Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Bob Newhart: Semi-Disgruntled VL&A Employee

Von Lengerke & Antoine, the subject of my next article in the NFLCC Magazine, has been preoccupying my free time of late. For those who don't know about this venerable Chicago firm, it was founded in 1891 by Oswald von Lengerke, one of six sons of a German immigrant gunsmith, and Charles Antoine, the only child of a prosperous French immigrant banker. Boyhood friends in New Jersey, the two went into business together in 1891 and opened a sporting goods store on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago's famed Loop.

The firm had a fascinating history (which you'll have to wait for the article to read the rest), but I ran across an interesting tidbit that I couldn't fit in but is worthy of knowing, as it deals with one of my favorite comedians, Bob Newhart. Many of you probably know Newhart (b. 1929) from his television shows bearing his name, and without doubt this Chicago native has had a brilliantly succesful career.

So what does he have to do with anything remotely related to VL&A? In 2006, Newhart wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times called "Death of a Salesman." It chronicled pieces of his life as a struggling 28 year old comedian in Chicago forced to take a seasonal clerking position at VL&A, at that time a subsidiary of Abercrombie & Fitch (which bought the firm in 1928). He was forced to work on "Returns Day," the infamous December 26, when people crowded the stores taking back items they did not want.

A "floater" who worked wherever needed, he was asked to staff the VL&A camera counter when a customer brought in a return. With his typical droll wit Newhart described it as follows:

I him asked if I could be of help. He told me he wanted to return the batteries he had received for his camera on Christmas. He frequently went to Africa on safari, he told me, and the humidity destroyed this particular type of battery. Suddenly, my problems — having to work part time on the day after Christmas, trying to make it as a comedian — seemed somehow insignificant. It gave me a whole new outlook on life.

Another incident came when a customer purchased a huge amount of goods ($3000 worth) and when he gave his name, Newhart immediately recognized it as an infamous Chicago mafia member. Nervously, he rang up the sale, noting "I didn't require any identification," and then felt compelled to tell the mafioso that "once the shipping clerk picked up his presents, they would be out of my control. If any arrived damage, he should get in touch with the shipping department, not me."

As Newhart concluded:

My sleep the eve of December 26 could probably be described best as fitful. Work was equally unsettling. In fact, that particular returns day was one of the longest in the history of returns days. The clock didn’t move. In the end, however, the workday came and went without incident. Two men with suspicious bulges in their jackets never visited V.L.&A. that day. Apparently, everything survived undamaged — including, thankfully, me.

Just another day in the life of Bob Newhart, part-time VL&A seasonal clerk. Bob's big break was just around the corner, fortunately, as just a couple of months later he got his break when he took a job working for Chicago TV producer Fred Niles, where he developed his famed telephone routine. Within two years, he had the #1 album in the country (ahead of both Elvis Presley and the Sound of Music movie cast album). The rest, as they say, is history.

So the next time you pick up a 1950s vintage VL&A item, keep in mind it just might have passed through the hands of a legendary TV star.

-- Dr. Todd

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