For Jonathan Goldstein, YouTube offers endless nostalgia, but he always finds himself returning to the same subject – a precocious child actor from the early 70’s named Mason Reese. And then a few months ago, new clips of Reese began popping up on YouTube. What’s more, they appeared to be uploaded by Reese himself. Jonathan sets out to discover why – and why now, after 40 years. This is a rebroadcast of a story that originally came out in March of 2015.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
This week we are rebroadcasting one of our favorite stories. It’s actually not a story reported by me or PJ, it is a story reported by Jonathan Goldstein, who you probably know as the host of Heavyweight. He also worked on This American Life, he is an incredible writer. And this is one of my favorite stories we’ve ever done. So, here’s Jonathan.
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: If as a child I’d been told of a future world where there dwelled a magical TV that could play anything I wanted, an infinite television jukebox that I could watch all night, without ever having the remote pried from my hands, I’d say, you must be describing Utopia. And this is where I find myself. Wednesday night. Two thirty AM. Utopia.
[ROCKY MARCIANO AND MUHAMMED ALI FIGHT]
JONATHAN: There are things from my childhood that I’ve seen on YouTube that I thought I’d go to my deathbed without ever getting to revisit. Like the fake boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano that special effects wizards put together in 1970 to determine who was the greatest fighter of all time. I often turn to it long after I should be in bed. Our bookshelves are where we project our taste, where we announce to our dinner guests that, of course we enjoy Faulkner, the golden age of comics, and the essays of Montaigne. But if our bookshelves are where we telegraph a version of who we want to be, then our YouTube search histories, culled from late hours punching away at whisky soaked keyboards, are what we really are, the self that is lead by desire rather than decorum. After watching Ali and Marciano for a couple rounds I think, wasn’t there a song about Muhammad Ali I’d once heard?
JONATHAN: And then Superman makes me think, of course, of David Lee Roth heroically bounding around in leather spats and fish net bikini underwear. And so I seek out his haunting isolated vocal tracks that make “Jump” sound like an a cappella spiritual intended to rouse the faithful to action.
The clip recalls a time when Eddy Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli reigned as the Kim and Kanye of their day. Eddy played guitar and Valerie starred in One Day at a Time, a sitcom in which a mustachioed leather vested janitor named Schneider allowed himself into her family’s apartment whenever he pleased.
[ONE DAY AT A TIME CLIP]
JONATHAN: Even though we can see almost anything we want on YouTube there’s something about the endless possibility that can cause anxiety; and so, we just circle back to the clips that deliver the dopamine of childhood nostalgia. We all have that sweet spot and for me, it’s the early seventies, when my first memories of being alive were beginning to form. And the figure who most perfectly evokes this time… the ten letter late night search term I inevitably keep coming back to more than any other is Mason Reese.
MASON REESE: People kept telling my mother I look like a munchkin. Well this is what a munchkin looks like.
JONATHAN: In the seventies, Mason Reese was an advertising phenomenon who appeared in dozens of commercials for everything from Dunkin’ Donuts…
MASON: Do I look like a munchkin?
JONATHAN: …to Raisin Bran.
MASON: This cereal’s got a lotta, lotta delicious raisins
JONATHAN: And the Underwood Chicken Spread ad…
[UNDERWOOD CHICK SPREAD AD]
JONATHAN: …with this adorable spoonerism that became a 1970’s catchphrase:
MASON: Like I told her, Mom, this is like having a borgasmord.
JONATHAN: Lately I’ve been trying to explain Mason Reese and I keep coming up short on analogies. “He was like the Wendy’s ‘Where’s The Beef?’ Lady,” I say. “Or Mikey from Life Cereal.” But it isn’t quite true. While they were limited to one product and one memorable slogan, Mason advertised everything. And he went from being a TV commercial star to being a star star. When he walked down the street people asked for locks of his signature red hair and blessings for their babies. One mother even named her twins after him, calling one Mason and the other Reese. When I bring him up to my mother to see if she remembers, she says, “Wasn’t he the little boy who was so homely, he was cute?”
