by David Jacobson
Meriden, Connecticut
September 26, 1983

Stars Turn Out For State Plug

If a few months from now your kids are shuffling around the house shaking boxes of Good-and-Plenty and chanting "Better Yet Connecticut," you'll have a Wallingford marketing firm, a Meriden-based bank, and a Barkhamsted artist to blame.

The three entities are the driving force behind a series of TV promotions for the Nutmeg State scheduled to hit the local airwaves in about a month.

The commercials, which await the expected okay of the Governor and his Vacation/Travel Council for release, were 'sneak previewed" at a luncheon of the Advertising Club of New Haven last week.

The state's tourist chief hopes the ads will eventually be aired in other states, pumping fresh bucks into Connecticut's $1.8 billion tourist industry. Produced on a shoestring budget of $27,00 - compared to the estimated $10 million bankroll for the initial "I Love New York" campaign - the 30-second spots feature celebrities in idyllic locales telling us why the constitution state is their kind of place.

All of the spots begin with the tooting steam engine of the Valley Railroad in Essex: "Better Yet, Connecticut", "Better Yet Connecticut", chants the antique locomotive. "We have to stick the slogan in people's heads," explains Carol Wallace, a Barkhamsted fine artist who came up with the idea for the steam engine.

Inside the train, "conductor" Art Carney takes time out from punching tickets to point out a landscape peopled by the famous. "Hey, isn't that Paul Newman?" he says, pointing. The videotape cuts to the film star casually posed by the Lime Rock Speedway, where he races stock cars. "I'm a pretty lucky fella - I could live wherever I want," says Newman. "For 22 years, I've been living here in Connecticut."

The commercial's producer, 20/20 Consulting of Wallingford, said the star gets millions of dollars per film, but he donated his time for the commercials as did other participating celebrities. The state's effort is unique, they said, because so far, the ads were put together using volunteered time, property donations and almost exclusively private funding, according to Will Mebane Jr. of 20/20. He said that the state of Michigan has spent $100,000 on some of its promotional spots.

The taping crews from WFSB Productions in Hartford were the only paid participants. The $27,500 in production money came from donations by Jefferson Federal Savings and Loan Association ($10,000) and six regional state tourist agencies funded from the sales tax on lodgings and from private sources.

Initially, the commercials will get play in public service slots donated by stations. The goal is to air them out-of-state, increasing the tourist business that employed 50,000 people here in 1982, said Barnett Laschever, director of the tourism office in the State Department of Economic Development. Laschever intends to show the commercials to the Connecticut Legislature in an attempt to get the "several hundred thousand dollars" it would take to air the spots in New York City and other major metropolitan markets.

"The state's current print campaign, which features the slogan and a toll-free hotline to call for vacation kits, has returned $100 in tourist bucks for every tax dollar spent," he says. "The 20 million people in the New York megalopolis are 75 percent of our market," said Laschever. "We've also run a brief but successful campaign in Washington, D.C. We feel there's an untapped market among diplomats."

According to Ms. Wallace, who developed the commercials' theme and personally recruited the celebrities, the Big Apple's huddled masses and D.C.'s homesick diplomats alike will warm to the combination of New England nostalgia and celebrity confessionals. "When they (the stars) tell you why they live here, and they mean it, that's so personal," she said. Many people know of them and know they're very private people. When these celebrities think enough of the state to come out and say this, it makes people aware of the state's special qualities.

Tuesday's ad club luncheon featured June Havoc, actress and sister of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Garbed in a black leather dress, with blonde curls and husky voice, she gave dramatic testimony about her "love affair" with Connecticut. "I lived in Malibu for many years. I lived in New York City in an antique townhouse. But I always felt everything was temporary in my life. I was always half-packed," said Ms. Havoc. Then her late husband showed her a block of dilapidated colonial buildings in the town of Cannondale. Selling her other homes she invested in the block's rehabilitation, the section, known as Cannon's Crossing, which now includes a restaurant, blacksmith shop and antique store as well as her home.

"The people who come up from New York say, 'There's this crazy actress and she's done this insane thing. We'll get some laughs.' Then the thing grabs them and they fall in love too," she said. Ms. Havoc appears briefly in the initial "teaser" spot, a combination of clips from planned commercials meant to arouse public interest in the campaign. She is wearing a sweat suit and tending her Cannon Crossing garden.

A commercial shoot amidst central Connecticut's fall foliage featuring Art Carney and film critic Rex Reed is planned for the fall, said Ms. Wallace. Other future spots will probably include one starring Raquel Welch directed by Milos Forman and another showing Governor O'Neill and his wife Nikki enjoying the Noank Lobster Festival, said various source.