NOTE FROM LB: The heading above is Herbie J’s official title for this piece, but just between us, I would’ve given it a different one – “The Way Life Really Works.” Hope you enjoy Our Pal Herbie J Pilato’s most recent piece!
by Herbie J Pilato
I’ve worked what many would term as “menial” jobs over the years, but I’d prefer to call them “meaningful.”
I used to joke that, wherever you go in Los Angeles, I either used to work there or I got lost there. And that’s more true, than not.
And today? Today, I’m the host of my own TV talk show on Amazon Prime, “Then Again with Herbie J Pilato,” and it even has my name in the title. Pretty cool, right? Dang straight it is.
But what? Did you think that happened overnight?
More like over nearly sixty years.
And every job or life experience that I’ve had in those close to six decades has brought me right to this moment – and I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the world.
I never did go the paper-boy route, and I wasn’t even an altar boy, but my first job was working for my Uncle Carl who as an ace carpenter. One summer, when I was 11-years-old, I used to assist with his various contract jobs. It seemed to be a right fit because I, with other kids in my neighborhood, used to enjoy building “forts” and “go-carts,” one of which that was even transformed into a mini-camper that (and that for reasons I can’t remember, we were forced to dismantle).
But my first real job-job was as a stock-boy for the local Bell Supermarkets in my hometown of Rochester, New York when I was about 17. That was okay, but more than anything, it gave me some early spending money in what my senior year in high school. But that job really “didn’t do it for me.”
The following year, I worked in maintenance for Topps Markets, another local grocery store. I used to sweep and polish floors, clean bathrooms, and power-water the meat room behind the deli-department in the back of the store.
That was a relatively easy, yet grueling job. But as with all my jobs, I try to make the best of it. I worked those varied maintenance jobs during the “Disco”/”Saturday Night Fever” era of the late 1970s, and I was always dancing and singing somewhere in the store. At closing hours, I used to grab one of the check-out counter microphones, and sing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” It was one way to have a little fun, make my co-workers smile, and get dates.
But one day, while singing in the meat room, during business hours, a district manager was visiting the store. I introduced myself with my then overzealous nature (which really hasn’t subsided too much) by saying, “Hey! My name is “Herbie J Pilato…with no period after the J. But my friends call me ‘Disco.’ And that district manager glared at me and said, “Well, hello there, Disco. I sing, too, you know, and if you don’t keep this meat room clean, we’re gonna’ do some dancin’!”
“Ok, then,” I thought. And kept on doing my thing.
One year after that, the Marriott Airport Hotel was erected in Rochester, actually across the street from that second supermarket job where I danced in the meat room. I secretly desired to work in the front desk area of the hotel, as a bellman. But I applied in the kitchen, and got a job as a dishwasher and then food prep.
The dishwasher job was dreadful, and I hated it. But I made a few good friends in that kitchen, including the chef who soon promoted me to food-prep. But when I put too much mustard in the egg salad, that was the end of that.
About two years later, I finally applied for a front desk position at that hotel. The front desk manager was a friend of mine, and I thought that would help me get the job, and I ultimately won the position on my own merit. But during the interview, my friend-and-soon-to-be-boss told me, “I’d love to give you this job. I think you would be great at it. But I don’t want you to think that you’re going to get any special treatment from me because we’re friends.”
I was a little blind-sighted by that statement, but realized somewhere in that conversation was a test to my character. I passed and got the job, and excelled at it. I loved it. It fit my personality. I loved to communicate with people, was blown away when I got my first tip as a bellman, and it boosted my self-esteem when I learned how to conquer certain phobias.
For example, part of being a bellman meant driving the hotel van, taking guests to and from the airport. I usually drove the hotel’s station wagon, but one day I was instructed to drive the van…a much larger vehicle…because there was a larger-than-usual amount of guests I had to pick up at the airport.
When my boss said, “Herbie…please take the van to the airport.” I responded with, “The van?” He reiterated, “The van.” I was terrified. When he handed me those van keys, and as I exited the hotel lobby, and journeyed out into the parking lot towards “the van,” the vehicle in front of me almost appeared to be “expanding” as I got closer. It was like “the van” was coming alive, and I was in some kind of surreal episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
But I got in that van, inserted the key into the ignition, and drove off.