MASON: How come every lady doesn’t use Ivory Soap?
JONATHAN: There was something uncanny about Mason Reese. Because of his precocity, he didn’t quite track as a child and some people even thought he was a little person dressed in children’s clothing who, after a day’s shoot, sparked up a stogie and poured himself a bourbon. The little-old-man sad-eyed face. The Prince Valiant haircut. The scrunchy voice that sounds as though spoken underwater in a tub of buttermilk. The hair that only seemed to grow so bright red in the seventies. Mason Reese is as synonymous with childhood as the memory of sitting in a wet bathing suit on the hot vinyl back seat of my father’s Pontiac while listening to an AM radio blare “American Pie.” His face is the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen, of crayons, comic books. Except in the past year, new Mason Reese videos began to appear, things from TV I don’t recall ever having seen. It was as though my very desire was somehow having an incantatory effect, summoning deeper cuts from the past.
[MASON SINGS “SINGIN IN THE RAIN”]
JONATHAN: Mason on afternoon talk show, The Mike Douglas Show tap dancing to “Singing in the Rain.” Introducing Leonard Nimoy and hamming it up like an old pro.
MASON: Please join me in welcoming one of my favorites. Leonard Nimoy.
JONATHAN: And then, there’s this:
[MASON TELEVISION PILOT]
JONATHAN: An ABC sitcom pilot simply called, “Mason” where he plays a friendless child genius who brings home a 35 year-old man in safari shorts he met while wandering the streets of New York:
[MASON TELEVISION PILOT]
JONATHAN: But amidst this trove of new material, I found something else. Something I didn’t expect, something confusing and sad.
MIKE DOUGLAS: And he’s doing something I understand that you especially like, a song you’re especially fond of.
JONATHAN: In this clip Mason is co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, and Harry Chapin is being introduced:
MIKE: Do you want to tell us what the song is? Or do you know?
MASON: Is it, I mean, is it that song?
MIKE: You know what it is.
MASON: No, I don’t want that song.
MIKE: Why Mason?
MASON: You’re not putting on that song?
MASON: Cause you’re just not.
MIKE: Aw, now he gets–he’s very touched by that song.
JONATHAN: Mason, seated on his mini-director’s chair, just can’t take it and drops the facade of the precocious TV broadcaster and collapses his face into his hands and weeps.
MASON: I know what song it is.
MIKE: Oh, you know what song it is? Well maybe we oughta bring the guys with the worms back? (laughs) C’mon pal, c’mon over here and sit with Uncle Mike. Aw, you gonna be alright? Well, this song is very touching as you can see and Mason is very touched by it. Is it okay? It’s called “Cats in the Cradle.” Harry Chapin (audience applauds).
HARRY CHAPIN: This is for my kids and for Mason.
[CAT’S IN THE CRADLE]
JONATHAN: And as Harry Chapin sings the quintessential song of complicated father/son love, Mason cries inconsolably.
YouTube is a cultural repository, but it’s full of fragments, broken and left over, like Roman ruins. Was there something that took place before the Harry Chapin introduction? Something that was happening just outside the frame, off stage and unseen? There wasn’t much context to be gotten from YouTube commenters either, most of whom were just mean, saying things like, “What the hell is that red haired thing?” “Wow! He was more horrifying then I even remember.” “I hated this ugly twerp when I was a kid.” But there was this one thing, and when I first discovered it, I couldn’t believe it was true. Looking more closely at the user account, the person uploading these new videos, I noticed the name was Mason Reese.
I now had many questions. Why would Mason Reese upload a video of himself crying? Myself crying as a child, should such footage exist, would be the kind of thing I’d probably never even show my closest friends let alone the whole world. Why was Mason doing just that? And why did he post the videos now, forty years later? These were questions I couldn’t answer by just tweaking my search terms, by adding more tabs to the browser window. What I wanted most wasn’t to expand the frame, but to pass right through it entirely. In short, I wanted the real world.
MIKE: How long have you been acting in commercials, Mason?
MASON: Well, since I’m seven now, I’ve been acting three years.
MIKE: That means you started when you were about four.
