Wandering Billy

Home for the Holidays

With the help of Piedmont Airlines

By Billy Eye

“The man who has no imagination has no wings.”
— Muhammad Ali

I think back on Christmastime 1987 with great fondness. I was working in Beverly Hills, banging out movie-poster and trailer graphics for motion picture blockbusters. That was the first year I began making any significant contributions to the dozens of high impact one-sheets that flowed from the Seiniger Advertising shop every year, considered Hollywood’s gold standard.

Just a smattering of the 1987 campaigns I was involved in included: Full Metal Jacket, The Princess Bride, Flatliners, Dirty Dancing, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Overboard, Wall Street, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Moonstruck, 3 Men and a Baby, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Throw Momma From the Train. There are at least a couple dozen more you’d recognize, caught up as I was in an unending tornado of 18-hour days, each with multiple deadlines.

Hands, imagination and the formidable tools at our disposal served as our Photoshop in the pre-Digital Age. I entered the arena every morning that first year terrified I might be called on to render something I wasn’t capable of. Fortunately, that never happened.

I enjoyed staycationing in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Year’s. It was a paid time off since a majority of the entertainment-industry players vacated the premises. It was a great opportunity to decompress, and getting around town was a breeze. Despite that, in 1987, I chose to spend Christmas with the family in Greensboro for only the second time in a decade.

I was, in a word, exhausted, trudging down the jet bridge for Piedmont Flight No. 2 out of LAX aboard a 767 wide body jet, connecting with Flight No. 6 CLT to GSO. Headquartered in Winston-Salem, Piedmont Airlines took a personalized, folksy approach to flying, with most of the flight attendants graced with soft Southern accents. Employing people who genuinely cared, who mastered their craft, was how a spunky hometown startup expanded to become one of the major national carriers. As soon as I took a seat on their planes, I felt as if I’d already arrived home.

Hired as a flight attendant for Piedmont in the early 1980s at 23 years of age, Holley Greene Rogers recalls, “The crews all had a lot of fun on layovers. Most of us knew each other’s faces, and it was like going to a small university and running into so many folks we knew and had flown with before.” In 1986, the airline stepped up in a big way, “We were so excited when Piedmont flew their first international flight. It was Charlotte to London and we felt like we were hitting the big time.”

What I appreciated most were the touchdowns, landings smooth as Lou Rawls. I don’t think I’ve truly enjoyed flying since Piedmont was acquired by USAir 30 years ago. “We were all sick to see the Piedmont name go away,” Holley tells me. “We all thought it should have been Piedmont buying USAir. We were an airline with a great employee/management relationship, we all loved Mr. [Thomas Henry “Tom”] Davis who founded Piedmont.” Of that rocky transition, Holley notes, “USAir was the opposite of Piedmont, rusthead mentality, the employees hated management, but I did love my career at USAir. I flew for 22 years.”

As for Christmas Day 1987, what I remember most is that afternoon, meeting up with extended family at the Carolina Circle 6 (admission $2.99) to watch Fatal Attraction, a film our Seiniger crew had completed in the campaign for months earlier. I hadn’t yet been confronted with a lineup of posters we’d produced, framed in a row outside and inside a movie theater. It was kind of a rush.

All through that screening of Fatal Attraction, during the most frightening scenes, I screamed like a giddy little schoolgirl, a reaction my cousin Wheaton found hilarious.

I moved back to Greensboro in 1994, before Sunset Hills’ world famous Running of the Balls. Back then, every Christmas Eve, Mother and I would dine out with family and friends, then afterward drive around the Irving Park neighborhoods to see how folks decorated their homes. It was also a quest to locate the house everyone seemed to agree that year was the closest approximation to the tacky, over-the-top Griswold residence from Christmas Vacation. There was apparently a competition that went on for several years among the neighbors along an otherwise nondescript cul-de-sac off Willoughby, some houses lit up so intensely they had trouble keeping the power on.

You see, a few years earlier, one of the movies I was teamed on was, in fact, Christmas Vacation, my contribution being the typography. The artist who painted that unforgettable image of Chevy Chase being electrocuted on a snowy roof was Dave Christensen, who was also responsible for the poster illustrations for Driving Miss Daisy, The Gods Must Be Crazy and Major League with the mohawked baseball, among others. His desk was positioned right next to mine at Seiniger Advertising.

I asked Dave Christensen, residing in Salt Lake City today, if he had any memories of his Christmas Vacation poster. “I tend to remember the negative aspects of stuff from the past,” he said via email. Keep in mind Dave’s incredibly modest, “I was always stressed over projects for Tony Seiniger (as we all were, right?) so I painted it quite large. That was the first negative comment he made. It was about 6 feet high. The second comment was about too much detail in the toolbox that’s flying in the air.”

I still recall the morning Dave brought that amazing illustration in, artists gathering around as he pulled back the cover flap to reveal what we all instantly knew would become a classic. Dave’s first version had Chevy in civvies holding an electrified TV antenna, the jolt sending his toolbox and tools flying. ( To see the original version go to www.instagram.com/o.henrymag or facebook.com/ohenrymagazine) After many revisions, Chevy was redressed as Santa, his toolbox replaced by an exploding bag of presents. Despite the many changes Dave Christensen enjoyed the process, “I kind of miss working with airbrush, colored pencils and brushwork. I still do a lot of pencil drawing but then I scan it into Photoshop and go from there. So much more versatile.”

* * *

Chris Runge, curator for the Piedmont Aviation Historical Society, supplied the photo at the top of this column featuring The Old Rebel and Pecos Pete from WFMY’s long running kiddie show. About that picture Chris tells us, “The Old Rebel is boarding an F-27 for a simulated flight in Winston-Salem.” Seems one of the 1965 episodes of The Old Rebel Show featured a “flight” on Piedmont. “The taping was done at Smith Reynolds in Winston-Salem,” Chris explains. “All of the shots were on and around an F-27. Audrey Black was their stewardess and introduced Old Rebel’s viewers to the wonders of flight.” The filming took place in the hangar lot. “After the ground shots, the crew boarded a company-owned Beech plane to get some aerial footage and the film was spliced together to create the ‘flight’ on Piedmont’s F-27.”  OH

Billy Eye wishes each and every one of you a very merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah.

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