker Hotel where the 22-year-old Johnny worked. They sat in the lobby and observed him, noting both his diminutive size and distinctive voice.

In those days, hotel lobbies were typically elaborately furnished and used as meeting places, so situations with persons seeking each other were not uncommon. According to the legend, Biow approached him and paid Johnny a dollar to page a "Mr. Philip Morris" throughout the lobby. The small bellhop repeatedly cried out "Call for Phillip Morris" in his distinctive high-pitched B-flat voice, several times, not knowing that there was no such person. He did not realize that he had been essentially performing a screen test. "I went around the lobby yelling my head off," Johnny recalled later, "but Philip Morris didn't answer my call." He initially thought that his call had been both legitimate and unsuccessful. He was soon to learn that he had been wrong on both counts. He was later quoted in Variety Magazine: "I had no idea that Philip Morris was a cigarette."


The page had in fact been a huge success, one that was to lead the young bellboy to a 40-year radio and stage career.  Biow and Lyons both visualized the performance of  "the world's smallest  bellhop" as ideal to bring life to their fictitious character. In April, 1933, Johnny Roventini was hired to make a "Call for Phil-ip Mor-ree-is" on the various radio programs sponsored by the tobacco company. Johnny had been earning $15 a week at the hotel, and received $100 for his very first radio commercial.  He later recounted that he only accepted the new job after checking with his mother, with whom he lived much of his life. He was soon earning $50,000 annually, a substantial wage for such work in those years, according to his biography.
 
By his own estimation, Johnny made the Philip Morris call at least a million times in public before he retired in 1979. A bonifide American legend, the little guy passed away November 30, 1999, at 88-years-of-age.
 
Somehow, I wish he'd known what a good pretend friend he was for me when I was growing up.  He'd probably get a kick out of the fact that he did not totally influence me, however...I never smoked a cigarette in my life!  Not even a Phil-lip Mor-ree-is.