Friday, April 29, 2016

A Short Review of "Elvis & Nixon"

Amazon Studios/Bleeker Street

National Archives
December 21, 1970
I first became familiar with the story behind Elvis Presley’s incredible visit to the White House on December 21, 1970 many years ago, after reading the book, “Elvis: The Final Years” by author Jerry Hopkins. The book essentially opens in 1970 with Elvis having a heated argument with his father Vernon over his extravagant spending habits. Elvis impulsively throws a ceramic plate against the wall and leaves his Graceland mansion in a fit of rage, driving to Memphis International Airport in broad daylight. Once there, he buys a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. and checks into a hotel. Ultimately, he is joined by associate Jerry Schilling where he creates and implements a plan to meet then U.S. President Richard Nixon in-person. His goal in that meeting is to request a badge designating him an undercover Federal Narcotics Agent. 

Now comes actors Kevin Spacey in the role of Nixon, and Michael Shannon as Elvis in the motion picture, "Elvis & Nixon". This film is not a biopic, selectively focusing only on one of the most unusual meetings one can imagine between the most powerful figure in the free world, and the most powerful entertainer in show business. 

Both rose from poverty and became iconic figures. Both men were genuinely concerned about the direction of the United States during the Vietnam War and yes, both were flawed personalities. However, what emerges as so engaging about this film is how the proverbial walls that would otherwise deter such a meeting are broken down! Presley locked onto a focus that temporarily let him escape the enormous loneliness of his fame with a goal far removed from his family, his mansion, his fans and allowed him to briefly examine the man behind the myth of “The King”. 

To this end, the film does not delve deeply into Presley's psyche. Instead, the viewer is taken along on an adventure I’m certain that Elvis could have never imagined in the heat of the argument with his father. In all, 28 photos were taken of Presley’s visit with President Nixon at the White House – 6 of them featuring bodyguard Sonny West (played by Johnny Knoxville) and assistant Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer).

The letter Presley scrawled on American Airlines’ stationary to President Nixon in flight is also available for viewing online at the National Archives. The movie is light fare, but perhaps “just what the doctor ordered” – to coin a phrase – in what has become a cycle of negative news this year. Credit must be given to Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon. Both President Nixon and Elvis Presley have been depicted in other motion pictures (by Anthony Hopkins and Kurt Russell, respectively). It’s hard to imagine two more difficult personalities to capture on film, even after bio pics succeeded in recent years with actors who did capture the essence of such notable public personalities as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Nelson Mandela. “Elvis & Nixon” is a temporary escape from too much reality, and it’s also a lot of fun!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Book Review: Like A Virgin: Stories They Won't Teach You At Business School


"At Virgin we never had to struggle with the typical problems of big corporations, probably because we never really got big -- we just diversified."

I've long admired Sir Richard Branson, who incidentally prefers people to address him as "Richard". Jeff over at the blog, "Musings" quite correctly observed of my previously published Summertime Reading List that this would be "a Branson Summer" for me. Perhaps that is true. At this point. I've already read two books written by the legendary "tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist & troublemaker, who believes in turning ideas into reality." This book is a fascinating adventure! 

Two points of interest bear mentioning: I've tried on two occasions over the past 16 years to interview Richard, as my former magazine editor had done. The problem has always involved geographic availability. Just the same, I've blogged extensively about the fact that Branson was never too busy, running over 400 Virgin branded businesses to respond to my inquiries with two personal letters -- something that should embarrass every person who fails to answer emails, letters or telephone voice mails -- a huge pet peeve of mine. 

I also feel the need to mention that since roughly 1993, I've watched with ample frustration from the sidelines at how much bureaucratic red tape and frankly, torture, this man has endured by outdated U.S. regulations limiting his investment to 25% in an effort to establish a U.S. airline "where market leaders were under performing and not treating their customers properly". The eventual result in 2007 was "shaking things up" in the airline business with  the launch of Virgin America. The airline turned a profit over the past two years, and due to economic forces beyond Branson's control, the airline was purchased by Alaska Airlines. 

"Shaking things up" means challenging the stuffed suit mentality that is top heavy in bureaucratic rules and employing "gatekeepers" who stifle creative people and solutions. By contrast, Virgin companies thrive on unleashing an unprecedented wave of creativity in both customer service and problem-solving. By empowering front line employees with authority to make decisions on behalf of the company, customer service issues are confronted and resolved immediately -- a process Branson references as "First to know, first to handle". 

