Chef Boyardee All-Star Band: Steve Gadd, Paul Shaffer and Will Lee

Front Row Seat

I had the best seat in the house – right behind a gleaming 48-channel Neve mixing console.

Cartoon commercial for Saturday morning.

I was sitting in the control room of the Warehouse recording studio on West 46th Street. Don’t look for it today. Like many of New York’s recording havens, it’s long gone, a victim to rising rents, laptop recording and a seismic shift in advertising tastes.

This morning, however, the Warehouse was in its full glory – a spectacular state-of-the-art recording facility.

No better place to record a silly soundtrack for a Chef Boyardee kids’ commercial.

The Session

This studio did a lot of advertising business. It was run by Lucas/McFaul, two renowned composers and producers. (In fact, David Lucas produced Blue Oyster Cult’s hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – and played the infamous cowbell on the song.)

Today’s session was trickier than most. We needed to record music that matched cartoon animation. So instead of playing to a steady musical tempo, the timing would be dictated by the visual action.

Go wild with Chef Boyardee Zooroni. Animals spring to life from the can.

Audio Overload

Like most kids’ commercials, the audio track was bombastic, loaded with vocalists, a backing band, kids’ dialogue and sound effects. (Listen for yourself. Watch the commercial below.)

Now comes the moment of truth. How would the music composer arrange all these audio elements to perfectly match the cartoon animation?

What’s the Score?

In the control room, I asked to see the musical score we’d be recording.

Swing into action with Chef Boyardee.

Yipes, just as I feared. It was a musical obstacle course. There were “split bars,” where musical measures change abruptly, not to mention key modulations and tempo shifts.

I braced myself for a long morning of trying to get a perfect take – or having to settle for one that was close enough. Back then, there was no digital editing, just reel-to-reel tape.

Beat of a Different Drummer

At every recording session, the drummer is critical. Here’s why. The drummer lays down the rhythmic foundation. All the other musicians follow the drummer’s timing.

Today’s session would require a well-versed, highly skilled drummer who could fearlessly navigate this musical maze.

I turned to Nick DiMinno, the studio producer, and asked who was booked on drums.

“Oh, we got lucky,” he replied. “Steve Gadd was available.”

OMG Gadd

Steve Gadd’s musical credits are legendary. (Listen to his drum work on Steely Dan’s “Aja.”) He’s also played with Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and so on.

In other words, Gadd is the consummate studio drummer. So what’s he doing at a West side studio this morning playing on a kids’ commercial?

Hey, Must Be the Money!

Top Musicians Like to Jingle

For union musicians, playing on TV commercials is extremely lucrative. You get paid your session fee, then get paid residuals every 13 weeks that the commercial airs. If it’s a national spot that runs for a year, you end up with a hefty paycheck for about 90 minutes of work.

It’s hip to be a Hippo.

During the jingle music heyday of advertising, in-demand studio musicians would play two to three different recording sessions a day. You’d see the same first-call players again and again at different studios across town.

On this particular session, I remember two other familiar faces on the other side of the glass in the tracking room: Will Lee on bass and Paul Shaffer on keyboards, both from The Late Show band with David Letterman.

Hearing Super Power

The first time you hear playback in a recording studio, it’s a mind-blowing experience. Imagine the world’s greatest stereo on steroids. You’re overwhelmed by the sparkling clarity and powerful depth.

And at today’s session, I was listening to a room full of world-class musicians playing on a TV commercial I wrote. Talk about your golden ticket to a private concert.

The Run Down

Finally, the band was ready for a run-through. The composer gave last minute instructions. And the cartoon animation was cued up on a large video monitor in the studio.

Steve Gadd concentrated on the TV countdown. He clicked his drum sticks together, setting a tempo.

Get on board for fun with Chef Boyardee.

With a decisive thump of the bass drum, the band launched into the music.

Thirty seconds later, it was over. In the control room and recording room, everyone looked at each other, astonished. It sounded surprisingly tight, no major mistakes.

The recording engineer seized the momentum. He quickly hit the talkback mic on the mixing board.

“Okay everybody, sounded good. Let’s record one.”

For the Record

The tall 24-track recording deck behind us whirled to life, its 2” tape reels spinning smoothly.

Again, Steve Gadd watched the start of the video monitor and clacked his drum sticks to set the beat.

Spark your imagination and let it ride.

I stared at the TV screen and listened intently. Again, the band roared through the music, the drums nailing the cartoon action with pinpoint precision.

In the control room, we sat motionless as the last downbeat faded away.

