Menory Lane; Playbill Pays the Bills

Last week I mentioned obtaining work with 'Playbill'. A crazy eighteen months... As I sat to write this, sheer curiosity had me checking to see whether they are still in business. Ought to have know they would be...
and thriving, it would seem.

There came a point where even the temporary data clerk work started to dry up. It was 1990, I had taken on rental property and I was weary of travelling immense distances for work. I forget now how many applications I submitted, but I know it started getting depressing. Then this place called Playbill Marketing advertised for an 'assistant programmer'... and it was 10 minutes walk from the unit!

I found myself being interviewed by a bear-sized individual with the most pungent halitosis I had ever met before or since. Despite having advertised for a programmer, the questioning was about whether I knew about advertising, or spreadsheets or graphic art.... and almost anything other than computers. At that time, I did not have the experience of manipulative and sadistic individuals to keep me on the alert. I was not secure enough to question back. Somehow I satisfied with my answers and within a week I was on staff.

Turned out there were a total of six desktop computers in the building, of the 1980s variety. I was to be assistant to John McGarry, the accounts manager and he only needed someone who could transfer everything he did manually into digital format.

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Playbill Footy Shirt
Here was a company trying very hard to catch up on the technological advances; all the artwork for programs and merchandise was still being done physically by mask and matte and 4-colour printing - and one of their hurdles was The Bear Man who owned and ran the business. Brian Nebenzahl was your oversize Jewish mogul-type with the personality of a hogwart. Having started from scratch with simple programs, Playbill was now working for some of Australia's - and the world's - largest promoters; Kevin Jacobsen, Michael Edgley, Cameron Mackintosh, who were regular visitors to this little office in the Northern 'burb's of Sydney. There were major companies also, such as the Australian Ballet, Opera Australia as well as being the official merchandiser for the NSW Rugby League Football clubs.

Within my first three months I saw four sackings, a half dozen beratings, watched and heard things being thrown at people and walls and witnessed daily meltdowns with gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair by our esteemed lord and master. For without doubt, The Bear existed in his own creation and all within reach was his to own and twist and use as he saw fit. When it rebelled or fell short of reading his mind, there was quite the performance to follow. What would trigger such as this? Might have been the weather that day. Or the wrong pair of pants... who knew? None of us in the office ever did.

Somehow, it never came my way, though just observing it was terrifying enough.. His long-suffering secretary muttered to me six months in that, having reached that milestone, I might just last the distance. "He likes you", she said, not without a slight tone of disbelief. I wasn't sure that was something to be desired...

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Playbill Theatre Shirt
I had by that time worked out that Brian had a morbid distrust of all things computer, which was why it was so difficult to bring the place up to scratch.  I began producing stock control sheets and other simple charting methods to demonstrate how much more quickly he could get his returns and profit margins sorted out.  That was very silly of me.  Talk about putting the rod to one's own back. He couldn't get enough of those and I started to get the calls into The Office. This was a step up...with potential for being kicked out. As long as I kept those numbers crunching, 'he liked me'.

Playbill was the kind of workplace where one woke in the morning with a hole in the guts somewhere not quite identifiable, wondering what the day held. There was hardly any chitter chatter between colleagues as there was tendency to be accused of plotting and revolt. Brian's wife and son also worked the business (they all three still do); there were three artists, two advertising execs and a general clerk, plus John McG and another accounts and legal man - who keeled over with a heart attack after one of Brian's tirades. He was never replaced; John was moved up and I took over John's work. This was also nearly unheard of for Playbill and caused a bit of a stir - promotion for heaven's sake!

During all this time, there were three occasions which will be forever etched to memory in terms of exhilarating experience; for I would never have been able to afford them myself. On behalf of Playbill, I was able to attend a footy grand final, media seat (Penrith v Canberra 1991); Joan Sutherland's farewell concert at the SOH, box seat (1990); and The Three Tenors at the Entertainment Centre in 1990. Playbill actually produced large white hankies for all the devotees of Maestro Pavarotti to buy! For that one, to get along at all, I had to take on sales duties for the programs. Once done though, the perk was to stand at back of auditorium for the concert.  Oh my word. You can hear that voice all over the various media - but nothing prepares you for the live performance. The other two blokes were pretty good too...&*>

These moments were not enough to compensate for the toxic work life though. Towards the end of 1991 I began making the case for bringing in computerised graphics programs to help the artists, but this didn't go down well. It was going to mean putting up some big money. So came the morning I was called to the office and had the stapler thrown at me, with a demand that I pack and leave immediately. By this time, though, I had learned not to cower. Looking the fellow in the eye I invited him to run that by my union.