Across all sectors of the Virgin brand, the company priorities are in this order: 

1.) The Employee
2.) The Customer
3.) The Shareholders

By identifying a product segment where the service is surly, then "disrupting" this cycle by delivering an extraordinary customer service experience, Branson challenges the status quo of flat learning with innovation. This has proven to be mutually beneficial to the employees, the customers, shareholders and communities benefiting from Virgin's worldwide philanthropic efforts to eradicate poverty, disease and war.   

As you read this inspiring and motivational book, you gain the sense that Branson himself is sitting across the room visiting with you. This book also candidly shares stories of businesses that have either failed (Virgin Cola) or reached a point where they simply had to be sold to satisfy market pressures (Virgin Records and Virgin Megastores). In these instances, Branson recounts the painful details about why a business failed, and the lessons he learned from the experience without remorse. He goes further to explain why he has few regrets, and how he moves on from failure to reinvestment in new projects in a nimble fashion. "I believe the past is the past, You can't change it. So, even if sometimes you get things wrong, regrets are wasted and you should move on", says Branson in the second book I tackled, "Screw It, Let;s Do It".

Virgin Books

Playing fair, but playing to win with honest and open communication to all employees about company initiatives -- from the company janitor to C-level executives -- is the order of the day. The legal suit filed and won against the infamous "dirty tricks campaign" of British Airways' efforts to put Virgin Atlantic Airways out of business is recounted with courage and tenacity. It is told with just enough detail while devoid of ill will. 

From his humble beginnings as a student suffering from dyslexia, Branson dropped out of high school at age 16, one year after starting a newspaper called Student, headquartered in a basement. He sold advertising space from a phone booth, and ended up capturing interviews with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Vanessa Redgrave and Dudley Moore. 

His next venture involved partnering with a friend to rent a space in a small shoe store that eventually led to the expansion a string of record stores, where free coffee was served to students who sat on bean bag chairs and hung out listening to music. This led to building a recording studio that became Virgin Records (later sold to EMI), emboldened when musician Mike Oldfield's instrumental "Tubular Bells" became a best-seller and part of the soundtrack for "The Exorcist". Cash started pouring in fast, as Branson signed recording contracts with The Sex Pistols and The Rolling Stones. In 1984, he started Virgin Atlantic Airways with a single leased Boeing 747 that was nearly repossessed before the business became viable. These and other tales are told without abandon along these lines:
  • Believe That Anything Can Be Done
  • Have Faith In Yourself by
  • Live Life to the Fullest
  • Never Give Up
  • Have Fun, Work Hard and Money Will Come
  • When It's Not Fun, Move On  
  • Be Bold
  • Keep Your Word
  • Make a Difference and Help Others
  • Don't Have Regrets
  • Put Family and The Team First
  • Pick the Right People and Reward Talent
  • Just Do It

Spoiler Alert
Of the Virgin name, I realize some readers may take offense even in 2016. So, to put any preconceived notions to rest here is Richard's explanation: "Sadly, there's no great sexy story to it as it was thought up on the fly. One night, I was chatting with a group of sixteen year old girls over a few drinks about a name for the record store. A bunch of ideas were bounced around, then, as we were all new to business, someone suggested Virgin. It smacked of new and fresh and at the time the word was still slightly risque', so, thinking it would be an attention grabber, we went with it." 

The Virgin Group once boasted 600 diversified companies, and has currently pared itself down to approximately 400. Built on the principles of honesty, integrity and delivering a fantastic customer experience with every product, these books have proven to be infectious in their optimism for the future. By distilling the best advice from one of the world's most recognized and respected business leaders, I encourage anyone seeking to start their own business, or simply looking for inspiration to give either of these books a read. 

