In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the way we perform our lives.
Part II of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.
Cherie ended up in a rooming house in Lewiston, Montana. “It was a little tiny sheepherding town. Right smack in the center of the state. In fact the true geographic center of that state was in the kitchen sink of a lady I got to know there. She was proud of that.
“I worked like mad. I had five different shows. I had a news show. I had a woman’s talk show; I invited mothers to bring their babies, and little ones, and I let them be on the radio. They liked that a lot. And I obviously had a show in which I did readings, like poems or short stories. “I would say: Oh hello, welcome to Cherie’s Partyline! That was the name of one of the shows. And then with a little extra energy I’d bring a snack to the engineer, who was on all night. I’d take him a sandwich or something.
“It was a brave thing to do for a woman alone, and in an area that felt to me practically uncharted—I mean I didn’t even really know where I was.” She’d just gotten on the bus and gone, walking through doors as they opened for her.
Cherie hadn’t been in Montana a year when Anni called again. The Dean of the School of Journalism at Northwestern was trying to reach her. Cherie had minored in journalism and had written several well-regarded papers on advertising, as part of her coursework. Anni said: “This is a job with an advertising agency. It’s not radio.” A small Detroit company, with an even smaller budget, had applied to the university, looking for graduates who might be willing to train, to learn the ropes of copywriting. The Dean said to Anni, “If Cherie’s still around, I think she should look into this.” And Cherie said, “Whatever it is, I want it.”
“So I took the bus again from Montana to Detroit, Michigan—it was Christmas—to interview in this little tiny advertising agency: W.B. Doner. I mean they had a couple of regional accounts, but nothing much. I didn’t know what a copy writer was, but I could figure it out pretty fast. So I said yes, yes, I’ll take the job.”
Back in Montana the manager at the radio station was furious. “Because of course I’d drummed up a lot of business—because I sold time, too [ads on the radio]. I’d run around to all the little shops and sell time. I was a ball of fire.” As if we didn’t know. But sweet as it was in Montana, it was not her place. “So I said, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get back to the Midwest where I live.
“I got on a train this time, not a bus. With a few pennies in my pocket, and a bad cold. I can remember that morning I left on the train.” It was February. “I think it was five in the morning and Montana at five in the morning is something to see. I was standing, waiting for the bus to come—it was late, of course—and it was freezing, freezing!—and I said, I am on my way to Detroit! On my way to a new job!”
Who would have expected this turn of events? But it was the 1950s; advertising was coming into its own and was full of itself. Like the tech world today, it was the place where energetic, ambitious people made their mark. The move to Doner was propitious and perfectly timed, and it would launch Cherie on the path that would use her remarkable energy for the next decade and more.
“I was at Doner for 3 or 4 years. And I really did learn the ropes, the advertising ropes from them. The agency was small, but they had high standards, and if you had the energy and the interest you could do a lot of different jobs. If the agency had something that needed to be done—why would I go home at night and just read a book? I’d rather stay around and talk to the people in the art department. I was mad about everybody in the art department, how they made the ads, the drawings. And then of course there was a broadcast section of the agency.” Cherie wasn’t doing the broadcasts herself, but her job was to write commercials for the radio. In that sense, “it wasn’t much different than being in Montana.” Her focus was from the beginning on the spoken word. “I never fancied myself a print writer. I just didn’t go that direction. And for some reason at ad agencies they divided the departments. If you were a print writer you were a print writer. If you were a broadcast writer you were a broadcast writer.
“I always had ambition—do more, make more money. I became attractive to agencies in Detroit and Chicago, who were always looking for people who were bright and creative and inventive. Several approached me and wanted to hire me, but for some time I didn’t feel like leaving Doner. I was afraid to leave a paid job, one that was secure, for some pipe dream.
“But then I got an offer from Don Nathanson with Weiss and Geller, in Chicago, and they had the Toni account, you know, the Toni Home Permanents? And that was a big account. And they were looking for a woman writer. So I did a couple of scripts for them, and they hired me. And that was a big breakthrough.
“Then Weiss and Geller went belly up and everybody lost their jobs. But we were taken up, most of us, by another small agency,” run by Earl Ludgin (who happened to be Ken Mason’s step-uncle). I went there with a lot of experience and just worked and worked—they had some very important accounts. And then McCann Erickson got on the wire—and now we’re into the big time. Because McCann Erickson had offices all over the world. And they had an office in Chicago. And they wanted me.”
|On a photo shoot for Helene Curtis|
It was a big decision. “I thought it would be too demanding, and I didn’t know if I was up to it. But I did it, I went, and it was successful. I became the first woman vice president in that office, ever. And so then I was on everybody’s list. I was getting a lot of requests.” She was, in fact, Vice President of Copy, and then, together with the VP of Art, was named Creative Director at the agency.