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Bringing down houses: Comedy writer Ron Bloomberg

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 1/5/2021

Jan. 1—Ron Bloomberg has stories and stories, as befits a man who ran a successful advertising business and a career as a television writer at the height of both industries. From the era captured by the hit drama series Mad Men to the golden age of sitcoms like All in the Family, Bloomberg lived it. And when he was in his mid-70s, he added a third chapter — as playwright, becoming a fixture of the Santa Fe theater scene.

Despite his achievements, helping people has given him the greatest satisfaction.

Activism first, comedy later

Bloomberg was born in Philadelphia in 1930. Even as a young man, his passion was for comedy. He grew up watching variety programs like Your Show of Shows, and his mind was always racing one step ahead as he came up with his own ideas for making the comedy work better. "Well, they're missing this," he would say, and "Why aren't they doing that?"

"I always knew I had a comedy gene," he says. "I think it came from my grandfather, who had come from Romania and was a known wit. He was a great storyteller. Family and friends would come to our house to hear him. The only problem was that he told the jokes in English, but the punch lines were always in Yiddish. So I never knew what the hell the punch line was."

Bloomberg had the drive to be a comedy writer, but his ideas were all in his head. He had nothing on paper. When he finally landed a meeting in New York with an agent at William Morris in the late 1960s, he had no scripts to show him.

"The agent's name was Chubby Goldfarb, of all things. He said, 'You're a dilettante.' And I had to go home and look up what 'dilettante' meant."

When he did finally have a written routine (a production planned for actor and comedian Steve Allen) the agency placed it, but the show was canceled before his script got used. Sitcoms were falling out of fashion, and Westerns were in. "Chubby said to me, 'It's the year of the cowboy. Sitcoms will come back. Go into advertising for a year or two.'"

He took Goldfarb's advice and, after working for a couple of different agencies in Philadelphia, he opened a small company of his own. "Along that period of time, my mother had passed away from lung cancer," says Bloomberg, an avowed anti-smoker. "She was only 49. I wanted to do something to help the anti-smoking movement." So he created and anti-smoking ad campaign in concert with public interest lawyer and activist John Banzhaf III, founder of the organization Action on Smoking and Health.

"I was just following Banzhaf's lead. He was the prime mover. He, individually, took the tobacco companies to the Supreme Court and won. And what he won was, for every four smoking commercials there had to be an anti-smoking commercial. One day, he said to me, 'Ron, we're going to take cigarettes off television and radio.' So I ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post the day before Congress voted to take them off the air. Unfortunately, when they took them off, they also took our primetime anti-smoking commercial and moved it to 4 a.m."

By the early 1970s, Bloomberg's attention was given over to another crusade. At the time, Philadelphia was rife with juvenile gang violence, and Bloomberg hoped to sway public sentiment into doing something about it. "Every week in North Philly, it seemed, a Black kid was being killed, and nothing was being done," he says. "The more the killings happened, the more the news was moved back in the papers. It was not even in the public's consciousness."

Bloomberg, working with activist Bennie Swans and Rolfe Neill, who was the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, developed a plan to deal with the root causes underlying gang violence. They called it the Crisis Intervention Network, and they pitched it to Pennsylvania'sJuvenile Justice Commission, which agreed to fund the project.

Crisis Intervention Network conducted outreach to Black communities affected by street violence, and they employed former gang members to intercede in turf disputes. "In the first year, we cut gang deaths in half," Bloomberg says. "In the second or third year, it was down to single digits. It was the most successful program in a big city at that point. Of anything I've done, it's the thing I'm most proud of. That and the anti-smoking campaign."

"He's passionate about politics and human rights," says Michele Schneider, an actress, financial advisor, and Bloomberg's longtime friend. "He's a tremendous advocate for the underdog."

"I'm just very much impressed with how respectful he is with people," says his longtime friend, retired Episcopal priest Tom Woodward. "I remember one time when we were walking, and I suggested he do a satirical play on Anna Nicole Smith. Almost immediately, he said, 'No, I don't treat vulnerable people that way.' He really is a kind and thoughtful person."

Bloomberg introduced the Crisis Intervention Network to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, but its impact was short-lived. They failed to secure local funding beyond its first year. Bloomberg, confident that he could get into television writing, went back to writing scripts because it had always been his ambition.

TV man

Bloomberg had one good contact in Hollywood: Charlie Hauck, an acquaintance who worked on the Norman Lear-produced sitcom Maude. Hauck told Bloomberg to write him a spec script, and he would try to get it on the show. Lear's company liked it, but the production wasn't hiring freelancers at the time and sent it on to Tandem Productions instead. It ended up getting used in an episode of All in the Family, "The Commercial," which aired in 1978.

Bloomberg was furious because 50 percent of what he'd written was cut from the script. He ran backstage during the show's taping and complained to one of the senior writers, who said, "That's all they cut is 50?"

"Later, I learned that that was very good for a spec script," he says.

Bloomberg continued working as a freelancer before landing a staff position on the hit series One Day at a Time. Other series followed, including Home Improvement, and Empty Nest. So did producing, which he did for the series The Facts of Life and 227, among other shows. "We're all given these fancy titles — you know, story editor, co-producer, executive producer — but it's really just a head writer and writers."