My third book into my "Summer Reading Series" is the updated autobiography with a play on words by Richard Branson. "Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way". I'm sure I will "shake things up" by adding additional books on new subjects. After all, summer has not yet officially begun! 
Richard Branson was born July 18, 1950 in Surrey, England and has been married 27 years to his wife Joan. They are the proud parents of two children, Holly and Sam. In 1993, Richard was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Technology from Loughborough University. On March 30, 2000 he was knighted by Charles, Prince of Wales at an investiture in Buckingham Palace. That same year, Branson received the Tony Jannus Award for his accomplishments in commercial aviation. On December 7, 2007, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon presented Branson with the United Nations Correspondents Association Citizen of the World Award for his support of environmental and humanitarian causes.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A No Brainer for Virgin America Acquisition

Alaska Airlines
It's sad whenever a fine airline leaves the business community,  through no fault of its own. Virgin America was a pleasing addition to an otherwise lackluster market run by corporate button down types,  and mundane executives with none of the exciting personalities of their predecessors who introduced marketing differentiation. The exceptions are Southwest Airlines, whose corporate culture is responsible for an environment that is fun and rewards innovation, with an in flight service that is similarly stellar. But Virgin America was in a vexing position that was regrettable. 
On the one hand, they offered the best service and delivered an on board travel experience to the public with the latest amenities: mood lighting in the cabin, uncommonly plush seating with plenty of legroom, the latest customer service technology to order food and drinks. This equated to the best customer service in the U.S domestic market.
From a business standpoint, there have been nasty hurdles. The airline had to fight its way for years to gain access into the U.S. market--quite embarrassing if you ask me. We ought to be encouraging entrepreneurs to develop a better airline. Richard Branson succeeded in this regard, and with admirable endurance and patience. As with his remaining 399 Virgin-affiliated companies, he did so by providing a service that the public embraced after competitors failed to provide it. To this end, Virgin America "broke the mold".Ti wit, when was the last time you exited a commercial flight pleasantly surprised by a return to the excitement of air travel? 
Virgin America won every service award that I am aware of year-over year, and in the past two years the airline turned a profit. What I noticed was that they had an impossible time gaining precious takeoff and landing slots at the nation's airports and gates to service more cities. This barrier constricted their growth and cast a shadow on its future. Perhaps realizing this as airline stocks were robust, offers materialized to purchase Virgin America, with interest expressed as far away as China and the Middle East. In the end, jetBlue and Alaska Airlines emerged as serious suitors willing to put their money where their mouth is. Alaska, with a $10 billion surplus on hand, emerged as the winning bidder at $57 a share, creating value for shareholders and one would hope, the employees and consumers.
Now comes a New York-based law firm to "investigate possible breaches of fiduciary duty and other violations of law by the Board of Directors of Virgin America Inc." I read their filing and it sounds like pure bluster. Perhaps this action was predictable, and no doubt driven by the value of the merger at $4 billion. 
It's never funny when a legal challenge materializes in these matters, but this one did provide me my first laugh of the morning. 
The lawyers in New York were concerned, (allegedly) for the following reasons: "The acquisition of VA will: (1) expand ALK's presence in the West Coast; (2) improve ALK's access to valuable slots and gates in New York and California; (3) increase ALK's fleet to 280 aircraft, and include a new fleet of WiFi-enabled, technology-friendly aircraft; (4) increase ALK's daily departures to 1,200; (5) increase ALK's customer base; and (6) strengthen ALK as a competitor to the four largest U.S. airlines." (Incidentally, ALK is the three letter designator code for Alaska Airlines).
Sadly, we will lose a low cost-low-fare airline that many analysts referenced as a boutique airline based on its service amenities. However, the harsh realities of business dictate that when you're prevented from competing on a level playing field, you have to make a change. 