I was doing it. I was driving “the van.” I just “did it.” And that happened because of “Star Trek,” and I was no longer in “The Twilight Zone.”
Explanation: In one scene from the 1982 feature film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” William Shatner’s Captain/Admiral Kirk turns to Kirstie Alley’s Lt. Saavik, and says, “We learn by doing.”
And that front desk position at that hotel ended up paving the way for my first professional job in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Nazareth College of Rochester (with a B.A. in Theatre Arts), and attending UCLA for a semester, I formally moved to Los Angeles. Then, in May of 1984, I became a Page for NBC-TV in Burbank, California – and that was my foray into television, where I ended up working “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” “The 1985 Emmy Awards,” various Bob Hope Specials, and other special shows and events like “An All-Star Salute to President ‘Dutch’ Reagan.”
The NBC Page position was originally contracted for 18 months, and I was offered an extension, but I declined. I wanted to be an actor. So, I left a corporate position at a major TV network and began my journey into the world of freelance and contract work, beginning with bit roles on TV soaps like “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “General Hospital” (I was one of the waiters at “Duke’s Restaurant” in the “Big ’80s”).
Later, I was a stand-in dancer for “Solid Gold,” and I even made an appearance on “The Golden Girls” (which I used to work as an NBC Page).
In between all of that, I broke my right baby toe, which forced me to stay home for six weeks. I started watching TV again, as I once did as a kid. One night, “I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later” aired on NBC. It was the sequel to the 1960s classic TV show, and I had worked the promotion for it in my latter months with NBC. I thought, “I should write a reunion movie like that for ‘Bewitched,'” which has always been one of my favorite shows.
I did so. But “Bewitched” star Elizabeth Montgomery wasn’t interested in doing a reunion movie. It was then I suggested a “Bewitched” Book, which she agreed to, and which was eventually followed by other classic TV companion books, including two biographies about Elizabeth (whom I had come to know quite well).
The books paved the way for my producing career with TV documentaries like “Bewitched: The E! True Hollywood Story” (which remains the 7th highest-rated “True Hollywood Story” in E!’s history), and Bravo’s hit five-part series, “The 100 Greatest TV Characters,” among many others.
I also started consulting and appearing on the “extras” for many DVD releases of shows like “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Kung Fu,” both for which I wrote companion books.
I then began contributing to Larry Brody’s www.TVWriter.com (where I now serve as Editor Emeritus) and writing for the Television Academy and www.Emmys.com. Also, too, I founded the formal 501(c)3 Classic TV Preservation Society nonprofit organization (www.ClassicTVPreserve.org), and my Television, Ink. production company (www.televisionink.blogspot.com).
And in between all of that, I was flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Rochester, where I was a primary caregiver (with my sister Pamela R. Mastrosimone) for both of my parents in their elderly years: a position that remains my most rewarding; one that inspired so much of my work, and has to this day, helped me to keep my priorities and my head on straight.
My Dad died in 1995, and after my Mom passed away in 2008, I found the courage at 48 years old to reinvent myself once again, this time as the host of various classic TV live events that were held at the Barnes & Noble in Burbank, California.
And it was those live events where I was plucked from semi-obscurity by producers Joel Eisenberg and Lorie Girsh that transmuted into my hosting and executive producing of “Then Again with Herbie J Pilato,” which began streaming July 1st on Amazon Prime (as well as Shout Factory TV, and other media outlets).
As it stands now, the show has received over 220 five-star reviews on Amazon.
That kind of rating is a little different than the rating I once received from my former supermarket meat room district manager, but as far as I’m concerned, all of it led up to this moment and are equally meaningful (and far from “menial”) in the big picture scheme of things.
Herbie J Pilato is the Founder and Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society and author of several classic TV companion books. He has been part of TVWriter™ for 20 years and is Contributing Editor Emeritus. This article first appeared on LinkedIn.Com.