• Peter Alson

The Circles of the Internet

Updated: Dec 28, 2020


I’m an internet basher. I admit it. Sometimes I think it is the devil’s greatest invention, that it will undermine and ultimately destroy us. It certainly has already fairly demolished my means of making a living. Evidence in hand: I used to get paid for doing this.

There is also a growing consensus that the internet is rewiring our brains, changing the way we think. A piece by tech writer Nicholas Carr went so far as to ask if Google is making us stupid. But even if it is, it is part of the devil’s genius that the internet is also capable of great things. Else we would not be so addicted to it.

Let me tell you where the free-associative fingertip-walking nature of the internet led me today. Last night, only a year behind the times, Alice and I watched the final episode of Mad Men. The final shot of this brilliant show was of the hilltop ad for Coke, the famous one with a multiplicity of people singing in “perfect harmony.” We were led to believe that Don Draper, after walking away from advertising, had gone back to the Madmen life and then created this seminal ad.

It got me thinking about who had actually created that ad, and that led me here: Back in 1992, when I was living in Chicago and working at Playboy, I used to go, after work, to a bar in the Playboy building called The Gold Star Sardine Bar. It was an elegant little bar with a stage and a seating capacity of 50. All the big cabaret performers of the day performed there. The engaging owner, who tended the bar himself, was a man named Bill whose last name I couldn’t now remember. What I did remember is that he told me that he had worked in advertising at one point. He claimed to have invented the phrase “It’s the Real Thing” as well as “Black is Beautiful.” Are you beginning to see my thought processes here? Bill was certainly a character and a wonderful raconteur, but I had no idea if he was telling me the truth or not. I do know that one day I went in there after work and just as I sat down at the bar another patron got up and left, and Bill came over to me and said, “You want these?” and handed me an envelope with two tickets to that night’s Bulls playoff game inside.

“You’re giving me these?” I asked.

“The guy who just left gave them to me. It was Jerry Reinsdorf [owner of the Chicago Bulls]. I can’t stand the bastard or his team. I wish he wouldn’t come in here. He’s always trying to get on my good side, but I see him for what he is. A phony. Anyway, the tickets are yours if you want ’em.”

That night, I sat courtside with a friend and watched Jordan and Pippen beat my Knicks. I’m telling you this story because it gives you a small sense of who Bill was in the Chicago landscape and because after all these years I am still wondering if some of the things he told me were true.

Enter the internet. Unable to recall his last name, I type in “Bill Gold Star Sardine Bar” and up pops a bunch of entries about the man whose last name it turns out was Allen. Sadly, I discover that the bar closed in 1997, five years after I left Chicago, and that Bill Allen died in 2001. Some of the unique qualities of The Gold Star Sardine Bar come back to me: they never charged a cover or had a drink minimum. Cigarettes were free. Ice cubes were made out of Perrier. Drinks were never served during performances so as not to disturb the performers. White Castle sliders were delivered and served throughout the day.

During its 15-year run, the bar hosted among others Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Bobby Short, Julie Wilson and Andrea Marcovicci (either they were working for a fraction of their usual fee or Bill was losing a tremendous amount of money running the Gold Star). He also launched the careers of a few local performers. Patricia Barber was one. Another was a beautiful singer named Eden something, whom I developed a little crush on.


Enter the internet again. I’m quickly able to discover her name was Eden Atwood. At the time, I had never known anyone named Eden and I thought it a magical name. It must have entered my subconscious in some way. When Alice and I named our daughter Eden it never even occurred to me that it might have any connection to a singer I had watched a few times in another life years before. Another thing I discovered in my internet wanderings is that Eden Atwood is now an advocate for the civil rights of people born with intersex traits. She, herself, it turns out, has intersex traits, which I think in oldspeak was referred to as Hermaphoriditic. Who knew?

But I digress–which is after all what the internet encourages. It’s kind of one big series of digressions, after which you look up and hours have passed. Back to Bill Allen.

The bulk of his money came from starting a chain of supermarkets in the Chicago area called Treasure Island. By the time I met him, his partners in the business were suing him for embezzlement and he was countersuing. Their charges against him included the fact that he was funneling money from Treasure Island into the Gold Star Sardine Bar. Whatever else was true or untrue, no one argued the fact that Allen was the marketing genius behind the chain’s success.

Which brings me back to where this all started. Did Allen the marketing genius  coin “It’s the Real Thing?” or “Black is Beautiful?” I can find nothing on the internet to connect him to either phrase. The “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” hilltop ad was conceived by a Bill, but his last name wasn’t Allen, it was Backer. And as far as I can determine, Bill Allen never worked at McCann Erickson.

Interestingly, though, and this is a connection not made on the internet but one that comes to me as I am thinking about all this, my father and stepmother were good friends at one time with a woman named Penny Hawkey who did happen to work for McCann.

And among the ads that Penny wrote was the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial, one of the most famous and best loved of all time. Like Peggy on Madmen, Penny Hawkey started as a secretary and worked her way up through the ranks to the top of the heap. One of her daughters, Molly, became an actress. Molly’s agent submitted her for an audition on a show she’d never even seen. That didn’t deter her; she went to the audition and  got the part. The show?  Madmen.

Just Google it, if you don’t believe me.

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