A Few Questions for the New York Lawers
In the wake of deregulation having had more than its fair share of disappointments, I have a few questions for the lawyers: 1.) Do we allow three 'legacy carriers' who have become the proverbial 1200 pound gorillas to dictate market pricing without being challenged? Or do we recognize the limits of our commodity-driven economy and allow a profitable incumbent to offer consumers an expanded choice in air travel? 2.) Where Virgin America was constrained (shut out) from acquiring gates and routes, their existing route system enables Alaska to add more cities to bring their excellent reputation for service. Is that a crime? I don't believe it is. 3.) What's wrong with expanding your airline with more airplanes to fly to destinations along the West Coast where passengers want to travel? Is that a crime? Again, I haven't spoken with Judge Judy, but I don't believe it is. 4.) What's wrong with Alaska Airlines' management considering working with The Boeing Company (the U.S. manufacturer of aircraft) to gradually replace Virgin's fleet of Airbus A319's and A320's to become consistent with Alaska's all-Boeing 737 fleet? This plan would locate new operators for the Airbuses. This is common sense. Alaska will likely standardize on one type of airplane and save costs. Alaska needs enough airplanes to serve the additional West Coast destinations where their customers want to travel. Incidentally, in my 20 years of covering this industry as a journalist, I've learned that your customers tell you where they want to fly and not the other way around. In my humble opinion, Alaska would do well by remaining with one aircraft type to fly their missions. 5.) The lawyers state that Alaska will grow 27% from this transaction. What's wrong with providing Virgin America employees with new jobs? From where I stand, I hope that all of Virgin America's employees will be absorbed into Alaska for continued employment. Is that a crime? No. But let's talk briefly about what a crime would look like. 
My Definition of a Crime
Suppose Virgin America was eventually driven out of business? Suppose for a moment that those mostly leased 60 Airbus A319's and A320's were grounded at San Francisco and at airports in their system overnight in a Chapter 11 shutdown scenario? Everyone would lose: the lessors would get their planes back with nothing in return, as would airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, San Diego, Seattle, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Dallas, Los Cabos, Cancun, Chicago, Puerto Vallarta, Palm Springs, Portland, and Austin (who would likely be forced to return deposits). Furthermore, the communities whose commerce is enhanced by Virgin  America would suffer. 
Most importantly, thousands of Virgin employees would be standing in line filling out paperwork for unemployment benefits, and we have far too much of that tragedy taking place in our country, despite the figures I listen to everyday from the Labor Department on NPR Radio.
Legal Eagles
The only winners in this scenario are the law firms. Don't take my word for it. Remember 
the old Eastern Airline's closure in 1991? Here's a sample of several hundred advisers who charged the bankrupt airline $5 million a month in fees: 
An airline examiner (later changed to "Special Adviser), Examiner's Counsel, Examiner's Airline Consultants, Special Counsel, Bankruptcy Counsel, SEC Counsel, Labor Counsel, Corporate Counsel, Special Litigation Counsel, Criminal Council, Financial Advisers, Accountants, Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors (2 1/2 pages in length), Counsel to the Creditor's Committee, Investment Banker to the Creditor's Committee, Financial Adviser to the Creditor's Committee, Accountants to the Creditor's Committee, Airline Consultant to the Creditor's Committee, Official Committee for Preferred Stockholders, Counsel for Preferred Stockholders' Committee, Investment Banker for Preferred Stockholders Committee. In my opinion, this scenario is nothing short of a crime. 
Virgin America was a phenomenal innovator that broke the mold. Today's business environment is downright brutal as it is unforgiving. I wasn't happy to hear that Virgin America is disappearing. But when the facts suggested more hardship and less opportunity ahead for an airline that clearly deserved and earned a better fate, the acquisition by Alaska Airlines isn't a crime. It is a reality of the business culture in which we find ourselves in America. For this author and others, this is a regrettable reality.

