The great Pelé is gone but he almost cost me my job in Las Vegas

Pele, the world soccer statesman, demonstrates his good graces.

Pele, the all-time-great soccer player, died today at 82, and very few people in this part of the world had met or talked to him but I had a memorable encounter with the genius athlete at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which almost cost me my PR job. He was greatness personified. As the New York Times wrote this week: 

Pelé’s graceful genius was just one part of what made him unforgettable.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé was a formative 20th-century sports figure who was revered as a national treasure in his native Brazil. He was known for popularizing soccer in the United States and citing it as a tool for connecting people worldwide.

He was a dervish, a magician, an artist whose speedy precision, bullet drives and twirling bicycle kicks were brush strokes offering a challenge to the staid, stationary, and traditional     standards of the game he came to dominate.

The soccer field was his canvas, where he created masterpiece after masterpiece, starting at the very beginning of his career. In 1958, he was only17 and just a few short years removed from learning soccer on the streets of an impoverished Brazilian favela that was his home. But at that year’s World Cup, he scored six goals, including three in the semifinals against France and two in a 5-2 win over Sweden, the home team, to clinch the championship.        

Meeting him was most memorable and in some ways reflects what made him so great as a human. It’s a chapter from my eventually forthcoming book: Days and Nights in PR. 

Here’s the story: 

Pele demonstrates the phenomenal bicycle kick.

Pele, still the most popular and best-paid athlete in the world, had agreed to make a soccer instructional video for Andre Blay’s Magnetic Video, a Detroit-area company, soon to become Twentieth Century Fox video, when the movie studio acquired the firm, and the home video industry took off. Part of Pele’s video deal was a personal appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 

Andre Blay, the father of home video.

Blay, a clever entrepreneur, now considered the Father of the Home Video industry, was operating a Detroit-area videotape duplication facility, when he had had a brainstorm. Someday, a consumer products company like Sony would develop an easy-to-use home video player that anyone could learn how to work. It would have to come with a cartridge or playing mechanism, much like Philips’ cassette tapes. And, if that happened, then movies could be played on video, and a new industry would be launched. 

Previous efforts included such models as Ampex’s reel-to-reel model, much like a tape recorder, and even some failed efforts by Sony, which finally introduced the consumer-oriented Betamax in 1975. It  wasn’t until 1977 that the VHS cassette became the industry standard, while Betamax largely was used professionally. Sony made the same mistake as Apple later did, keeping its crown jewels proprietary while VHS, like Microsoft’s Windows, shared its tech so its product entered widespread use, even though it was inferior. By 1980, VHS had 60 per cent of the video market. 

Steve Roberts, Fox studio exec.
This is what people wanted to watch on their first VCRs.

Blay, a descendant of the French who settled and controlled Detroit (le Detroit, the strait) between from 1700-1760, had a Gallic air about him. Tall, very slim with features that identified him as possibly French, he was a determined businessman. He set out for Hollywood, resolving to find a movie exec who’d license films for videotape. He knew no one in the business. However, Steve Roberts at 20th Century Fox, responsible for outside business development, was in effect waiting for someone like Blay. They met and struck a deal in 1975, the first such license granted in the industry. It included the Sound of Music. Interestingly, as this is being written, Christopher Plummer, who played the Captain in the movie, also passed away. Blay went back to Farmington Hills, Michigan and set his racks of VHS videotape players humming away day and night as he would soon sell a million copies of the beloved movie (or a $1 million, worth, I was never quite sure). Thus, the home video industry was born 

I came into the story, shortly after Blay’s success with Sound of Music. Phil, a former Harshe-Rotman and Druck employee in Los Angeles, worked at Fox and recommended us for this assignment. It was prestigious and as I had some Hollywood leanings and worked in Chicago, nearer to Detroit, I was picked to work on it. I loved it. It was the dawn of a new industry. Several new words came into the vocabulary: ‘time shifting’ and ‘home video.’ It’s hard to understand, in light of streaming, and the ease of immediately obtaining any programming, what a revolution home VCR was. For the first time, the consumer was in charge of content timing. Turn on a movie, stop it to go to the washroom or make some popcorn. Only watch a half or a quarter one day and return to it the next. Play ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ from the Sound of Music over and over because you love it so much. In addition, no more missing a fave program, as it can be recorded off the air and watched at whatever time you wished. Aren’t home to watch the news at 6:30? Record it and look at it at 9 or 10 p.m. or four in the morning. It really was a revolution hardly understood today—and Blay was at the forefront of it from day one. 

I also worked for another Michigan company at the time, Whirlpool, and beginning on a period of great growth, Whirlpool had acquired the leading Brazilian appliance manufacturer. Len Schweitzer, our client and the VP communications, knew I had a facility for languages and said if I learned some Portuguese, spoken in Brazil, maybe we could have the business there too. Dutifully, already knowing Spanish, which is so close, I began studying. Tudo Bem! 

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, I lined up with all the video salespeople to shake Pele’s hand. He was a small man with hugely muscular legs like tree trunks. When it was my turn, I greeted him in Brazilian Portuguese: Bom Dia! Como estás? A big smile washed over his face: “Qual é o seu nome?” What is your name? I told him, “Richard” and he said, “Richard, you are my friend.” 

