Examining the price of success

Sheridan Johnson, left, and Christopher Dempsey practice a scene from “The Queen of Madison Avenue.” (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

Sheridan Johnson, left, and Christopher Dempsey practice a scene from “The Queen of Madison Avenue.” (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Abby Walsh is tough, whip-smart, creative and hungry for success in the male-dominated world of advertising.

In her climb to the top, she also contributes to the early deaths of unknown multitudes of people.

She is “The Queen of Madison Avenue” and will be played in her younger years by Sheridan Johnson and around age 70 by film actress and long-time local resident Ali MacGraw.

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In his play, slated for a staged reading 7 p.m. Thursday at The Lensic, Ron Bloomberg examines the question of whether this driven woman, who took on groundbreaking ad campaigns that helped boost cigarette sales, later in life ever reflected on and regretted such decisions.

“I bring her to the point near the end where she, maybe for the first time, starts to let it creep into her mind,” he said. “But the bottom line is that the audience will decide.”

As for the real-life person who inspired the character, Bloomberg said, he had never seen any indication that she expressed regret for her role in selling cigarettes.

It’s a story that resonates with him.

His own mother, a heavy smoker, died from lung cancer. “She was 49,” he said.

That loss sparked Bloomberg, who owned a Philadelphia-based advertising agency in the 1960s, to join with John F. Banzhaf III in getting anti-smoking ads on the air to counter advertising for cigarettes. “He is an unsung American hero,” Bloomberg said of Banzhaf. “He alone took the tobacco companies to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won.”

Around that time, Bloomberg grew to know an “amazingly talented, charismatic, attractive, funny, driven woman who entered advertising… She took a cigarette account when no creative company in New York would take one. She did a great job. She appealed to young women, and (cigarette) sales shot up.”

While that individual did not do the infamous Virginia Slims ads – “You’ve come a long way, baby” – Bloomberg said he made Walsh a composite and, in the play, the Virginia Slims campaign is her brainchild.

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“The Queen of Madison Avenue” is coming to The Lensic as part of the “Under Construction” series, which gives playwrights a chance to see their work on stage, hear some audience reaction and get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Playwright Ron Bloomberg, left, and actress Barbara Hatch watch a run-through of “The Queen of Madison Avenue.” The play will have a staged reading 7 p.m. Thursday at The Lensic Performing Arts Center. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

Playwright Ron Bloomberg, left, and actress Barbara Hatch watch a run-through of “The Queen of Madison Avenue.” The play will have a staged reading 7 p.m. Thursday at The Lensic Performing Arts Center. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’ve had some very cool things,” Bob Martin, The Lensic’s executive director, said of the project.

“Ron had a great reputation in TV and advertising,” Martin added. “He’s coming into his own as a playwright.”

“The Queen of Madison Avenue” is “a really lovely piece,” he continued. “It’s serious, it’s funny. It’s a great piece for Ali to read.

“This one, because of some people interested in it, has a little more possibility to move somewhere.”

The somewhere he’d love it to move to is Broadway, Bloomberg said. “The odds are very long,” he acknowledged, while adding that, as the center of the advertising world, New York is a natural home for the play.

While he’s relatively new to writing plays, it’s not as if Bloomberg hasn’t had experience in getting his work performed. Before moving to Santa Fe in 2004, he spent some 20 years in Los Angeles writing scripts for television comedies, including “All in the Family,” “227,” “Home Improvement” and “Three’s Company.”

After settling in Santa Fe, he began experimenting with play-writing and has had six performed with the Benchwarmers series at the Santa Fe Playhouse, along with three one-act comedies that were presented with the late Chris Calloway singing in between, he said.

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This is Bloomber’s first full-length play, and he’s been working on it during the last 10 years, he said.

An earlier version had a local staged reading a few years ago, he said.

“It was interesting that many women (who saw it) disregarded the fact that (Abby Walsh) advertised cigarettes and wasn’t a good mother,” Bloomberg said. “The thing they came away with was how tough she was and how she made it in the ‘Mad Men’s’ world of the ’60s.”

Now, he said, he thinks he has the play pretty much where he wants it in terms of the writing.

A peek at some scenes in their first rehearsal displayed smart, snappy dialogue that often sparked chuckles, with the actors morphing into their characters more fully with each run-through.

Bloomberg had praise for the actors who will be reading it. The staging won’t be static; players will move about the stage, which will have a bit of a set and a projection screen that will show video of old commercials.

“I was very fortunate,” he said. “In Santa Fe and Albuquerque, there is a small pool of actors who are so accomplished, they could be in New York, London – anywhere.” Seventeen will be in this production.

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