Friday, April 08, 2016

An Annual Summertime Reading List!


Each year, I select a compilation (usually supported by a photo) of books I am reading over the summer. A trainer at the gym where I work out, was discussing the late Jack LaLanne with me one night. The trainer said, "it's hard not to love the guy". Sir Richard Branson (he prefers to be called Richard, inasmuch as I prefer being called Michael over the infernal "Mike") fits this bill. A number of YouTube videos that reveal Richard's press conferences and interviews are time well spent! 

In any event, Richard got it right when it comes to a balance of intuition, drive, guts, and a recipe for business that has spawned no less than 400 Virgin branded companies. Namely, if he sees a product or service that under-delivers to the public, and he can offer better service at a similar price point, he will study investing in the concept. This practice is responsible for coining the phrase "shaking it up". Like many of you, this has long been a practice of mine. So, I concur. 

Branson is my idea of a boss and a mentor who admires (as I do) Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher for setting forth the philosophy that "The customer is NOT always right." A well known tale is worth re-telling here, involving a Southwest Airlines frequent flyer. I doubt if anyone has ever been able to explain why, but a woman flew Southwest often had a proclivity for mailing Kelleher nasty letters complaining about how unhappy she was after each flight. A late friend of mine who worked at the airline, would review these letters and respond for Herb. Finally, my friend attached a sticky note and sent it down the hallway at the airlines' Dallas Love Field headquarters to Kelleher with the scribbled note: "This one's for you". Herb famously penned this brief response to the woman that read: "Dear Miss Crabapple: We will miss you!". 

This example runs counter to the phrase "The customer is always right", which was coined in the early 1900's by London department store mogul Henry Gordon Selfridge.  As this example demonstrates, the customer is NOT always right. While Southwest may have lost a revenue-generating passenger, her continued belligerence was harmful to employee morale. Therefore, what's good for the employees must necessarily come ahead of the customer, in order to fulfill the mission of delivering customers a stellar product. Southwest's example was not lost on Richard Branson. 

Further, Branson's decentralized corporate structure of his branded businesses ranging from Virgin Atlantic Airways to Virgin Mobile, Virgin Trains and beyond encourages front-line employees to resolve customer complaints immediately with solutions that are sensible and realistic, as they are creative. Employees are thus, treated as equity owners, and their pride and loyalty leads to employee satisfaction and retention. Proactively maintaining the company's brand with dignity and class is vital. Here are two examples:

A Virgin Atlantic Airlines gate agent encountered a panic-stricken passenger who missed a Virgin limo for a ride to the airport (he was standing in the wrong area) and he paid $70 out of pocket for taxi cab fare in New York. The gate agent immediately reached into her purse and refunded his taxi fare, then rushed him aboard the plane. He is a customer for life. 

Consider the gentleman who accidentally left behind a beloved leather flight jacket in the passenger gate area in London after boarding a flight to New York. Virgin employees located his coat and placed it on competitor British Airways' Concorde (back when BA still flew the iconic aircraft, again at their expense). The coat arrived ahead of the Virgin flight to New York -- and I can assure you that this man also became a customer for life. Had this been the case with most any American carrier, an employee would be required to follow a ludicrous protocol involving layers of bureaucratic steps. For this reason, the tie loathing Branson actually loves to be on the receiving end of bad service! Why? Because it allows him to witness first-hand the breakdown of this scenario and avoid a repeat at his company. 

Case in point. I have always loved scouring antique shops in whatever city I find myself in. Ahead of a recent Delta flight, I had Fed Ex professionally pack a medium sized antique mirror in an exquisite oak frame that was well over 100 years-old. Fed Ex quoted me $170 to ship the mirror. I had just paid them generously to pack the item. I elected to pay a $50 fee baggage to Delta and took the packed item with me. However, at the airport, a Delta ticket agent became visibly annoyed when I placed the box on a scale. After applying a tape measure to it, she stated that the box was 3-inches over their limit and offered to ship the box for $268. I paused with some shock. At that point she stated to me, "We're not in the cargo business". I smiled and informed her, "I know full well you aren't a dedicated cargo airline. Atlas Air is, and I say this as a 20-year veteran writer with a commercial aviation magazine." The now furious employee snapped back, "Well then, you should know better!" Realizing this confrontation was getting me nowhere, I looked at her, smiled, and said "Noted" before walking off. I was pulling a small baggage cart on wheels and clutching the boxed antique mirror. Suddenly, I noticed a Delta Baggage Office nearby and walked in. Now perspiring, I told the staff of my encounter with the surly employee, without revealing her name. Since they didn't have a solution, they summoned their station manager. I asked him if his wife could use an antique mirror. 

Knowing the loss I was taking, in a show of true class, he said "Tell you what. For fifteen dollars, I'll personally walk the mirror through TSA and onto the tarmac where the plane is parked and I'll personally load it in into the cargo hold myself. But you'll have to sign  this waver that if the mirror breaks, we're not responsible. I seized this moment of opportunity and signed the waver. 

As I thanked him, I remarked that I had the rare privilege of interviewing Delta's legendary former president Hollis Harris. "Is there any way I could buy a copy?", he asked. "No, but why don't I mail you a copy here?", I replied. He gave me his card, and a day later in Phoenix (with my intact mirror) I mailed him a signed copy of the magazine article, and included three color copies to his staff. 

