Wagner College alumnus and former I.T. staff member Mike Rubinfeld ’99 M’01 recently discovered a VHS videotape of a 1992 promotional film for the college that gives us a look back in time at the campus community of 28 years ago, including cameos by some beloved faculty and administration members.
President Emeritus Norman R. Smith, who led Wagner College from 1988 to 2002, gave a detailed account of the video’s creation in his 2010 memoir, “From Bottom to Top Tier in a Decade: The Wagner College Turnaround Years,” which can be ordered online. The excerpt is here with a foreword by President Joel W. Martin. Our thanks to President Smith for permission to reprint his account.
In his book, President Norman Smith describes the quest to capture and communicate visually the unique juxtaposition that is our beloved campus. It is a worthy quest, but a challenging one. On the one hand, Wagner College looks like a classic sequestered New England campus. It is so iconic, it is used for movie sets depicting the perfect quiet campus. On the other hand, our location on Grymes Hill, one the highest points on the east coast south of Maine, affords Wagner with a grand view of New York Harbor and Manhattan in the distance. President Smith's idea of using a helicopter to try to capture images to convey this juxtaposition, as described in this chapter, and of a blimp, also referenced in his book, made perfect sense. It was cutting edge in its day. Today we would use a drone, but no matter the technology and no matter how hard we try to convey the magical charm of our campus, the truth is that there is no substitute for experiencing it in person. In some ways, it feels like Wagner College is destined to remain somewhat hidden from the larger world, an American Shangri-La. - President Joel W. Martin
Sometimes the best intentions blow up in your face. The college’s need for a recruiting video was where it all began. While only eighteen years ago, 1992 predated DVD technology, and websites for colleges and universities hadn’t yet been born. View books with beautiful photography and videos that could be mailed to prospective students in VHS videotape format were key to admissions marketing programs.
During the first five years, Susan Robinson had overseen a total revamping of the college’s publications, and they looked great. But the only video we had was essentially a slide show with voiceover. We knew it was nowhere close to being as effective as some of the very professional videos that competing colleges had already introduced at our expense. We needed a promotional video, and it had to be first rate. Some of Wagner’s most distinctive characteristics had to be seen to be believed; namely, its location on a hill overlooking Manhattan, and its bucolic campus emulating the best of New England rural settings. A video could capture this and lure viewers to come and see for themselves. A number of production companies specialized in college recruiting videos and, as we canvassed them, we learned that a top-shelf video was probably going to cost somewhere north of one hundred thousand dollars.
Our trustee Phil Dusenberry had been very helpful in designing some print media ads for us that we were running in the educational supplements of the New York Times and other major daily newspapers. Phil’s agency, BBDO, was much more than a print media organization; it had gained fame at about that time for a series of Pepsi commercials they had produced that featured Michael Jackson at the peak of his popularity. A lot of publicity had surrounded the commercials because Jackson had been seriously burned by pyrotechnics, an injury he would reportedly suffer from throughout the rest of his life and which was, perhaps, the cause of his addiction to painkillers that many believe finally caused his death.
I approached Don Spiro about the advisability of asking Phil to produce a video for us. We had just given Phil an honorary degree the previous spring. He and Evelyn Spiro were joint recipients. Don was all for approaching Phil, and upon being asked, Phil agreed but would only donate professional expertise. The camera crews and related production costs would have to be paid by the college. Phil estimated those costs, if we wanted to go first rate, would be about $100,000. Don considered that a bargain from Phil and proceeded to call the trustees to pitch in and come up with the $100,000.
Don and Bob O’Brien took the lead in donating to the cause, followed by a number of other trustees including Bob Evans, John Lehmann, and John Myers. The $100,000 was quickly realized, and Phil got to work.
I sent Phil a number of college recruiting videos comparable to what we would need for Wagner, noting that the beauty of the campus was an important characteristic that had to be captured, along with Wagner’s location overlooking the Manhattan skyline. An ideal closing shot would start at Main Hall, then rise into the air until the Manhattan skyline became visible. We could voice over this shot with a comment like, “At Wagner College, your most ambitious goals are within reach” — namely the career opportunities in the most powerful city in the world.
Phil was a very soft-spoken and understated man. He listened to me but didn’t really nod his head in an understanding way. No doubt he was used to clients laying out their view of what the commercial should be, which was probably contrary to what his creative mind saw. The big Pepsi slogan he created was Uh-huh. The Pepsi CEO probably gulped disapproval when Phil came up with Uh-huh, but I guess it sold Pepsi.
