Adventures in advertising Tim Conway pops up to make a commercial in a Baltimore studio

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

THE CAMERAS are rolling in Baltimore again. This tim they're filming in northeast Baltimore, in a modest building on Cold Spring Lane.

But it's not a movie they're making; it's a nationally syndicated TV commercial for Choice Hotels International. The site is Flight Three, a Baltimore recording studio where, unbeknown to many in town, thousands of radio and television commercials are taped every year.

The star this time is comedian Tim Conway, who will pop out of a suitcase in a 30-second spot touting family rates at three of the company's franchises. Later in the day, another celebrity, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, will pop out of another suitcase promoting discounts for senior citizens.

They are the latest in a series of commercials for the hotel franchiser formerly known as Quality International, which began using nationally recognized personalities in 1987. Since Smokin' Joe Frazier first touted no-smoking rooms in the hotels, more than a dozen celebrities, including Tip O'Neill, Vanna White and Evel Knievel, have made entrances via suitcases into the widely recognized advertising campaign developed by Baltimore firm Gray Kirk & Evans.

Mention of Conway inspires visions of the bumbling Ensign Parker, the role he played on "McHale's Navy" in the early '60s, and the many comedy skits he shared with Harvey Korman and others over 11 years on "The Carol Burnett Show."

His most recent character, and one of his favorites, he says, is Dorf, the diminutive golfer created for videocassette three years ago. Dorf has since gone to the auto races and the Olympics and will this winter go skiing, his creator says.

Earlier this week, Conway shared the limelight with a 6-year-old actor, Robert "Bubba" Merritt Jr., imported from New York to play the impish kid who provokes Conway's punch line. Bubba has a non-speaking part; his only props are a bow and arrow.

The script calls for Conway to squat beneath a bottomless suitcase in a hole in one of two makeshift beds in a supposed hotel room. As the action begins, the suitcase unzips and Conway emerges up to his waist, says a few words in praise of kids' creativity and spontaneity, gets zapped by the menacing young Indian and then lays the punch line on us. Easy enough, right?

Not exactly.

First of all, there's Bubba. The feathers of his headdress keep showing as he hides behind the other bed on stage, waiting for his cue. A production assistant assigned to the youngster gives him a hand.

Then there's Conway. He's not exactly following the script. Conway, who prides himself on his improvisational style, said before the taping: "I always try to make each take a little different. If they're going to take 30 takes into a room somewhere and try to select one, they shouldn't be looking at 30 of the same thing."

But it seems the actor has improvised a little too much. "He's running long," says production coordinator Ellen Gannon, who is timing each take and keeping script notes. Director Lee Bonner chats with Conway through the open suitcase about tightening up, and the time improves.

After a few more takes, the sound man speaks up. It seems that as young Bubba crawls around on the floor in pursuit of Conway it sounds like a herd of horses. It's decided the boy will go over the bed instead of under it and land on some foam rubber cushions.

Then there's that d--- zipper. Attached to the suitcase zipper are invisible wires that run along the side and back of the case through the bed to a technician below who pulls on them at the director's command of "action." Over time, the wires loosen up and become misaligned so that the case won't open smoothly. Another take is scratched.

A short break is called as the makeup artist --es in to powder Conway's face. Producer Pam Poertner asks the actor how he's doing. "Is it hot down there, Tim? You ready for something to drink?" A fan is kept below the stage to cool the actor, if necessary.

Bonner and creative director Michael Deliberto discuss whether Conway really needs to introduce himself. Won't viewers recognize him anyway? They try it without "Hi, I'm Tim Conway," for awhile.

Such improvisation is common on the set, Diliberto says. Sometimes the script as well as props and action can change as taping evolves.

Diliberto is credited with creating the suitcase idea five years ago. The commercial did well in a test market and really took off when creators decided to use celebrities with well-known images that could be incorporated into the scripts.

Psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers encouraged couples to take advantage of getaway weekend rates. Ava Gabor touted senior discount rates, noting that actually such talk was more relevant to her sister Zsa Zsa than herself. Now Conway, a natural for childish antics, is promoting the no-charge-for-kids bit.

Taping resumes as Conway works on perfecting a turn while production assistants remind the now-fading Bubba not to really shoot the arrow at the nice man. At one point, Conway pauses too long before the word "hotels" and, realizing it's a bust, finishes the sentence with an ad lib -- "That's hotels, folks, not inns" -- and quickly ducks back into the suitcase for another take, adding "I'll be downstairs."

Finally a "perfect" take is made. Conway's words and gestures and Bubba's antics and aim all mesh, and the time is perfect, Bonner says. They call it a wrap on the master shot.

The close-ups will be shot next -- first of Bubba taking aim with his bow and arrow and then of Conway delivering his punchline. With limited action involved, they won't take long.

Conway's is an impressive bit of professionalism. On cue, with arrow in forehead, he delivers his final line over and over with slightly different intonation and facial expression each time. The crew cracks up silently, as the comedian, with little need for direction, gives them about 60 takes from which to choose in a matter of 10 minutes.

Two and a half hours after Conway climbed into his suitcase, taping is complete. Just another day in the life of a commercial.

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