THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Thursday, October 27, 1994 TAG: 9410260139 SECTION: SUFFOLK SUN PAGE: 04 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY FRANK ROBERTS, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Medium: 75 lines
It's hard to imagine in this day and age, but a small person dressed like a bellboy and promoting cigarettes was an American icon of the 1930s and '40s.
One writer even went so far as to call him a legend, describing him poetically, romantically as someone ``filled with goodness, greatness, warmth and gentleness.''
Sounds like Mother Theresa but it was Johnny Roventini, known around the world as ``Little Johnny,'' the Phillip Morris spokesman famed for his shrill pitch: ``Call for Phil-lip Morrees.''
That phrase was emblazoned on the usher-like jacket he was never seen without. He probably slept in it.
The uniform was inspired by a 1919 poster of a bellboy. The idea for the pitch came about in 1932, courtesy of an ad agency president named Milton Biow. He had the idea and needed someone to wear the uniform.
What happened next sounds like something out of a B-movie script.
Biow and a co-worker stopped at the Commodore Hotel in New York and asked for the best bellhop in the city. The best was evidently not at the Commodore because someone there sent them to the Hotel New Yorker.
There they saw John Louis Roventini, all 48 inches of him, described on hotel souvenir postcards as ``the smallest bellboy in the world.''
The B-movielike story continues. Biow gave him a dollar and told him to page Mr. Phillip Morris.
Roventini, who did not know Phillip Morris was a ciggie, said, ``I went around the lobby yelling my head off, but Phillip Morris didn't answer my call.''
The impressed Biow asked him to be a professional pageboy. The naive Roventini knew not what a pageboy was.
He did know that $100 per commercial was a nice hunk of money, especially in those days. But first, he said, ``I have to ask my mother.''
Adeline Roventini gave her 22-year-old son the 1930s version of the high sign.
When he debuted on the airwaves, Little Johnny was accompanied by ``On the Trail,'' from Ferde Grofe's ``Grand Canyon Suite,'' a grand piece of American music.
His ``call for'' debut was on ``The Ferde Grofe Show,'' and that music was scheduled to be a one-time-only background. But it was effective and became a permanent fixture.
Roventini had entered bonanza-land, quite a thing for a young man from an Italian immigrant family. His dad, Dante, drove a cart. Mom was a dressmaker.
Johnny was the moneymaker, beginning with $20,000 a year - fantastic for the Depression era.
For that amount he had to promise never to appear in public without a bodyguard and never to ride the subways during rush hours.
Phillip Morris did not want its small representative trampled. And the company marketers also were nervous about kidnappers picking him up - literally and figuratively - for ransom.
Roventini's salary later went up to $50,000 and his voice was insured for that amount.
Between 1935 and 1947, Roventini appeared on about 25 radio shows and, later, on just as many television programs.
During World War II he was given a draft classification of 1/2A, bestowed on him when he tried to enlist in the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He was turned down when he could not reach the tape top.
When Roventini was replaced by dancing cigarette packages in the 1950s and '60s, he retired to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where he still lives, spending a fair amount of time on his boat.
His last official act was in 1974, when he gave his famous call to help celebrate the opening of the company's operations center in Richmond. ILLUSTRATION: Photo
Johnny Roventini, the 48-inch-high Phillip Morris pageboy, was
discovered when he was a bellhop at the Hotel New Yorker.