Was it possible? Did I just hear what I think I heard?

Proof Is in the Playback

Nick DiMinno turned to me and asked, “Check the playback?” I nodded.

The audio tape recorder was rewound and synched to the video deck. We watched the playback.

It was perfect. I mean perfect. Steve Gadd had read that musical chart as easily as a Sunday newspaper. Absolutely flawless.

Learn your ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s!

Nick and I looked at each other, stunned.

“Play it back one more time” I requested, just to be sure. Again, I could find nothing wrong.

“Do another take?” asked Nick.

“No need,” I answered. “This is the one.” The first take was a perfect take.

One and Done

Nick hit the talkback button on the mix board to speak to the musicians.

“Okay, thanks everybody. You’re done. Turn in your union session forms before you go.”

King of the Drum Throne

Steve Gadd leaped off the drum set and headed to the control room.

Unlike the other session musicians, Gadd carried a personalized tear-off pad that had his union payment information pre-printed – all he added was the session date and location. (Which shows you how much he’s in demand.)

An adventure in every spoonful.

In the control room, Gadd handed Nick DiMinno his form. The studio producer had one more request for the renowned rhythm king.

“Steve, before you go, we have a new electronic drum machine called LinnDrums. Would you mind recording a few extra tom-tom fills on it?”

Gadd looked curiously at the black finger touch-pads framed in a wooden case that was set up on the mix console.

“Sure, no problem,” he said.

The engineer cued up the tape deck and I sat next to Gadd as he joyfully overdubbed tom-tom accents with his forefingers, like a small boy pretending to be a drummer. Absolutely, utterly, surreal.

Three passes later, he was done and out the door.

The Mix Doesn’t Do Justice

Unfortunately, the commercial below was transferred from video tape that had deteriorated over many years. The aging affected the picture as well as the audio track.

The Big Finish – Thank Goodness!

Also, when this music was recorded, audio for TV commercials was never mixed at full fidelity. During that time, most TV sets had a tiny 6″ speaker with a limited range for sound. Vocals and dialogue were considered the priority, so they were pushed louder than the band.

Long story, short, you’re not going to get the full, thunderous impact I felt that day. But the thrill of hearing a perfect take – on the very first take – is a feeling I will never forget.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Mary Ellen Cohen. ACD: Nick Pronovitch. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: Chef Boyardee (American Home Foods). Music Production Company: Lucas/McFaul (David Lucas, Tom McFaul). Studio Producer: Nick DiMinno. Recording Studio: Warehouse

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary video history.

Chef Boyardee: Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in New York City

You’d think it’d be easy to find an Italian pizza maker in Manhattan to star in a TV commercial. Fuhgeddaboutit. Read on.

Pizza, Pizza!

My first assignment at Young & Rubicam was copywriting on Chef Boyardee. As a newbie, I was unaware other agency creatives shunned this account.

Chef Boyardee was part of American Home Foods, a hard-boiled, tight-fisted consumer package goods (CPG) company known for grinding copywriters into pasta ingredients. No matter. I was thrilled to be working on a national brand.

Better yet, I hit the jackpot. My first job was to write a new TV commercial for Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix.

Think Inside the Box

Once a staple of family dinners, sales of Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix had sagged like loose pizza dough as neighborhood pizzerias sprang up across America. (And yes, there was a real Chef Boyardee. His Italian name was Hector Boiardi, which he anglicized.)

My job was simple. Come up with an idea that would reverse these drooping sales. Sure, I said, no problem, right away. (Gulp.)

The Client Pitch Meeting

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY.

Across the long mahogany table, I faced my clients: American Home Foods’s President DAVID JAICKS and his corporate lieutenant, CARL BECKER – two no-nonsense execs with better things to do than listen to a lowly copyboy.

I needed to pitch hard and fast. I opened with an accepted fact to get their heads nodding.

Research shows that folks love the taste of fresh-hot pizzeria pizza. It’s the gold standard. Bingo. Both nodded their heads, expressions flat.

So what if our commercial shows an Italian pizzeria guy who says Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix is just as good as pizzeria pizza? They lifted their eyebrows, intrigued but dubious. I pressed on.

Chef Boyardee is just as good because it now has a new exclusive pizzeria recipe. New pizzeria recipe? The client duo mulled the idea, beginning to warm. I ramped up my sell.

And what if this Italian pizzeria guy comes from New York city, the pizza capital of the world? The corners of their mouths tugged. I had their attention.

