A “Really Nice Guy” — Thinking About Dad on Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day, 2010.  I’m thinking about my dad.  We buried him in January of 1997 and I had the great joy of eulogizing him.  It was a joy because some people deserve to have ‘good words’ said about them.  And dad was one of those guys.  Of course, I’m a bit biased.  I’m his son.

But, back on Sunday, September 8, 1974, the Detroit Free Press said the same thing.

The above picture is a scan of one of my keepsakes.  It’s a newspaper article that told everyone in Detroit what we already knew.  Remember, this is back in the day when people still read newspapers and weren’t distracted by things like the Internet, email, or Tweets.  The article is entitled, “Ronald McDonald: The Secret Business Of Being a Hero.”  Under the photo is the caption, “Ed McClarty, alias Ronald McDonald: Behind the greasepaint lurks a Really Nice Guy who actually likes the kids who worship him.”

Now, I must add that this article had the potential to cause a real stir among the McDonald’s higher-up’s.  There were rules about being Ronald McDonald.  One of those rules was absolute anonymity.  No one was allowed to know who Ronald really was.  Yet, here was this article, along with a photo of dad in full make-up without his wig.  It broke all the rules.  But, it was such a positive article that both the advertising agency and the corporation embraced it.  And dad became a local hero.

I’ll include the text of the whole article in a minute, but people often ask, “So how does a person go about getting that job?”  In dad’s case, it was the result of being “a Really Nice Guy.”

When we were living in Livonia, where I spent my high school and college years, my dad worked for the Kroger Company.  He felt that Kroger’s offered more stability than his previous job at American Airlines.  He once told me, “If the economy goes sour, people might stop flying.  But, they have to eat.”  So, with five kids and wife to support, dad gauged the future and went with food over flight.

My dad’s favorite hobby was magic.  He always had a couple of trick coins or a mysteriously-changing two-dollar bill in his pocket.  And he loved the reaction he could get from strangers when he would work a magical effect into his common, everyday interactions with them.  They’d smile and laugh, or stare in disbelief.  And he’d walk off knowing that he had just brightened their day.

Growing up, he taught all of his kids to perform magic tricks.  It was his way of getting us in front of people and helping us get over the natural fear of public speaking.  When I was young, dad and I did shows together for father/son banquets, Boy Scout outings, or wherever they needed some entertainment.  I even had a ventriloquist dummy and did my best to talk without my lips moving.  Dad actively founded and supported various magic clubs, both for adults and kids.  He passed on his love for entertaining to everyone who wanted to learn a card trick or wave a magic wand.  In fact, when he finally “retired,” he opened a magic shop on the square in Shelbyville, TN.

For most of his adult life, dad was a member and officer of the IBM — the International Brotherhood of Magicians.  And, if you’re a card-carrying member of the IBM, you can visit the Magic Castle in Hollywood, CA.   http://www.magiccastle.com/

It’s a private club, not the sort of place you can just show up and expect to get in.  (By the way, for most of my years in Southern California I was a card-carrying member of the Magic Castle.)  Sometime in 1972, my mom and dad were in Los Angeles for a Kroger convention.  And, of course, dad wanted to visit the Castle.

When my folks arrived at the front door and the valet drove off with their rental car, they waited in line as they overheard the receptionist turning away a couple who had no reservations.  They were all dressed up (the Castle has a dress code), they were hoping to have dinner and see the shows.  But, because they didn’t know anyone who was a member they could not get in.  So dad, being “a Really Nice Guy,” stepped up and said, “Oh, they’re my guests.”

The rules say that visitors and guests must also have dinner reservations, so dad added the dressed-up strangers to his table.  They turned to the bookcase, said “Open sesame,” and they were in.  Later in the evening, when their dinner reservation time arrived, my parents joined the couple they had helped at the front door.  And, as they ate, they discovered that the man was in advertising.  In fact, he worked for Grey Advertising.  And their client was McDonald’s.  Over dinner, dad told stories, did tricks, told the couple about the Magic Castle’s history and was just … well, he was just himself.  And somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that he and mom lived outside Detroit.  That bit of information caused the ad-man to share that he would be in Detroit soon.  The purpose of his trip was to replace the fellow who had been playing Ronald McDonald in the area.  Apparently, he’d been using his status as Ronald to pick up women.  Not exactly the image the corporation preferred.

The ad-man looked across the table and sized dad up.  He said that the new Ronald had to be dad’s height, have dad’s eye color, and be a magician.  And, of course, the new Ronald had to be “a Really Nice Guy.”  So, numbers were exchanged and when dad got home to Livonia he told us about the providential meeting.  And we laughed.

But, sure enough, true to his word, the ad-man arrived at our door, make-up artists and costume in tow, and the next thing we knew our dad was wearing make-up and a wig.  More laughter.  A gaggle of advertising types shuffled dad into a car and drove him to Children’s Hospital for his audition.  That evening, he had the gig.  And for the next 24 years we lived with Ronald McDonald.

So, how do you get the job?  Well, it helps if you’re “a Really Nice Guy.”

Okay, so here’s the text of the Detroit Free Press article from September 8, 1974.  The photo and the interview occurred while Ronald McDonald was appearing at the Michigan State Fair, sharing a stage with acts as diverse as The Captain and Tennille, Seals and Crofts, and The Cowsills (remember them?)