I didn’t think much of it, after that. Nice to have met him, pleased he asked my name. 

A few hours later, I was fatigued and leaning against a booth on the CES floor and Pele, Blay and his boss at Fox, Roberts, came walking down the aisle. Pele’s face brightened and he said, “There’s Richard, he is my friend.”

He somehow remembered me and even recalled my name. I was amazed and totally flattered. I mumbled something in Portuguese and Blay winced and his boss, Roberts, had a quizzical look on his face. Something was up; it didn’t dawn on me until later that I had somehow shown up Roberts by apparently engineering a hello from Pele, which I absolutely had not. The last thing you ever want to do is one up a Hollywood boss. 

And sure as shootin’, later in the day at a cocktail party, from the far end of the room, I saw  the big Fox executive, motoring rapidly toward me. He said, “Of all the fucking PR stunts in the universe, that one takes the cake!” 

He turned on his heel and walked away. Later, Blay told me Roberts was pissed and wanted to know how I convinced Pele to do that.

I told him the story. I had learned some Portuguese and had greeted Pele in the language. That was it.

I didn’t know enough of the language to convince him to do anything. He looked at me and said, “Right,” meaning what bunch of crapola.

Weeks later, at Blay’s office in Michigan, he said, “You know Steve’s still pissed about that thing with Pele. He wants to know how you pulled it off.”

It couldn’t possibly be that Pele was a warm wonderful man who was genuinely grateful someone spoke some Portuguese in the Brazilian style and that that person had extended him a courtesy and he was extending one back.

That would have been impossible, even though it wasn’t. And as all the accounts about his death indicate, Pele’s gesture was in character with his magnanimous personality. 

There were also some terrific adventures that occurred because of my involvement with Fox Video. 

The movie studio felt the industry was so important that it wanted its PR agency to know all the top people there and I went out to Los Angeles and was very excited to be on the Fox lot! I was to meet the then chairman, Dennis Stanfill, who had succeeded Fox founder Darryl F. Zanuck and occupied his baroque studio chief office. The night before, I stayed at a low-rent student apartment near UCLA and of course the talk turned to ‘the industry’ and I mentioned who I was meeting the next day. Stanfill? Really? Stanfill? No way! Clearly it was the dream of film students to go and pitch the big boss, and I was an unknown from Chicago who obtained that kind of high-level access. 

Stanfill had a very tall secretary named Tex; I made her a character in a still-unpublished novel and she ushered us into an office that must have been 50 feet long until you reached the CEO’s desk.  Another exec I saw there was Les Moonves, who roared into the studio lot with his superpowered Porsche; he later became head of CBS and was fired for improprieties; he was, however, one of the geniuses of the TV biz. 

As videos became available, little stores sprouted on every corner and most had a curtained off section for porn, which entered a boom time and fueled the rest of the industry. Finally, you could rent a porno and watch it in the privacy of your own home. I remember an amusing evening in which my first wife Susan and I watched some porno with Steve and Ruth Durchslag, who was very pregnant; I don’t think either of them had ever seen porn before. The video stores were renting VHS cartridges for just a few dollars for a few days. There was no real reason to own a tape; there were very few movies in the pre Star Wars era that people watched more than once. 

Andre Blay, however, believed in a tape purchase business model. The revenues would be higher: $72 for one tape. He argued that people would definitely want to own films. He was terribly wrong and I knew it. But no one could convince him. Having sold his business, Blay became independently wealthy and disputed the company’s direction with his new corporate masters. At one point, he resigned and by the time he was back in Detroit, changed his mind. It was too late; they let him go and he went off to do other video licensing, sold that, and then produced a few movies, most notably Sid and Nancy about the Sex Pistols. Being involved with Andre, however, was really a thrilling experience. 

Dolly Cole, GM president’s widow, who kept alive the Corvette flame.

One more story: Dolly Cole helped Blay get his business off the ground. She was the widow of former General Motors president Ed Cole, known for in the early fifties, developing Chevrolet’s small block V-8, which was a massive success and was in use for decades. He helped get the Corvette off the ground (which she later championed) and was responsible for the disastrous Corvair (unsafe at any speed, Ralph Nader said). He died piloting his own plane and left Dolly a very wealthy woman. She had been an assistant to a Navy Admiral and a tycoon like Cole. I guess she liked demanding men. In Las Vegas, she was organizing the various events around the show, and I happened to notice that she had a very large diamond on her finger. The next day I commented on it, saying it was very beautiful. She said, “Which one was it?” I imagined the largest diamond I could think of and said, “Five carats?” She quickly retorted, “I don’t own anything like that. What was the shape?” Pear-shaped, I said. “Oh, that one, that’s 17 carats young man.” It turned out that she was an accredited DeBeers buyer where you were given diamonds with the only choice, yes or no and you dared not say no or wouldn’t get considered again. She told me she had in addition to the 17 carat, a 20 and a 22-carat diamond with her. (“And they’ve done a lot better than my GM stock,” she said). It was as big as my knuckle and who in their right mind would wear that around Las Vegas? It belonged in a museum. 

So, goodbye Pele, one of the true greats. The sum total of Beckham, Ronaldo, Ronaldino and Messe combined were not your equal! 


Author: rotmanprwriter

PRWriter, Copy Doctor, Humber College PR and writing Prof

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