WHEN MR. WHIPPLE, the man who told us not to squeeze the Charmin, gets a standing ovation, you know something different is going on.
Turns out it was the periodic renewal of the love affair between Baltimore and Oprah Winfrey that took place yesterday afternoon at the Convention Center.
Who else but Winfrey could get a couple thousand local residents to sit through an hour of what they usually try to avoid -- commercials -- and have them love it?
The taping of this Winfrey show -- scheduled to air on July 2 -- was held at the Convention Center in conjunction with the annual gathering of the Broadcast Promotion and Marketing Executives (BPME), the people who work for TV stations and networks and try to get you to watch their shows, including Oprah's.
So the topic was tailor-made for them -- television commercials down through the ages. Perhaps figuring that since the BPME are some of the people who have shortened America's attention span with their 15-second spots, Winfrey kept everything moving at a fast pace, skimming quickly across the surface of a potentially deep pond.
Jim Palmer comes on -- another guaranteed standing O -- a brief shot of his new TV spot in his Jockey briefs, a quick visit from Mean Joe Green and the now-grown-up little boy who gave Mean Joe a soda in that famous Coke commercial -- two more standing ovations -- and then it was on to a commercial that somebody had to pay for.
Bring on the two pianos and the three jingle writers for their battle of the commercial hooks -- "I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper" vs. "Can't beat the real thing" vs. "Just for the taste of it, Diet Coke" -- topped off by the revelation that a guy with a pony tail halfway down his back recruited half the troops of Desert Storm by writing "Be all that you can be!"
"That was a long time ago," he told Oprah. "It was more peaceful."
Off with the jingle writers, on with Mr. Whipple, the original Doublemint Twins, the little kid, also a grown-up now, who struggled with a big Jack in the Box hamburger, the lonely Maytag repairman, the guy who makes the Dunkin doughnuts.
They were icons all, as recognizable as the Lincoln Memorial, applauded with heartfelt warmth. There's a weighty show about rampant consumerism in America in there somewhere, but this hour of Oprah isn't it.
Though two writers for trade publications talked a bit about the serious side of commercials -- mainly economic -- for the most part this was a tribute to the warm feelings that all these bits of nostalgia conjured up in our collective electronic memories.
Along the way, the show features plenty of vintage commercials, as well as a few new ones. You get to see Ronald Reagan for Borax and Farrah Fawcett selling toothpaste, as well as some amazing images of women struggling to get their husbands' shirts as white as possible, which, come to think of it, is not all that much unlike the images on commercials today of women struggling to get a smile out of their family for a dinner that they like.
Again, there's a serious show in there about media images and their effect on the personal and collective psyche, but this one wasn't it. There was only time for three questions for the audience, and two of those turned out to be throwaways: Someone wanted to know how much the trade publication writers were paid, and another guy was concerned about subliminal genitalia in a cigarette ad.
But Oprah gave her adopted hometown plenty of plugs, both when the cameras were on and during breaks. Before she appeared there were warm-ups by the show's producer, David Boul, a Baltimorean himself, and by audience coordinator James Kelly -- who had those in attendance practice applauding, oohing, aahing, and waving their hands and yelling "Oprah," all in the hope of getting seen on national TV.
When Oprah walked out around 3:15, it was the afternoon'biggest and loudest standing ovation. She talked about how great it was to be back in town, remembering her first "People are Talking" show on Channel 13 (WJZ) on Aug. 14, 1978, when she interviewed the Carvel ice cream man.
"If you hadn't watched me then, I wouldn't be where I am now," she said. "I am grateful to you for that. I really am."
She remembered what it was like trying to come on the air as Jerry Turner's co-anchor following the saturation "What's An Oprah?" promotion campaign.
"It was very difficult to live up to that," she said. "People would turn on their sets and say, 'Why, she's just a black girl.' It's
been a long time since Winfrey has had any trouble living up to a promotion campaign -- as the BPME members could testify -- but yesterday she had to take back seat to Mr. Whipple for best line of the afternoon.
One of the trade publication writers, touting one of his favorite ads, was saying that no one was squeezing toilet paper in it.
Oprah found Mr. Whipple in the audience for a comment. "It might be toilet paper to you," he said, "but to me it's bread and butter."
A few minutes after the show, a quartet of women from Reisterstown --mother and daughter Susan and Heidi Blatt, Lisa Sine and Maryanne Martin -- were holding their hands aloft asking people to pay to touch them because they had shaken Oprah's hand.
But bet they they didn't get to squeeze the Charmin.