Phil sent over what he said was his best production team, a group of about five people. Phil himself was not on campus during the production planning or shoot. Susan walked the team through the campus, pointing out what we considered to be the locales that seemed most photogenic. Susan also assembled dozens of students, faculty, and staff, all of whom we thought put Wagner’s best foot forward. The production team then went about assessing and casting everyone.
The shoot lasted several days during a period when, thankfully, the weather was on our side. Each day was sunny and clear. The campus looked great. We were going to end up with a great video. Phil had decided to use 35mm film instead of video, and then transfer to video. This would make everything look more lush: richer colors, better contrasts, and so on. It wasn’t easy, but I distanced myself from the shoot while wanting to be in on every facet.
On the final day of the shoot, a helicopter landed on the Main Hall Sutter Oval. Phil had remembered my closing shot suggestion and had arranged for a camera crew to be lifted by helicopter until they could pan from the campus to the Manhattan skyline. Too good to be true! This was going to be great! Phil also notified me that he had arranged to use Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for the soundtrack since Woody Allen’s movies had made that music synonymous with New York City. That sounded good to me, too.
Now, however, after several days of clear sun, clouds were coming in, and it looked like a storm might be imminent. The camera and helicopter crews rushed their plans and proceeded with the shoot, pulling up from the Oval and over the tree line in what looked like the nick of time to get the shot. The clouds and rain came shortly thereafter. There weren’t going to be multiple takes. I hoped they succeeded the first time around. It was unlikely that we could afford to do this a second time on another day.
With the shooting done, we were told it would take a couple of weeks to edit everything into a final cut, so we waited patiently for the call. Eventually, Phil called us and invited Don Spiro, Bob O’Brien, and me to come in to his Manhattan offices to see the video. He said they had about twelve minutes assembled, which sounded about right.
We all gathered in Phil’s office where the production crew had also assembled. Phil had a television and video player in his bookcase and we all gathered around. The high point of the video was definitely the ending. The helicopter shot worked extremely well and, with the Gershwin music, was a powerful ending that in every way captured the magic of Wagner’s unique location.
Most of the video, though, featured close-up headshots of students and faculty talking about Wagner. The production opened with a group of students tap dancing and, from that point forward, virtually every student was a theatre major talking about the theatre program. There was very little reference to any other part of the college. For all intents and purposes, someone watching the video and knowing nothing else about Wagner would assume that we were the Wagner School of Performing Arts. Ironically, theatre was the only program at Wagner not in need of a recruiting video. The program had a great national reputation, and applications always exceeded the limited capacity.
I was also disappointed that very little of the campus’ beauty had made it into the video. With the exception of the final helicopter shot, the video barely featured the rural park-like beauty that we had spent the past five years trying to optimize. This video wasn’t going to work for us.
When Phil asked for my reaction, I praised the ending but noted the overall emphasis on theatre as a problem. Both he and his production crew were not happy. The head of the production crew walked out of the office in a huff, grumbling that he had had it and wanted nothing more to do with the project. Don and Bob seemed disappointed that I had been critical of the video. I had attempted to be diplomatic, but felt strongly that the video had to be re-edited in order to more accurately portray the breadth of the college.
Others shared my concern. Susan and her admissions recruiting crew loved the quality of the production, which was exceptional, but they agreed that the message wasn’t going to work very well except in theatre — where it wasn’t needed.
Phil did go back to the drawing board. They had shot tens of hours of film and selected only twelve minutes for the final version. As I had suspected, Susan had provided them with students from throughout the college, not just the theatre department. Although the theatre students were particularly attractive, articulate, and compelling, many of the students from the other disciplines also had made effective presentations.
A few weeks later, Phil sent a revised version that was wonderful. There were now a lot of campus panorama shots they added that had not been in the original version. The changes turned the production into a winner. As we tested the revised version, everyone who saw it loved it. Among those who had seen many college videos, most volunteered that Wagner’s was the very best one in the marketplace.
We passed all these accolades on to Phil, with my profound gratitude for the way in which he had changed the video to accommodate my concerns. Phil, however, made it clear to me, without really saying so, that he never wanted to have anything to do with me again. I had challenged his expertise, and he didn’t like that, especially since he had been volunteering his expertise. Who on earth was I to question the reigning dean of advertising? Phil would back away from all involvement with Wagner and, when his four-year term came up for renewal, he asked not to be renewed. The outcome was the most bittersweet of my five years. We had ended up with one of the finest recruiting videos of any college in the country, but at a price I wished we hadn’t had to pay. But if I had to do it all over again, I can’t think of how I could have avoided a most unfortunate outcome.