The nasty ticket agent probably would have been fired had I reported her by name. Who knows what may have been going on in her personal life. But she brought her attitude to work and potentially harmed Delta's reputation. A compassionate Baggage Manager took over and became a Leader. Because of his actions, I'll fly the airline again. This is a story Richard Branson would love. 

In essence, Branson is the modern day Stanley Marcus, co-founder of Neiman Marcus department stores. I knew him when I lived in Dallas. 

Richard Branson's stories  of dropping out of school with dyslexia, being told to get out of the family car and being subsequently ordered by his mother to find his way home at age four, his penchant for generating free advertising through death-defying adventures, and his rise from creating Student magazine and a brick and mortar LP retail music store is fascinating. Incidentally, his record store featured a coffee bar with bean bag chairs for students to come in and hang out while music played overhead. This concept was embraced by American coffee shops a full thirty years later in the U.S. 

It's also refreshing to read of Branson's uncommon belief that each of us has untapped potential and value, long after we've suffered defeat. So too is his admirable recounting of his failure in various businesses (remember Virgin Cola or Virgin Banking?). These failures yielded valuable lessons to Branson as he moved forward. 

Lastly, as I am only a fourth of the way through this book, I admire that Branson does not believe in: 
1.) criticizing anyone. 
2.) throwing a tantrum.
3.) retaliating against morons for their bad behavior. 

His daily schedule reads far more interesting that the self-promoting and egotistical rantings of Donald Trumps first book, "The Art of the Deal". Unlike that book, this one actually provides the reader with a healthy injection of self-esteem, and stokes the fires of what we CAN do in our own lives to "shake things up" a bit as an invaluable take away. Prepare to be encouraged and enthralled by the life and times of a man who challenges the conventional flat learning today's schools and businesses continue to follow in the U.S. instead of innovation. 

Here are the remaining books I have on my proverbial launch pad so far: 

Virgin Books

Virgin Books
Cheers to all for a happy weekend!

Monday, April 04, 2016

A Shake Up on My LinkedIn Page!

Richard Branson is fond of saying, "shake it up". I agree. If you drive the same route to work everyday, change it up. Read a new book. Break a few rules (but not the law). The professional networking site Linked In is a case in point. 

This morning, I changed my photo and decided to get rid of my boring Summary style so many become mired in by doing what I do best. I'm a communicator and here's my new summary:  

My career began innocently enough as a chairman of public relations for a non-profit organization in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. I appeared with guests related to my projects on 41 radio and television public affairs programs. On a whim, I hosted a PBS Television pledge drive, hoping to spice things up. Good karma was on my side after a teleprompter broke down 30 seconds before air time. I launched into an improv comedy sketch of a local televangelist who ended up in federal prison. While my producer nearly suffered heart failure, viewers seemed to enjoy my performance and responded by donating $4,000. Instead of being kicked off the property, I was invited back the next night! The late television producer Bob Banner was in town to film a documentary, and was watching the broadcast from his hotel room. Who knew? Two days later, he recruited me to voice over his film, and my career was launched. It was never boring. As a voice actor, I've appeared in over 6,000 radio commercials--often sounding like an introduction to a movie trailer. I continued working as a news writer, commercial copywriter, and a script writer for "The Saturday Main Event", a rather  unpredictable weekend radio variety show. For three seasons, I hosted "The Lone Star Film and Television Awards". A promotion to management involved leading a talented team of turnaround professionals to salvage a failing radio station mired in the early 1960's. We successfully brought the station into the new millennium, and an interview in Billboard magazine followed. After three years with the ABC Radio News Network, I returned to my Midwest roots as a Helicopter Reporter for an NBC TV affiliated station, then returned to the Southwest in Phoenix, Arizona. I've enjoyed working part-time with a scrappy and entrepreneurial video production company that led to hosting "In the Studio with Michael Manning" on YouTube. I'm willing to relocate for my next career opportunity.   
Here are a few fun facts that I excluded due to space limitations

  • The late Bob Banner was Associate Producer of "The Carol Burnett Show". He was a true gentleman and I sincerely enjoyed working with Bob. You never know who's in the audience!
  • The creepy televangelist I used as inspiration for my improv (who shall remain anonymous) was paroled from prison and left Dallas/Ft/ Worth. He set up shop in Florida and is back on television! 
  •  "The Saturday Main Event" was a program that was listed on a radio schedule for years in the Dallas market, but it never existed until my production director handed me the reigns and said, "Here, fix this. You have total creative control. Just don't embarrass me". A mixture of debuting the latest CD music releases and interviewing guests live, I would often tell listeners before a commercial to get up and mix their favorite drink and come back in three minutes. We peaked at 286,000 listeners according to Arbitron Research, the radio industry ratings organization. 

