HOW CAN WE TURN SLEAZY OFF-TRACK BETTING INTO A RESPECTABLE SPORT? “LET’S GET THE BIGGEST CELEBRITIES IN AMERICA TO DO OTB ADS FOR NOTHING.”
The chance to do legally, what so many had done outside the law. But after starting with a $700,000,000 handle the first year, OTB was left at the gate. Its macho image didn’t invite female bettors...indeed, it hardly lured New York’s sporting businessmen (who wouldn’t want to be spotted by their bosses in a smoke-filled OTB betting parlor). So when Mayor John Lindsay put former Sanitation Commissioner Paul Screvane in charge, he gave us the job of popularizing OTB in New York. In my best Bronx accent I said to Screvane, “When celebrities come to town we’ll ask them to do an ad or commercial or poster, and to show our gratitude, we’ll plug their personal appearance in the Big Apple. They’ll get publicity, we’ll get credibility, and eliminate the ‘pool hall’ taint and turn every wager into a showbiz lark. And Off-Track Betting will make a bundle. (Come to think of it, it’s almost like doing a public service campaign. The money goes to help out New York schools, hospitals and charities, doesn’t it?) How could OTB lose?”
He went for my pitch big-time. We immediately initiated every New Yorker into a new team: You’re too heavy for the Mets? You’re too light for the Jets? You’re too short for the Nets? You’re just right for the Bets! Our New York Bets T-shirts became the hot fashion item on the streets of New York, and we celebrated our team imagery with ads, posters and commercials, starring (gratis!) showbiz biggies Rodney Dangerfield (who showed New Yorkers how to dress better), Carol Channing, Henny Youngman, Ben Vereen, Lainie Kazan, Jack Gilford, Professor Irwin Corey, Lynn Redgrave, Imogene Coca, Bobby Short, Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Joel Grey, Joey Heatherton, and finally megastars Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. All of a sudden, betting on a horse at a betting parlor was now socially okay! After the campaign jumped OTB’s handle to $1.8 billion, City Hall politics reared its ugly head and a new mayor chose a new ad agency. The “dese, dem and dose” mentality re-emerged, sales took a dive, and today, once again, you wouldn’t be caught dead walking into an OTB parlor.
“GEORGE, THERE’S SOME NUT ON THE PHONE WHO INSISTS HE’S FRANK SINATRA.”
The coup de grace in my ongoing campaign to convince celebrities to sport New York Bets T-shirts (as a public service to the city) came one day when my secretary uttered the words above. I figured it was a call from a pal pulling my leg, but after hearing four notes of the voice on the phone, I knew it was Frank Sinatra, calling to ask me, hell, insisting, that he be shown all over town wearing our OTB sweatshirt. I gulped (not volunteering that I was responsible for the 1966 Esquire cover that he was reported to have detested) and one week later, the greatest name in showbiz was plastered all over town with his ringing (I should say singing) endorsement.