Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Greatest April Fool That Never Was

April Fool’s Day, 1975
Offices of The Merrill Anderson Company at 100 Park Avenue

The preposterous invitation was addressed to Merrill Anderson's chairman, Earl MacNeill. He raised an eyebrow and handed it to his second in command, Bud Sommer. Bud looked, smiled and handed it to me.

Back in my office I examined the mailing. Ostensibly a new afternoon newspaper was starting up. A Merrill Anderson representative and spouse were cordially invited to learn more about it. On a five-day Bermuda cruise. On the QE2. All expenses paid!

Any temptation to suspend disbelief vanished after a glance at the return address: 90 Park Avenue, the building across the street. From my office window I could see dozens of workers sitting, standing, scurrying about. Which one was the April Fool’s prankster?

Still, no harm in calling their bluff. I RSVP’d to 90 Park.

A few days later came the phone call. There had been a change in plan, a voice said. (That figured. Out with the cruise. In with a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry.)

A change in plan?

Yes, said the voice. The advertising community's response to the invitation had been so enthusiastic that all guests would not have outside staterooms. So John Shaheen, oil man and potential publisher of The New York Press, had chartered the QE2 for a second cruise.

Which sailing, the voice asked, would I prefer?

New York Press banner on the QE2.
A few weeks later, my bride and I boarded the QE2 and sailed past the Statue of Liberty, bound for Bermuda. Our outside stateroom was tended by two green-vested stewards, Olive and Oliver.

The QE2 was too big to dock at Hamilton. We came ashore on tenders.
Every morning we would find new souvenirs at our door: books, beach towels, playing cards. Whatever the QE2 offered in the way of food, drink or diversion was ours to command.

Playing cards
Truly, it was the greatest April Fool that never was.

The New York Press

In 1975 it was a fact of NY publishing life that commuters would not buy an afternoon paper unless it contained the closing stock prices. John Shaheen proposed to meet that challenge by using computers. He brought them aboard the Queen: two tall, dark mainframes. looking like stubby miniatures of the new World Trade Center towers.

The computer-driven presses never rolled, although efforts to launch the paper continued for another year or so. Shaheen suffered financial setbacks, and in any event his dream was a practical impossibility. Even if bundles of The New York Press emerged from his West 52nd street printing plant a few seconds after the market closed at 4 p.m., they could not be trucked through midtown New York's gridlocked traffic to Grand Central by 4:30, when the commuter rush began.

As a newspaper magnate, John Shaheen failed. As a marketer, he rocked.  How many of us pull off a promotion incredible enough to be remembered for over four decades? 


Jim Gust said...

Wonderful story, Jim.

JLM said...

Quote in The New York Times from cruise guest Jerry della Femina, author of "Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor," said to be the inspiration for TV’s Mad Men:

“New York magazine a few years ago had a big thing on board a ship, but the difference is that after it was over everybody got off. This ship took out to sea.”