Producing a 30-to-40-page script proved a challenge for an ad man who was used to telling a story in less than 30 seconds. One episode might just take a couple of weeks to write, but compound that by a 20 or 22 episodes in a season and you have months and months of writing. He could get scripts done well in advance, but if one got thrown out, he'd quickly have to come up with a new one to replace it. And even a working script usually required last-minute rewrites.

When it came to writing plays, the pressure was off. He could write at his own pace, with greater creative control. Bloomberg isn't writing for characters developed by someone else anymore. He's building characters of his own.

Starting over ... again

In the mid-1990s, Bloomberg found himself out of a job, along with several of his colleagues. All of them were in their 60s and 70s. The reason was that the studios thought they could appeal to younger markets by hiring younger writers. The old guard was out. "One week I'm running a show, and the next week I can't get a freelance script," he says. "When I couldn't get work anymore in L.A., we decided to

move here."

It was 2004. Bloomberg and Barbara, his wife of 60 years, wanted to be near their daughter and grandchildren, who live in Albuquerque. "We wanted to be close but not too close," he jokes in a deadpan manner. "We've been here ever since."

About eight years ago, he became part of a class-

action lawsuit alleging ageism at the networks and studios, which was settled, he says, for $70 million. "We didn't all get money because there were a couple thousand of us and, of course, the lawyers took their share. But the revenge felt good."

But Bloomberg doesn't seem to hold any grudges and mentions the lawsuit almost in passing. For one thing, Santa Fe and its small but vital theater community have embraced him.

Soon after relocating to New Mexico, he saw that the Santa Fe Playhouse was doing a series of short one-act plays called Bench Warmers. After writing scripts for a slew of 1980s-era sitcoms, writing a 15-minute, one-act play didn't seem so daunting. And in the 16 years that followed, Bloomberg, who turned 90 on Christmas Day (his résumé says he's 65), has seen more than a dozen of his plays performed on the Santa Fe stage. "By turning 90, I can now use Milton Berle's line, 'He's so old that when he orders a 3-minute egg they ask for the money up front.'"

When he wrote The Queen of Madison Avenue, which opened at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in 2014, it was a chance to delve back into his advertising past, as well as an uncomfortable subject: the conscience of a generation of advertisers whose promotion of cigarettes exacerbated a dangerous addiction.

Although the play isn't about him, it was about a profession he knew well. "During that time period, no creative agency would take a cigarette account," he says. "But Mary Wells Lawrence, this dynamite lady — greatly talented — became a smash in New York. Her agency did the I Love New York ad campaign, Alka-Seltzer. They did a lot of things. But she took a cigarette account and things just skyrocketed."

Wells was one of several inspirations for Bloomberg's lead character, Abby Walsh (played onstage by actress Ali MacGraw). In the late 1960s, Wells was behind a Benson and Hedges marketing campaign that targeted young women. It helped increase the cigarette brand's sales from one billion to 14 billion in just four years. "The main thrust of it was, does she ever let it creep into her mind? All the lives she helped shorten?"

A playwright and a director

"It's much more satisfying to write a play," Bloomberg recently told an audience at a talk on comedy he gave for the Theatre Lovers Club in Santa Fe. "First of all, they can't change your words." But, he tells them, there is another difference between playwriting and television writing: "In television writing, they pay you," which wrings laughter from the crowd.

Until the pandemic hit, Bloomberg's been an active force in Santa Fe's theater scene. As recently as 2018, the first of his high-energy tributes to the Lensic Performing Art Center's early days as a venue for vaudeville acts, Vaudeville 1, opened to a sold-out audience. It featured MacGraw, as well as Schneider and Jonathan Richards, two veteran Bloomberg actors.

"Ron's good with a large canvas, like a play or a variety show, and he's even better with a quip or a throwaway line," Richards says. "Comedy is the water he swims in, and he hasn't drowned yet."

An equally successful second variety show, Vaudeville 2, opened at the Lensic in 2019. Bloomberg directed both productions.

"From a professional standpoint, the fact that he brings a sensibility that's a combination of the old fabulous sitcoms and some of the old great stand-ups makes him extraordinarily unique and funny," Schneider says. "He's a joy to work with because he knows exactly what he wants. He's an actor's dream."

Bloomberg does a quick turnaround, penning plays that go live not long after he's completed the scripts. That's how he's managed to see 15 of his plays produced. And he's directed most of them, too, so he's rarely competing with the vision of another personality behind the scenes. "When I'm watching a rehearsal, I want to pop in immediately and give notes," he says. "If you bring someone else in as a director, there's always that fine line of not interfering with what he or she is doing."

When he cast Schneider in a 2008 production of his Benchwarmers play, The Passing Parade, his "you can do this" attitude was a tremendous boost to the then-fledgling actress' self-assurance.

"Ron believed in me so much, and not just in my ability for what he called good comedic timing." She says. "As a human being, he really encourages people, bringing out the best of themselves. He'll take whatever quality he sees in a person and really build that up. He taught me to be natural, to be funny, and, as he says, to always 'shoot to the audience.' I don't know if I'd be able to have that confidence if it wasn't for Ron."

Although the pandemic ended his playwriting for the time being ("What's the point if you don't have an audience?"), it's likely that Vaudeville 2 wasn't the last we'll see of Bloomberg. The shows will go on, and so will Bloomberg.


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