MASON: And a half.
JONATHAN: What we were actually hoping to do was to actually look at some of the clips with you.
MASON: Yeah! I don’t mind doing it. That’s very interesting.
PJ: Coming up, Jonathan enters the real world and directs his questions to the one and only person who can actually answer them.
ALEX: And now, back to the show.
JONATHAN: So I’ve started rolling.
MASON: Cool. Hello, hello.
JONATHAN: Mason lives in a modest two-room apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. When he greets me and my producer Chris at the door. I’m surprised by how little he is.
MASON: I don’t know who that could be calling.
JONATHAN: The haircut’s almost the same, the red hair, the eyes…
MASON: Usually it’s my mom.
JONATHAN: …the expressions. It’s all there, only surrounded by more flesh. Looking at him is intense, like seeing an old friend.
MASON: Every now and then, by the way, you might hear a fire engine or something go by.
JONATHAN: It’s New York.
MASON: That’s New York, baby. It’s exactly right. It’s living in Manhattan.
JONATHAN: Mason seats us in his living room, which is a shrine to his child star. There’s a photo of him co-hosting a telethon with Henry Winkler, a 1973 Clio award for best actor in a commercial, and a photograph of himself jogging in Central Park with Andy Warhol and Grace Jones.
JONATHAN: And–and looking around, like you’ve got this, you’ve got all these photos of yourself as a kid and a lot of memorabilia. In some ways do you feel this responsibility to that kid in a way? Or like, do you feel like you’re a…
MASON: I’m going to interrupt you quickly. All of these pictures that you see of me with the Batmobile, and Peter Lupus from Mission Impossible and Leondard Nimoy and William Shatner and all these you know…
JONATHAN: Cover of TV Guide.
MASON: Cover of TV Guide and the book I published when I was seven, that’s what I have in my living room.
MASON: …in my bedroom, there’s not one picture. Why is that? Because that’s where I am an adult, that’s, you know what I’m saying? And to me that’s very important, I’m a fifty year old man. That’s my private area. This is my public area. And in private this is not who I am.
JONATHAN: But is this–is this here for like, for us? Or is this here for you?
MASON: Both. Both. Because it’s a great reminder to me of what I’ve accomplished in my life.
JONATHAN: Mason Reese is fifty but he doesn’t look it. He doesn’t look it in the way his Pomeranian doesn’t look his age, or any age. Because a Pomeranian is what it is. And Mason Reese is Mason Reese. And the world seizes on all those who are singular, unique, those who are what they are, and the world celebrates them the best it knows how. By nailing them to a crucifix. By sticking them in front of a camera to hawk fried dough and canned meat spread. Mason hasn’t made a commercial since his teens, but his life seems pretty okay. In the intervening years he’s opened a few bars and even runs his own entertainment company, Borgasmord Productions. And why did he post the videos now, forty years later? Mainly, he explains to me, because a friend of his put together a DVD of “Mason Reese’s Greatest Hits” and he thought he might as well share it with people who might be interested. Chris sets up a laptop on the coffee table.
CHRIS NEARY: What we were hoping to do was to actually look at some of the clips with you.
MASON: Oh! Yeah! I don’t mind doing it. Yeah, that’s very interesting.
JONATHAN: We start off with perhaps the greatest hit of them all, The Underwood Deviled Ham commercial.
[UNDERWOOD DEVILED HAM COMMERCIAL]
MASON: So the whole Borgasmord thing at the end, I mean, that ended up being the money shot as they call it, you know, that was it. That was the big one. It wasn’t a mistake. It was planned. But it–
JONATHAN: It was?
MASON. Yeah and I’ll tell you how. So Andy Doyle who was the ad exec for the company, came up to me and he said, “Mason, we would like you to mispronounce the world smorgasbord…”
JONATHAN: That’s…that’s interesting.