IMG Artists
Keri-Lynn Wilson is today a regular guest conductor at leading international 
opera companies and orchestras. 

  • My favorite guest was the statuesque Kerri Lynn Wilson, then-associate conductor of The Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At 5' 9" she showed up as my guest to discuss an upcoming symphony performance dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and cowboy boots. In between music cuts, I showed her my impersonation of entering a room as Groucho Marx. She was great fun and said, "Now let me try that!" We snapped pictures of each other in the process. The snapshots mysteriously disappeared.  

My last day as a Helicopter Reporter for an NBC TV Affiliate in the Midwest

  • Back in the Midwest, my agent in Columbus, Ohio became frustrated at the lack of commercial television auditions and said, "I'm going to throw you a bone". The bone turned out to be an audition as a Helicopter Reporter for a Top 3 Television News Station. My audition consisted of hovering 700 feet above a Northern Kentucky highway with my pilot, and feigning a "breaking news" report on camera to producers back at the studio. I drove home believing I blew the audition. Two days later, I received a phone call advising me that I earned the position. One of my proudest moments was helping Cincinnati Police locate a crazed gunman with our on board camera. The gunman was apprehended without incident.  
  • My YouTube channel series appears on my Reel Page at My focus was to film a series of interviews less than 5 minutes in length, owing to short attention spans and busy schedules. Our original slate included a famous commercial pilot, a singer with five singles on the European music charts, and an environmentalist who hosted a series on The Discovery Channel. Days before our shoot, the singer cancelled out due to a family emergency, our pilot ended up in the hospital, and our guest from Discovery Channel was called to travel immediately to Canada. Instead of eight guests, we reconfigured our first filming to four guests and my 3 minute pitch for an unscripted cable television series. 
As a mentor of mine once said to me, "Onto the next adventure, whatever that happens to be!"

Friday, April 01, 2016

An April Fools Day Note

Happy April Fools Day! People will be playing tricks today, but paying your rent or mortgage won't be one of them. It's due.

The weekend arrives after work. Make it a good one!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Movie Review: Miracles from Heaven

(Columbia Pictures)

Jennifer Garner stars in this American Christian drama based on the memoir, Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven, and Her Amazing Story of Healing by Christy Bean. 

At the outset, allow me to address some predictable concerns. The movie is based on a true story set in Burleson, Texas in 2011 involving 10 year-old Anna Bean (played by Kylie Rogers), who was diagnosed with pseudo-obstruction motility disorder. Like many, I was not familiar with this medical condition before seeing the film. But essentially, a large area of the intestines are rendered paralyzed, and consequently the patient is unable to process food. 

Dr. Samuel Nurko, an American-based Pediatric Gastroenterologist (played by Eugenio Derbez) is engaged to study the medical files from Anna's previous diagnostic visits. This information proves to be incomplete, if not baffling. Kevin Bean, Anna's father and a doctor of veterinary medicine (played by Martin Henderson) joins forces with his wife to do everything in their power to access medical specialists and arrive at an answer. In the midst of Anna's deteriorating condition, endless red tape, and strained finances, a break materializes after Christy Bean (Jennifer Garner) boldly takes a commercial flight to Boston, Massachusetts (with Anna and without an appointment) and checks into a nearby hotel after making desperate emotional pleas for her daughter to be seen by Dr. Nurko. A dedicated physician who enlists his considerable gift of humor to bond with and bring emotional relief to his patients, Nurko's schedule opens up and he examines Anna. Following extensive medical tests, he concludes that the child is terminal. Thus begins a monthly shuttle of flights from Texas to Massachusetts for medical treatment and observation. 

