Johnny Roventini as "Johnny the Bellboy" for Philip Morris, circa 1940s.
|Born||John Louis Roventini
August 15, 1910
Brooklyn, New York
|Died||November 30, 1998
Suffern, New York
|Known for||Character of Johnny the Bellboy for Philip Morris advertising.|
Johnny Roventini (also known as John Louis Roventini and popularly as Johnny Philip Morris) (August 15, 1910–November 30, 1998) was an American dwarf actor of Italian-American heritage.
Less than four feet tall as a fully developed adult, Roventini was working as a bellboy at the New Yorker Hotel in 1933 when he was discovered by an advertising mogul, who had him perform a page, issuing a "Call for Philip Morris". He reportedly could always vocalize a perfect B-flat tone as he repeated those words, literally over a million times during his career, according to his own estimate.
He soon became famous as a product spokesman for Philip Morris brand cigarettes in radio, television and print advertising media. He was described by Philip Morris personnel as a "living trademark", and represented the company for over 40 years. He also played roles in the growth of broadcast media, most notably helping Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with the initial success of their innovative I Love Lucy comedy series beginning in 1951.
Youth, hotel career
The child of Italian immigrants, he was born in Brooklyn, New York. Physically, Johnny Roventini was a little person. As an adult, he was only 47 inches tall and weighed 59 pounds. Employed as a bellman (or "bellboy") in the New Yorker Hotel in New York City, he was promoted by the hotel as the "smallest bellboy in the world".
Discovered by ad mogul Milton Biow
The famous "Call for Philip Morris" advertising campaign predates Johnny Roventini's role and began during World War I. A drawing of a bellboy carrying a tray with a box of cigarettes on it was the original mascot. The campaign had been successful and was used for 15 years with artistic variations as the only significant changes.
In 1933, advertising executive Milton H. Biow, the principal of the Biow Agency in New York City, was managing the advertising account of Philip Morris cigarettes. Biow had an idea to bring new life (literally) to the mature "bellboy with tray of cigarettes" campaign. He had heard of the distinctive voice and appearance of Roventini. Biow and Philip Morris executive Alfred E. Lyons went to the hotel where Johnny worked. They sat in the lobby and observed him, noting both his diminutive size and distinctive voice.
In those days, hotel lobbies were typically elaborately furnished and used as meeting places, so situations with persons seeking each other were not uncommon. Biow and Lyons had apparently been unnoticed by the 22-year-old bellboy, when, according to the legend, Biow approached him and paid Johnny a dollar to page a "Mr. Philip Morris" throughout the lobby. The small bellboy repeatedly cried out "Call for Philip Morris" in his distinctive high pitched voice, several times, not knowing that there was no such person. He did not realize that he had been essentially performing an audition. "I went around the lobby yelling my head off," Johnny recalled later, "but Philip Morris didn't answer my call." Roventini initially thought that his call had been both legitimate and unsuccessful. He was soon to learn that he had been wrong on both counts. He was later quoted in Variety: "I had no idea that Philip Morris was a cigarette."
The page had in fact been a huge success, one that was to lead the young bellboy to a 40-year career. Biow and Lyons both visualized the performance of the small bellboy as ideal to bring life to their fictitious character. In April 1933, Roventini was hired to make a "Call for Phil-ip Mor-rees" on the different radio programs sponsored by the tobacco company. Roventini had been earning $15 a week at the hotel and received $100 for his very first radio commercial. He later recounted that he only accepted the new job after checking with his mother, with whom he lived much of his life. He was soon earning $50,000 annually, a substantial wage for such work in those years, according to his biography.
A fun career
It was obvious to his fans that Roventini enjoyed playing the smallness of his character, which Biow and others helped him capitalize upon. Philip Morris Tobacco Company provided a small chauffeur-driven American Austin convertible automobile to get Johnny to the live radio broadcasts on time. He became a friend to movie stars, sitting in popular actress Marlene Dietrich's lap during a publicity shot. During World War II, he patriotically tried joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and probably to no one's surprise, was rejected for being too short. He shared a dinner table with General and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, clowned around with Red Skelton, sat ringside with fighter Jack Dempsey and participated in numerous parades and other public events. There were at least ten other Johnnys, known as Johnny Jr.s, including Albert Alteiri. This made it possible for Johnny to appear simultaneously in various sections of the country.
