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Star Billing : Politician’s Dream Comes True but Polls Are Closed

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Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, when he was struggling to mount a Democratic primary campaign against state Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Steve Saltzman spent $300,000 trying to generate a little publicity.

But it was nothing like he’s gotten in recent months.

He’s been on billboards from coast to coast. He’s been in magazines--the New Yorker, Smithsonian, Esquire. A former neighbor, Melinda Burke, was walking down Broadway in New York when she looked up and saw Saltzman, bigger than life, grinning from a billboard over Manhattan.

“It shocked me,” Burke said. “It was very recognizable.”

Saltzman, 37, a longtime Westside activist, has been the toast of his friends after being recruited off the street to appear in a national advertising campaign for E. & J. Brandy.

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Stopped on Street

As he tells it, fame was purely accidental. He had never done modeling. He was minding his own business, walking home from a health club when “a young woman stopped me and said, ‘I’d like to take your picture,’ I looked around. I didn’t think she was speaking to me.”

She was. And she was not just some lonely photographer--she was on assignment from an advertising agency, out to capture the yuppie look.

The next thing Saltzman knew, the negatives were on their way to the E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, and Saltzman was one of a dozen men and women selected last fall for the yearlong advertising campaign. In the ads, shot in San Francisco, the tan, dashing Saltzman is holding a glass and leaning against a giant brandy bottle. Beneath him are the words, “I stand by my brandy.”

For a fleeting instant, Saltzman admitted, he pondered the moral and political wisdom of promoting hard liquor. But, as friends pointed out, Prohibition is no longer a voter issue.

‘Politician’s Dream’

“Here’s a guy who’s been pursuing a political career and all of a sudden he’s going to be in Time magazine,” Saltzman said, recalling his excitement. “I decided this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance--every politician’s dream . . . to be in Time magazine.

“It isn’t the cover, it isn’t (because I’m) saving the world--but what the hell.”

Unfortunately, he said, one of Time Inc.’s publications, Fortune magazine, ran an unflattering article on winery owner Ernest Gallo just before the ads appeared. So Gallo canceled the advertising, according to Saltzman, and he never did make Time.

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“The one thing that seemed really exciting was being in Time magazine,” he said wistfully.

No Saltzman Ads

A winery spokesman, Dan Solomon, acknowledged that ads were canceled, but said none featured Saltzman anyway. Nor will any feature Saltzman in the future, Solomon added.

“We would hope there will be some . . . advertiser who can make him Time’s ‘Man of the Year,’ ” the winery spokesman said. “But he’ll have to look

elsewhere.”

Nonetheless, the Saltzman ad has appeared in Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, and U.S. News & World Report. One billboard, on a roadside near St. Paul, Minn., brought a thrill to former West Los Angeles business associate Leslie Quigley, now a marketing director for radio station KLTE in Minnesota.

“I almost drove off the expressway,” she said. “I kept looking up . . . and I started driving the direction I was looking. It was so funny.”

Ad Income Substantial

Saltzman, who has led efforts to control commercial growth surrounding his neighborhood near Century City, described his income from the ads as substantial. He said he donated a third to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a third to other charities and used the rest to pay for a trip to Israel.

His friends threw him a party late last year to celebrate. The experience, Saltzman said, has helped support the old Andy Warhol notion: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

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He has been not-quite-famous in America for several months, he noted, although he now faces the ignominy of seeing the billboards replaced--even by other brandy ads.

“I’m just starting to see them come down,” he said. “It’s like having the stripes ripped off your uniform.”

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