The real deal behind the wheel Truth: She may be warm and funny, but that lady on the MTA commercial is no bus driver.

September 11, 1996|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

She might have fooled the rest of us, but the warm and friendly bus driver in the MTA commercials didn't fool Catherine Thompson. A real bus driver, Thompson knows, doesn't wear a summer shirt with a winter tie. A real bus driver pins her badge to the right side of her blouse, not the left. A real bus driver doesn't give out receipts, no matter how warm and friendly she is.

But most important, a real bus driver really drives a bus, and if there's one secret Catherine Thompson wants the city to know, it's this: The driver in those commercials is an actress, not an MTA employee, and she didn't drive that bus, not one inch.

Thompson did.

You won't see Thompson, a real-life MTA operator, on television. She's the behind-the-scenes driver responsible for the shots of the bus moving up and down the street in those ads; she's the person who drives two routes a day, before and after her shift at Rite Aid; she's the one who deals with the broken buses, rowdy kids, road construction, drivers who won't let her merge and people who blame her when they run late and miss their ride.

"Some of my passengers say, 'You look just like that lady,' " says Thompson, holding the wheel, grinning, and cocking her head just like the TV driver. "And I say, 'No, I'm not her -- but believe it or not, I'm her double!' I think she did pretty good, for not being a bus driver. But I probably could have done better."

Maybe we should have guessed the driver in the MTA commercials was too good to be true. She's warm, happy, outgoing, frank and funny, with the patience of a saint. She smiles while an accountant pays his $1.35 fare in dimes and nickels. She doesn't get annoyed when a nurse yells "Hopkins Hospital -- stat!" She isn't fazed when the entire bus starts singing "The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round." She jokes, banters, checks her rearview mirrors, extols the virtues of public transportation ("Have you seen the price of gas lately? Ouch!") and still keeps the bus from careening off the road.

Well, actually, that's Thompson keeping the bus from careening off the road. But you get the point.

"We wanted to find an actress who didn't come off as an actress," said Jeff Millman, the executive vice president and creative director at Gray Kirk VanSant, which developed the campaign. "We stayed as true to reality as we could, but because we had limited funds and limited time, it made sense to

hire a professional, who could do what we needed faster than a real person could."

But New York actress Mary Bond Davis, whose resume includes "Jelly's Last Jam" and other Broadway shows, and who convincingly exudes the warmth and friendliness required for the ads, lacked one important qualification. A bus license.

That's where Thompson came in. She was asked to be Bond Davis' driving double because her supervisors thought she resembled the actress (actually, Thompson, who's 35, looks younger and hipper). A few days later, Thompson showed up at 5: 30 a.m., in special uniform -- "I said, 'A tie with a summer shirt? That's crazy!' " -- and worked until 5 in the afternoon, driving around the Inner Harbor and Charles Street while a camera crew filmed her. She got paid at her regular hourly rate and went home, thinking she'd catch a glimpse of her hands, or at least the back of her head, when the MTA commercials started airing last month.

No such luck. All she saw on TV was the bus, flashing across the screen in a few quick scenes. (In the actress' close-ups, the bus was towed to create the appearance of movement.) But Thompson is proud of her role, however anonymous, and she gets plenty of chances to point out her contribution, what with all the passengers who've been offering their critique of the MTA campaign.

"Some people think it's fake, that no bus operators are that cheery all the time," says Thompson, hauling a busload of people up Calvert Street on her afternoon run, which is already 10 minutes behind because of a train crossing. "You've got some good bus operators, but most aren't that happy, and you could tell those people riding the bus aren't real people."

She looks at the passengers in the rearview mirror. "You don't see too many happy, happy people on the bus. They're tired, and they want to go home. And I'm nice, but I can't be that happy all the time. I don't think nobody can."

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