MASON: and I said, “Well but Andy, I know what the real word is and I don’t want America to think I’m not smart enough to know the word.” So what he did was he went and got a yellow pad of paper and wrote down all of these words that sounded like smorgasbord, and I picked out borgasmord. So Andy looks at me and goes “Mason, you are really incredible. You’re not going to believe this. Borgasmord is smorgasbord in Swedish.” But it’s not…
MASON: Smorgasbord is Swedish. So he lied to me. So the bottom line is the ad exec lied to a six and a half year old kid, and that commercial literally launched my career. That’s what made people like Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas and all the others, you know, call me on the phone and say, “Hey, this kid is something a little different and we want a piece of him.”
JONATHAN: Let’s take a look at another ad.
MASON: Ah, Dunkin Donuts. Yes.
[DUNKIN DONUTS COMMERCIAL]
MASON: Yeah, that was one commercial that I actually kind of regret doing.
MASON: Well, let’s watch it and you’ll, at the tag line I’ll tell you why.
[DUNKIN DONUTS COMMERCIAL]
The only reason why I’m not particularly fond of that commercial was the fact that the tagline was “Don’t tell me I look like a munchkin.” Well, what do you think happened? Every fucking place I went, you know, “Oh, that’s the munchkin.” For a year. That was just abuse after abuse after abuse.
JONATHAN: Do you want to just take a look at the Harry Chapin?
MASON: No. I’d rather not.
JONATHAN: Oh, really?
MASON: Yeah, yeah. I mean it was–I’ll tell the story behind it. For some reason, and to this day, I don’t know what the reason is, because my father and I were very close, that song “Cat’s in the Cradle” has a really hard effect on me. So people always say to me, “Oh, did you have a strained relationship with your father, or was he always away?” And the answer was no. My dad was always around. So I never really understood why I identified with the song other than the fact that I was a sensitive kid. And Harry was on The Mike Douglas Show. I was the co-host and I asked him, “Are you going to be singing ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?” He said, “No, they asked me to do another one of my newer songs.” “Oh, okay.” So I was not prepared for him to do that. And at the age of seven I wasn’t able to, you know, figure out, well did he lie to me? And that’s what I must have been thinking. You know, as a young kid. And I literally just broke down and fell apart.
JONATHAN: Because you had been lied to?
MASON: No, ’cause I wasn’t–yes, ’cause the song was going to be playing. But I’m sure part of my mind was, well why would Harry say no? I literally just broke down into hysterics. And nobody understood why except me, my parents, and probably Harry. You know it was a ninety-minute show back then. And it was probably a good thirty minutes left of the show. And I refused to come back. And I just went down into the commissary, which was in the basement of the building. And I sat there and had a soda or something. And you know, I just refused. I didn’t want to go back any more.
JONATHAN: A lot of Mason’s stories involve his being lied to by adults. Which is sad, but what was it about “Cat’s in the Cradle” in particular, a song to make cry, if anyone, neglectful dads, not little boys. If it’d been any other song, I think Chris and I might have just let it drop, but as it was, we couldn’t. I mean, come on, a child actor and a song about a dad bringing him to tears? And so we pressed him, unable to let go of all the beautiful poetic, Freudian connotations.
CHRIS: “Cat’s Cradle,” I was trying to figure out why it might affect you so much. Do you think because you were working so much, do you think it was sort of, the roles were reversed and you were the one leaving?
MASON: Oh, no, no, no. Because 99.9% of all the work I did was in New York.
CHRIS: But I feel like songs like that can…can register, because it’s really about distance, it’s not about having a catch.
MASON: As I said, that’s a beloved song.
JONATHAN: I’m just going to belabor the “Cat’s in the Cradle” theory one last…one more–
MASON: He’s dead already.
JONATHAN: Is it possible in a way it was as though, like, it was sort of like you singing the song to yourself.
MASON: Oy gevalt.
JONATHAN: And then we drop it, but feel that one out just a little bit. You know it’s…
MASON: This is not rocket science.
JONATHAN: You are both a child and an adult.
