Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Right Name

Tonight, I've been musing about the difference having the right name can make.

Entertainers and writers often take a nom de plume, and it seems to be beyond dispute that having the right name can make all the difference, no matter what one's line of work may be.

And it's funny, sometimes, the names that gravitate to certain professions.

I recall seeing, for example, a sign for a dentist whose name was Dr. Paine. I often wondered how many potential patients were driven to a different dentist simply because of his name.

(Which reminds me of something George Carlin once said. "If 'Janitor in a Drum' made a douche," he said, "no one would buy it.")

I once knew a florist named Rose. No kidding.

A few times I have known of basketball players whose last name was Short. That doesn't sound like the right name for someone who plays a game in which height is looked upon as a decided advantage.

For many years, I worked on copy desks for daily newspapers. On one such job, I worked nights. It was a morning paper. For awhile, I worked with a fellow named Day. I suppose that is considered ironic.

Another irony from those days involved one of our lead editors, the fellow who designed the front page of the paper every night. In those days, color was not as widespread as it is today. The editors could use it on the front pages of their sections if they wanted to — but it was with the understanding that the color process would make production more expensive.

Color gradually became commonplace for newspapers, but, in those days, the decision to use color was often a gut–wrenching experience for the editors, who frequently had to justify their decisions. For those who designed the front page, the most compelling reason to use a color photo was to attract readers. We were in the midst of a newspaper war, and the editors of the main section saw color as the key to boosting circulation.

I worked in sports, which seemed to have been given the green light to use color whenever we wanted to. And color really did bring sports photos to life, whether they were produced by one of our photographers or came across the wire. But the front page of the sports section was not the one on display in convenience stores and news boxes.

Anyway, this fellow on the news side had a reputation for resisting color. I always assumed it had something to do with his frugal nature — and, truth be told, I agreed with him most of the time. In those days, it was hard to justify using color for photos of people's faces — like the photos you see on columns.

The newspaper term for such photos is mugshot, and most of the mugshots that news had were of men wearing dark suits and dark ties standing in front of a dark background (think Blues Brothers without the sunglasses). What could color possibly add to that?

But there were times when I disagreed with the decisions that were made.

The name of the night editor who stoutly resisted using color photos on the front page was ... Ed Gray.

Known as the "aptly named Ed Gray" by some of the copy editors on the news side.

Still with me?

Well, the reason I'm on this tangent this evening has a lot to do with some interesting facts that are connected to tomorrow, November 19:
  • Forty years ago tomorrow, Apollo 12 landed on the moon, and Pete Conrad and Alan Bean became the third and fourth men to walk on its surface.

    For more than 40 years now, children have studied the Apollo program in school, and they have been told that Neil Armstrong spoke the now iconic words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," as he took the first steps on the surface of the moon.

    I suppose it was the luck of the draw that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first to step on the moon, but sometimes it seems like it was destiny. What if the crew had come down with something and a backup crew had to go instead? Suppose it had been Conrad or Bean who spoke the first words from the moon. What was said surely would have been different. And neither Conrad nor Bean has the same impact as the name Armstrong.

    Maybe that's because it conjures up images (for older Americans) of Jack Armstrong, the All–American Boy, a radio character who was popular when Neil Armstrong was a boy.

  • Ten years earlier, in 1959, the Ford Motor Co. discontinued the Edsel. It was named after Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, company founder. Edsel the man died of cancer in 1943. His namesake vehicle was introduced to the public in September 1957, but it was discontinued a little more than two years later because it was so unpopular.

    No one ever determined an overriding reason for the Edsel's lack of popularity. But I always thought the name had something to do with it. Edsel didn't have much magic.

  • Sometimes, I guess, it isn't necessary to do anything at all if you've got the right name. On Nov. 19, 1990, a pop duo that went by the name of Milli Vanilli were stripped of their Grammy Award because they did not perform at all on the album that won the award — studio musicians and singers were used instead. The duo merely lip synched in live performances.

  • As I said, some names just seem destined for certain occupations. On Nov. 19, 1862, a boy named William A. Sunday was born in Iowa. As an adult, he was known as Billy Sunday, the most famous evangelist in America in the early part of the 20th century.

    Billy Sunday influenced national policy. He was a supporter of Prohibition, and it was widely believed that he played a key role in the passage of the 18th Amendment, which made the transportation and sale (but not the consumption) of alcohol illegal.

    If your aspiration is to be a preacher, Sunday is a pretty good surname to have.

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