Last week I wrote about some strange audio oddities titled Greetings From the Stars that tend to surface in downtrodden Canadian neighborhoods. If you haven't yet had a chance to read that piece, please do so before proceeding.
As mentioned in the previous article, this series of cassettes featured old show business legends on their down curve, reduced to providing one-take birthday greetings and other such pablum. The who, what, where, and why of the project is not apparent by looking at them. A listen to the Greetings From the Stars series spawns more questions than answers. I've been struggling to piece it all together ever since I found a box of them, covered in soot, at a ghetto pharmacy. The packaging provides some minor clues to the story such as company names like Pezamerica Resources Corp and Pezzaz Productions, a nineteen eighty-four copyright and a Vancouver, British Columbia address. Finding the worn down building at the edge of that city's ghetto did not, as I might have hoped, lead me to an office filled with autographed Foster Brooks headshots or relatives of Don Adams trying to claim his residuals. My assumption that the series was a confectionary by-product of the Pez dispenser people also could not have been more wrong.
After several failed Google searches I came upon a very promising clue. A Vancouver based recording engineer's online resumé casually mentioned working for a Pezzaz Productions for one year... 1984. Of course, it could have been a coincidence, especially since the resumé mentioned all kinds of interesting gigs, but working with Milton Berle wasn't one of them. Lord knows if I even just delivered room service to Milton Berle it'd be at the top of my resumé - written in bold. A phone number and e-mail address were provided for the recording engineer, and before I knew it I was having coffee with one of the key men responsible for the gaudy looking piece of work you see pictured on the left.
Simon Garber found himself recruited by a wealthy stock market maven to produce the Greetings From the Stars series. Said Garber, "[Murray] Pezim had made a lot of money with a mine in Northern Ontario. So he was investing it in a bunch of things. One of them was ice cream. People would just approach him with ideas. A guy named Ivan Solomon who was a graphic artist ... he came up with the idea and he approached Pezim with it. Pezim... he was one of the wealthiest ... he'd go to Vegas and rub shoulders with the other wealthy. He was buddies with Joey Bishop and that was one of his ins. So, Joey Bishop was a major player. It was easy enough to get those Hollywood has-beens to do that because, y'know, you hand them ten thousand dollars and they go into a studio or they sit in their living room." Certainly it seems that Zsa Zsa Gabor's Happy Anniversary greeting was recorded in just such a manner. Several selections from these tapes can still be heard on this podcast, including Zsa Zsa's clumsy recording that is interrupted by her dog barking. "They just paid them ten thousand bucks - cash. They said - here. Send us a tape," Simon recalled.
The low-budget aspect of the project seems apparent in both look and sound, so I was somewhat surprised when Simon revealed the following. "I was the production manager. I built the studio." I tried to clarify, "A whole recording studio was built just for [Greetings From the Stars]?" "Yeah," he said. "Were other things recorded...?" "No, it was built just for this concept. They paid me to go to trade shows and sort out the material. We had the best of everything. The best machines, the best quality tape, the best winders, the best shelves, it had all the potential to be a quality product... money wasn't an option ... just get it done."
Pezim and his moneyed cronies apparently had a hands-off approach to the project. If a problem arose they tended to give a huge pile of cash to somebody and tell him or her to fix it without any indication of how to go about doing so. Once the state-of-the-art studio's construction had got underway, Pezim and his minions flew off to England. Garber recalled, "These guys go away and I look at the drawings and the hallways aren't wide enough to be legal. But when Pezim and his boys would come in it was like... Tony Soprano and his boys. I'm sure they were all packing. They'd just take over. You'd step aside. They were totally flamboyant. It was the Vegas mafia or something. That's what it felt like. Pezim took Bishop out and bought him a seventeen thousand dollar watch. One of the few recordings we did [in Vancouver] was with Joey... which I never kept a copy of. I don't even recall doing a lot of editing either. Their business cards were gold. Everything was gold. They were creating this Hollywood image. They told me I didn't know how to spend money because I'd go to a conference in New York and I would come back with receipts for two thousand dollars. Anybody else was coming back with receipts for fifteen thousand, buying hundred dollar bottles of scotch."
Although no one knew it at the time, the jaunt to England would result in Pezzaz Productions' demise and the end of the limited run of Greetings From the Stars tapes. The meeting in England had Pezim negotiating with a group to buy out his company. The business found itself in a three million dollar hole after Pezim had been selling Pezamerica stock short for several years. On return to Canada he announced that he was resigning, selling the ice cream shares, doing away with Pezzaz Productions, and filing for bankruptcy. Consequently the price of Pezamerica stock fell, and the other company could now purchase Pezim's assets for a price they liked ... and quickly named Pezim as manager. "So Pezzaz was the sacrificial lamb," explained Garber, and thus ended the production of Greetings From the Stars. Garber speculates the series may have enjoyed a longer run if various medlers hadn't spent so much time on inconsequential details. "They spent maybe a month on the market ... a real short amount of time... by the time we got the plant up and running and got the graphics the way they wanted ... they had a blank check ... everything was done three or four times. The cabinetry in the studio was done three times because some guy didn't like the color of it!"
The aforementioned graphics, the amusing air brushed renditions of old celebrities in bow ties, were done by a designer named Ivan Solomon. Ivan was the same man who first came up with the has-been greetings idea and brought it to mister moneybags in the first place. Twenty years later Solomon was still at it, conceiving strange products for a market that still doesn't seem to exist. In 2004, Solomon had just released something called "The Grow-Op Game," a monopoly take-off that combined family fun with the ins and outs of running a marijuana farm. Underground comic book artists Gilbert Shelton and Paul Mavrides (best known for the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) may have beaten Solomon to the punch thirty-five years earlier with Dealer McDope's Dope Dealing Game, but Solomon, as before, didn't have satire or irony in mind. It was another serious product concept that seemed ridiculous to everyone but its creator. Said Solomon at the time of his board game's debut, "You get ratted on by neighbors, hydro cuts you off, you get floods, there are tons of stuff that is negative about it. Out of six players, one might get lucky. People would think that with grow-ops everyone would like to have one in their basement, that it's easy money. It's far from being easy." The game's planned showcase in the spring of 2005 ended up being banned from the New York Toy Fair.
Today the Greetings From the Stars series retains little value to anybody other than weirdos like myself, who love both failed audio projects and classic showbiz. According to Garber, when the company went under, a great deal of unsold product remained. "There was inventory that, when they pulled the plug on it, was all sold off at auction. I thought at the time that... I guess someone could re-use the cassettes 'cause... who's gonna want the product?"