Playbill Publication
"UNION????!!!"

Lord alone knows what possessed me to come up with that.  I was not in any union and never had been associated with such. It was one of those 'inner voice' moments!  I left him to stew on that for a while and promptly got on the blower to the only Union which would likely take me on the spot with dues to be paid in arrears. They did and they served me very well indeed.  There was a fax through within the hour offering me representation for unfair dismissal.

For a full fortnight I continued my duties, maintaining my smile and productivity. There was much toing and froing and gnashing and tearing going on in The Office. Then came the day I was called in, sat down and most pleasantly told that due to economic downturn, I would have to be 'let go', but that there would be the appropriate severance and a bonus paid.

Even better, during that fortnight I had applied for, and obtained, a new position, back in the field of logistics programming.

I had worked, laughed and cried (mainly the latter) through 18 months of lunacy, whilst hobnobbing with some of the great names in Australian entertainment, left with a goodly lump sum, a glowing reference and a positive turn up at the end of it all. I had now grown up in the business world also.

Life was good.


12 comments:

  1. Well done. Love the union insight!
    I worked for such a madman for exactly one year. One day he asked me to come with him to another employee's office and I stood in amazement as he fired that person and left me to superintendent the packing of the desk. That done, I had the shipping department give me another carton, I packed my desk and informed him on the way out, box in hand, where to find my keys and a list of what remained to be done to produce the next set of financial records.

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    1. Hari OM
      It takes a level of self esteem to be able to stand up... Having never really been challenged in this regard before, no one was more surprised than me when the words tumbled forth!!! That itself was bolstering and the union were fantastic, without at all getting bolshy. Yes, it was a valuable, character-building time. Yxx

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  2. Oh my gosh, the bear sounds horrible. I've had quite a few jobs I've disliked but never anything like this. How did you make it 18 months? I shall never look at one of those Playbill programs the same again!

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    1. Hari OM
      ...it is probably worth while to mention at this point that Playbill in the USA is different ... the Aussie Playbill does operate in the US but under the name of Platypus P/l... very original of them, fair dinkum.... Yxx

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  3. Glad you got out unscathed Aunty Yam, those sort of workplaces can leave some horrendous scars!!!!
    Loves and licky kisses
    Princess Leah xxx

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    1. Hari OM
      That is so true and I saw others bearing those scars.... being attached in a similar business, I know your mum will understand this most of all - there is something about 'entertainment' which seems to have the sub-clause 'insanity'! When you do find a good company though - nothing beats it! Yxx

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  4. I have had some awful jobs and bosses. Surviving 18 months could seem like an eternity to me. I like how you handled the UNION thing, fantastic! I hope you week is going well.

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    1. Hari OM
      Thanks Eileen... yes there are some true horrors out there - I think, in part, it was just sheer Scottish doggedness that kept me going! Yxx

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  5. Wonderfully vivid description of a 'toxic', if also occasionally stimulating work place. These sort of experiences certainly help build one's capacity to stand one's ground and deal with difficult people; useful skills to develop, for sure.
    Cheers, Gail.

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    1. Hari OM
      This is very true. It would have been quite easy, some of those mornings, just to crumble and 'let him win' - but despite my comparatively quiet little ways, if there is one thing which will get me fired up, it is any sense of injustice - in a sense I was not just standing up for me but for all the poor s*** who got busted before me... and with a hope that maybe it would make him more cautious after I left........ (a gal can hope...) Yxx

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  6. OH MY..... this is one of the PERFECT examples for the old saying...
    Whatever doesn't KILL you.... makes you STRONGER...

    You came out Stronger and BETTER....

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    1. Hari OM
      ...if a little bit frayed around the edges!!! something your recent c-kwestering experience will speak to, your Furterness!!! Yxx

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