MASON: Well, I didn’t have a childhood. All of the stereotypical things that kids do and did, I didn’t do. I mean I never went to a prom. I never played sports. I never took extracurricular after school activities. Did I sacrifice anything? I know you didn’t ask that, but that’s a logical question. Well, I don’t know. Did I? I don’t think so. I often tell people that when you’ve ridden an elephant in the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, been an NBC correspondent for the news, piloted The Goodyear blimp, I wasn’t in the Goodyear blimp, I flew the Goodyear blimp, when you’ve gotten to do all the things that I did, algebra is pretty fucking boring. I’m a very unique circumstances. My mother and father every day of my life said, “I love you” to me. And every day of my life would give me a kiss and a hug and just tell me that they loved me. And, like my mom called me this morning, and she wanted me to, I was with her yesterday for three hours, literally like vacuuming the floor and cutting her toenails. Oy. That’s not what someone wants to do to their ninety year old mother, but I was doing it because I’m a nice boy.
CHRIS: I just thought that, just in light of what you were saying, if we could watch the one where your mother comes to the show?
MASON: Sure, I can watch that. Yeah.
MIKE: When did you first discover, Mrs. Reese, that this young man was a bit precocious?
MASON: My mom was a good looking broad. She’s a beautiful woman.
MRS. REESE: Let’s see. He was born April eleventh. I’d say April twelfth.
MIKE: He is, to say the least, an unusual child. How do you and he get along?
MRS. REESE: Fabulously. We yell. We fight. But we love each other a lot.
MIKE: I want to bring his father up, okay Mason? Want to bring your dad up?
MASON: Will the real Bill Reese please stand up?
MIKE: Tell me about his reading habits. He reads at what level?
BILL REESE: Between tenth and eleventh grade.
JONATHAN: Why do you think you’re welling up?
MASON: Well again, you know, I mean to some extent because my mom and dad probably still loved each other at this point in our lives. You know, things were a lot simpler maybe for me. My parents had not divorced yet. My two brothers and my sister and I were all very close. We still all kind of lived together for the most part. So, yeah. I think a lot of it harkens back to a simpler time. More carefree perhaps. Even though I had a job to do, I was still more carefree, because I was a kid. A lot of responsibilities had not been put on my head yet. You know it’s funny. My mom doesn’t understand YouTube. She kind of gets it but doesn’t really fully understand it. I showed her this clip and I jokingly said to her, but maybe it was true, I said, “That’s probably the last time you ever kissed dad.” Well, and I do love my dad, you know. God.
JONATHAN: When you’re a kid, you cry because you feel lied to, because life is unfair and you don’t understand anything. And then as an adult you cry because life still isn’t fair, but you do understand it. You cry because you do understand it. By 1977 Mason’s dad would begin spending more and more time at the company he started, and eventually he’d convert part of his office into a living space where he could spend nights. In his early teens, around the time the commercial offers started to dry up, Mason’s parents would divorce and Mason would move into the office with his dad. At eight thirty in the morning when employees began to show up, Mason would sometimes still be lounging around in his t-shirt and underwear.
MIKE: We’re going to visit more with the Reese’s following this. We’ll be right back.
JONATHAN: At one point while watching the videos, Mason tells me that he realizes the commenters can be mean. “Oh my god, what a freak. He was so ugly. What kind of talent did this kid have,” he says quoting them. “I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t affect me.” When I ask him why he hasn’t disabled the comments for his videos he seems genuinely surprised that you can do such a thing. He pauses to consider it, but as of today he still hasn’t done it and I don’t think he ever will. It would mean not being able to receive any of the nice comments, like this one: “Hey Mason! Thank you for these. They would not have been the seventies without you.”
ALEX: Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the podcast Heavyweight, which is amazing and you should listen to every episode. Mason Reese just started a YouTube series a couple months ago called “Life Interrupted.” We’ll post a link to it on our website and in the notes for this podcast.
Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Chris Neary, Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and edited by Alex Blumberg. Matt Lieber is the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen, of crayons, of comic books. Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore. Special thanks this week to Lizzie Vogt, Beth Card, and Grant Shprintz. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.
You can find us at itunes.com/replyall or replyall.limo. Thanks for listening!
MASON: You might ask how you can tell a giraffe is friendly.
MIKE: How do you tell if a giraffe is friendly?
MASON: It isn’t easy.