_________________________________

Ronald McDonald: The Secret Business Of Being a Hero
By Gregory Skwira
Free Press Business Writer
He can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound and he doesn’t drive anything as flashy as the Batmobile.  But Ed McClarty, the tall, trim 42-year-old personnel manager for Kroger Co’s Detroit operations, has a secret identity that makes Superman and Batman look like minor leaguers.Such are the amenities of being a Ronald McDonald.McClarty is one of about 120 chosen mortals who don the red nose, baggy yellow pants and oversize red oxfords on weekends to visit kids at McDonald’s Corp’s 3,000 outlets, as well as at parades, civic functions and hospitals.  All are hired by local ad agencies, with the exception of THE top banana – actor King Moody, who plays Ronald on the company’s television commercials.

McClarty’s territory includes the entire state of Michigan, which has about 140 McDonald’s outlets, and part of southern Ontario.

The Ronald McDonald concept is a product of the early 1960’s.  A small ad agency in Washington, D.C. created the character for its local franchise accounts, and the national organization liked the idea so much that it began using the clown as its primary national symbol about seven years ago.

McClarty, who has been a magician for 10 years and is a past president of the Detroit Chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, took on the mantle of greatness about two years ago.  A chance meeting with an executive from Grey Advertising’s Detroit office, which handles the McDonald’s account for the state of Michigan, led to a successful tryout.  (The opening occurred when Grey reportedly fired the state’s reigning Ronald for not being clandestine enough about his secret identity.)

In the past two years, McClarty has made over 100 appearances as Ronald, a feat that has taken up most of his weekends.  Although he had no prior clowning experience, he said the transition was easy since he was already a performer.  Also, McDonald’s offers a national training program for its new recruits.  There are regulations governing the makeup, the costume and the conduct, although the details are as closely guarded as the company’s recipe for its secret Big Mac sauce.

McClarty’s act is very low-key; not once are the kids urged to go out and buy sacks-full of burgers.  In addition to the magic tricks, the music and the banter, there is a skit aimed at teaching kids not to litter (McClarty collects junk from the audience, places it in his magic box, and turns it into “recycled” McDonald’s hamburger wrapper, cups, and napkins.  Don’t ask me how he does it.)

There’s no need for a strong sales pitch, of course.  The company, which has sold over 14 billion hamburgers to date, has wide visibility due to a television and radio ad blitzkrieg, and most of the kids in the audience have spent a goodly portion of their childhood under the golden arches snarfing down hamburgers, fries and shakes.

Their loyalty produced total 1973 revenues for the company of $1,507 billion, and both sales and earnings for the first six months of this year rose in excess of 30 percent.

According to Lou Bitonti, a Grey Executive, on the McDonald’s account, the Ronald McDonald appearances are supposed to supplement the company’s advertising rather than be a part of it.  Ronald’s primary role is a goodwill ambassador, and there is a conscious effort not to turn him into a salesman.  “If we commercialize Ronald, we’ve lost it,” Bitonti says.

And McClarty fits the image perfectly.  You can call him a Really Nice Buy without feeling corny.  He is an accomplished performer: his magic tricks are clever and crisply executed.  Beyond that, however, he has a special way with kids — he charms them and is delighted by their reaction.

The people at Grey talk a lot about the magic created by the television King Moody clown romping around the mythical McDonaldland Hollywood set.  But if there is indeed magic in the character, it is people like McClarty who infuse it.

Although he spends much of his time at various McDonald’s outlets around the state (the franchisees pay, but Grey won’t say how much), he also spends many hours visiting hospitals.  That’s the high point of the job, he says, seeing sick or disabled kids perk up during those hospital visits.

Although he took vacation time to appear regularly at the Michigan State Fair, McClarty’s clowning is generally confined to weekends.  His Kroger job comes first, he says, and the people at Grey, who make all his bookings, must work around it.  His pay for being Ronald is a well-kept secret, too.

Are there any problems connected with playing the nation’s most famous clown?  Only one, he says: “When I drive down the street waving to people and then realize that I don’t have my costume on.  That produces some strange looks.”

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Okay, one more funny story.  When dad was in his Ronald persona he could not drive a car.  He had to be free to wave and interact with kids in other vehicles who might recognize him.  So I often drove him to his appearances.  Other times, we drove to the airport and he would fly in by helicopter.  Sometimes they’d bring him in as part of a parade or on a fire truck, sirens full-blare.  It was always an event. At one of his earliest appearances he was approached by a young boy who wanted his autograph.  Being a businessman who signs paperwork all day, he happily obliged and started writing:  E … D … M … c … C … L … And that’s when I nudged him with my elbow, saying, “He wants your autograph RONALD.”  Dad caught himself, stifling his snickers, and grabbed a close-by piece of paper as I ditched the original.  He started again: R … O … N… A …L … That night he sat at the kitchen table and practiced writing it over and over until it came naturally.  Ronald McDonald.  Ronald McDonald.  Ronald McDonald.

He was a good guy, my dad.  And he raised five great kids.  And he stayed true to my mom until his last breath.  He was indeed “a Really Nice Guy.”Now, of course, my brother and sisters and I will also tell you that he was a firm father;  a strict dad who made sure we knew who was in charge.  But, in the end, that served us well.  Being a dad myself, I now recognize the value of having an authority figure in the home.  And my kids agree. Maybe someday I’ll share the story I told at his funeral.  I cannot tell it without crying, so maybe writing it down is the best way to keep his legacy alive for his grandkids. But, for now, I just want to wish him a happy Father’s Day. I’m grateful every day that he was my dad.

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