Plus, did I mention? This Italian pizza guy, he’s colorful. He’s got a ton of New York attitude and skepticism. So he’s more believable. More likable. And more memorable! Jaicks and Becker raised their chins. I went for the close.

Finally, what if – to make this commercial 100% convincing and authentic – we shoot in a real-life pizzeria and use an actual real-life pizzeria chef? His real name would be supered on the screen when he starts talking.

Advertising idea brought to life. The future TV spokesperson for Chef Boyardee.

Jaicks and Becker glanced at each other, then back to me. Becker spoke, “Okay, but you’d better make it good.”

Citywide Hunt for the Pizza Guy

Skip the usual casting call, actors were off-limits. The TV networks classified this script as an “Expert Testimonial,” which meant the on-camera person had to actually work at a pizzeria. No faking allowed.

So I hit the sidewalks in the broiling summer heat, gumshoe-ing my way to find the perfect “Pizza Guy.” From Manhattan’s East Side to the West Side, North and South, I poked my head into every pizzeria joint I came across. And you know what I found?

Hispanics working inside. And lots of Asians. Greeks, too. Plus an assortment of African Americans. A veritable United Nations of pizza slice slingers. But no classic Italian pizza chef.

I began to regret my big-mouth promise to the client.

Hot Tip at 85th and Columbus

I told my dilemma to my co-workers. Some empathized. Some grinned. Most couldn’t care less. Then a woman art director offered a lead that seemed too good to be true.

“There’s this Italian guy in my neighborhood who runs a pizzeria. In his mid-40’s or so,” she said, “Loads of personality, always wise-cracking.” I scribbled down the upper West Side address. Ten minutes later, I was on the “B” train headed uptown.

The Pizza Guy Sighting

From the 86th street exit, I speed-walked two blocks to a modest pizzeria on Columbus. Cautiously, I opened the door and stepped inside. There he was. The Pizza Guy.

He was behind the counter, joking with a customer. Definitely Italian, tall and lean. He had dark hair and thick eyebrows, which made him look stern, until he smiled, which lit up his face.

Time was not on my side. I was short of casting options and already in pre-production. I could sense this guy was no sucker. I’d only get one shot to make this introduction work.

Hey, Wanna Be on TV?

I came clean. I blurted out about the TV commercial and said he’d be great to play a pizza guy. I explained that I worked at a large mid-town ad agency and could get him an audition.

He looked at me bemused, sizing up what sounded like a bullshit scam. Stillness hung in the garlic scented air.

Suddenly I remembered, “You’ll get paid full union scale for the shoot day, plus residuals every 13 weeks the commercial is on the air. It’s thousands of dollars.”

His hand shot across the counter to shake. “Hi, I’m Tom Sciarrino.”

That’s a Wrap (er, almost)

After a video-taped audition, the client approved Tom and we shot at a downtown pizzeria. For a first-time actor, he did a terrific job. The commercial ran about a year and Tom earned a very tidy payday. (Watch it below.)

There was just one last moment of anxiety. It occurred when we showed the rough cut to our clients.

Jaicks and Becker watched the screen and nodded approvingly as our star pizza chef delivered his pitch-perfect pitch. They snorted a laugh at the end when the front panel of the box hinged down to reveal a pizza oven over the announcer’s closing line “The Take-Out Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven.” The mood was triumphant. Ad agency backslaps all around.

Then Jaicks, the company president, interrupted. “If the gold standard is pizzeria pizza, shouldn’t the end line say ‘The Pizzeria Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven?’”

Nooooo, my brain screamed. The tag line was meant to intentionally repeat the words “take out.” That’s the cleverness. His suggestion would ruin everything. Please, don’t. Not on my first commercial. I started to object.

Becker waved me silent. He spoke gently and evenly.

“Good thought, David, but I think it’s fine. I got the idea. Let’s leave it alone,” Becker said. Jaicks considered, nodded, and thanked everyone as he left the screening room. Becker followed, but just before exiting, he turned and gave me a conspiratorial smile.

My first national TV commercial was headed to air – with the right tag line.

For the TV testimonial commercial, Tom Sciarrino delivers all his lines in two extended scenes. A strong performance for his first time on camera.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Dan Weiss. Producer: Ted Storb. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Food Photography: Michael Schrom. Client: Carl Becker, David Jaicks. Product: Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix (American Home Foods). Talent: Tom Sciarrino.

Epilogue: After 36 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tom’s Pizzeria and Restaurant closed its doors in May of 1994 due to rising rents.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our media history.