In the midst of treatments (involving feeding tubes) and excruciating stress for the entire family, Anna suffers a serious accident, falling thirty-feet into a hollow tree on her parents homestead. A massive rescue effort is undertaken by fire department officials, and Anna is found to be alive, although unconscious. She regains consciousness and later recounts a wordless conversation with God in Heaven, where she is provided assurance that she will be returned to her family healed. Over a short period of time, her symptoms and medical condition resolves to normal to the astonishment everyone, including Dr. Nurko.

The film is an obvious hot button for parents who have suffered the unimaginable loss of a child. For agnostics and atheists alike, the center of the story involves the Beam family embracing their Christian faith. I mention both considerations with a spirit of responsibility. Along the way, The Beams also endure some petulant and cruel behavior of fellow church members, who test their already strained emotions. This film is co-produced by evangelist T.D. Jakes and was directed by Patricia Rigger. 

One of many bright spots in this motion picture is the casting of Queen Latifa, who portrays a struggling waitress in Boston who encounters and befriends Anna and her mother. An airline ticket manager feigns a computer failure, after Anna's father has exceeded innumerable credit card limits to purchase plane tickets, in an effort to fly his remaining two daughters and himself to Boston for a surprise family visit. To this end, we are pleasantly reminded that there are, indeed, angels among us with the empathy to act out of love to assist others in crisis. There can never be too many people with these qualities! 

The film (in a limited engagement) does not attempt to explain away how Anna was cured, nor does it seek to proselytize those of other faiths and beliefs to embrace Christianity. Rather, the story is told in a straight-forward manner. It is noteworthy that Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifa signed on to the privately produced film project, given their status as Hollywood A-List actors. Ultimately, the audience is left to draw their own personal conclusions.

Filmed last summer in Atlanta, Georgia, the Southern Christian band Third Day makes a cameo appearance, itself a different experience for me--a second generation Macedonian-Bulgarian who was raised in an Orthodox church setting. Perhaps a disclaimer for me is that I am single, and haven't faced the first-hand trauma that is the subtext of this story. However, as a child, I can identify with two lengthy stays in Intensive Care, where my future was uncertain. I was blessed to have survived both stays.

Aside from assuming certain risk in even reviewing this film, the subject of miracles will forever be debated by people from all walks of life. One sad incident is worth sharing.

Years ago, I financed an expensive film shoot (I've since withdrawn from my website) where I interviewed a director of a non-profit organization. The shoot left me hoarse after 11 hours, and our technical crew endured fatigue following lengthy re-takes long after my guests had left the set. With time running long during the filming, I omitted one of my questions to the non-profit director, which was: "Do you believe in miracles?" The organization she leads involves serving children and adults with physical disabilities.

A year later, in 2012, I was invited by this person to attend a black tie fundraiser at a Scottsdale, Arizona resort. Towards the end of the evening, she was called to the stage to accept some well deserved recognition. What happened next was regrettable. She used this opportunity onstage to share with the audience that "an interviewer recently wanted to ask me if I believe in miracles and I'm glad that he didn't ask me that question". Having set me up for the proverbial kill, she explained intellectually -- and in very poor taste -- why that question was absurd, and has no place in her daily functions as a director. Fortunately, the audience had no idea that I was being targeted, with malice. The explanation concluded with what happens at her facility merely happens, and cannot be relegated to miracles. 

I found this public behavior disturbing, if not a stab in the back. After her William Buckley--Gore Vidal diatribe of nastiness concluded with applause, she returned to the table where I was seated and sarcastically stated to me: "Does that answer your question on miracles?" I looked at her and stated, "I believe you made your point", and resisted the temptation for a public confrontation. 

I hope readers will forgive me for sharing this unpleasant event. However, I did so to amplify that this film (which has the word 'Miracles' in its title)  -- in my opinion -- was never created with a provocateur spirit. Rather, it is submitted as a retelling of an actual event that I cannot explain anymore than the parents of Anna Beam, her physicians, neighbors, fire and rescue workers or anyone else. I did leave the theater quietly encouraged by the story, which avoided being sugar coated. I am still pondering the story. 

While I can't explain this mystery, my heart was warmed by the love and actions of strangers depicted in the film. Regardless of your beliefs, these acts serve as an example to each of us that there are kind people in our midst who care with a generous spirit emanating from their own personal faith, which I find comforting. If you've ever been on the receiving end of this generosity, or served as a caregiver, consider yourself fortunate. I know that I am,