Roventini was heard on popular live radio programs and appeared in his short-jacketed bellboy outfit on some of the most-watched television shows of the 1950s and 1960s, including I Love Lucy, Candid Camera, the Red Skelton Show and the Jackie Gleason Show.
Johnny and I Love Lucy
He is possibly best remembered of all his Philip Morris related-work for the I Love Lucy show. In 1951, in the early days of commercial broadcast television in the United States, the new comedy show ran into difficulties when it first sought sponsorship. This was due to the Cuban character played by Desi Arnaz. Advertisers were fearful of unknown public acceptance of the show featuring a marriage of mixed ethnicity in that era. After failing to win financial backing from CBS executives, Arnaz traveled to New York to hawk the show, and struck a deal with advertising mogul Milton Biow who bought the show for his client, Philip Morris cigarettes. The tobacco company sponsored I Love Lucy exclusively from its premiere on October 15, 1951, through Christmas of 1954 (it then shifted to an "alternate sponsorship" with Procter & Gamble until June 1955). Although Philip Morris had a rich return for its investment and risk-taking in backing I Love Lucy, Arnaz also had the wisdom to retain ownership of the I Love Lucy shows, effectively inventing both the "rerun" and syndication procedures for the fledgling television industry.
The show was enormously popular with the viewing public, and with Lucy and Desi, and sidekicks William Frawley and Vivian Vance (as neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz), Johnny and Philip Morris gained into unprecedented national television prominence. Johnny's voice and face was often the first thing one heard and saw respectively on Monday evenings on the CBS television network as the I Love Lucy opened. Johnny also did a number of commercial spots with stars of the hit show, Lucille Ball and Arnaz, who were expected to promote products sponsoring their shows in that era, when embedding ads straight into programs and in having the stars of shows do ads for the sponsors was common practice. In a particularly memorable episode, "Lucy Does a TV Commercial", the actress dresses up in the "Johnny the Bellhop" costume. Industry watchers reported that Lucy, Desi and Johnny had soon become fast friends while working together.
Lucy, Johnny and the Red Scare
As I Love Lucy was enjoying its enormous popularity, the U.S. was in an early period of the Cold War. The politics of communism and the possibilities that subversive pro-communism activities were active within the United States became known as a Red Scare, the second such period in the 20th century.
In September 1953, allegations surfaced from columnist Walter Winchell and other news stories that Lucille Ball was being investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the U.S. Congress for alleged communist ties.
The Los Angeles-Herald Express ran a headline in three-inch red letters: "LUCILLE BALL NAMED RED". The comedienne was reportedly both distraught and devastated over the charges. Her acting career and possibly even her personal freedom were at risk.
Johnny traveled from his home in New York to be with her at Desilu studios in Los Angeles, a gesture of support from both Roventini and her show's sponsor, Philip Morris, which she never forgot. Although with much difficulty Lucy was able to disprove the charge, many others who were blacklisted as a result of such allegations had their lives and careers ruined.
A Philip Morris representative once described Johnny Roventini as a "living trademark". In 1959, NBC Radio aired a special half-hour program to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his career, describing him (with an apparent double entendre) as "an advertising giant".
In April 1970, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banning the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio starting on January 2, 1971. In the years after tobacco advertising was prohibited in broadcast communications regulated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Roventini made personal appearances for Philip Morris until he retired in 1974.
"Johnny's fame as an advertising legend was enhanced by an ever-present smile and outstretched hand that won him friends wherever he went," Philip Morris eulogized.
Johnny Roventini's original uniform (red usher's jacket, piped trousers, black pillbox hat and white gloves) was donated to the American Advertising Museum, which was located in Portland, Oregon before closing in 2004.
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- Sitcoms Online - I Love Lucy
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- Biography of Lucille Ball, famous TV clown
- History of Tobacco Regulation*
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