But Sidell owes his fortune to some pimply-faced, teen-age actors on "The Waltons" TV show. He concocted some skin creams for those young actors and started giving it away to other performers. They liked it to the point that, a few years ago, Sidell tucked his makeup brushes away and pursued a more lucrative course with his California Cosmetics Inc., a Chatsworth company that sold $7 million worth of skin-care products through mail order last year.
The company's cosmetics, marketed under the "Silk Skin" brand name, include a cleanser, toner and moisturizer, and men's products such as shaving cream and moisturizer. It also sells tanning products, bath oils, and wrinkle-reducing concoctions such as a face masque and night cream.
Newspaper and magazine ads for Silk Skin are designed in true tabloid fashion. One ad screams, "Hollywood Scandal Erupts as Former Dynasty Makeup Artist Walks Off Set! The Real Story Can Now Be Told!"
In such publications as USA Weekend, National Enquirer, Redbook magazine and the Miami Herald, the ads quote customers gushing over Sidell's products. "I honestly believe that you have discovered a miracle product," says one. Another quote reads: "I plan to use the product for the rest of my natural life." One 80-year-old customer claims Silk Skin makes her look 60.
Sidell, 52, cheerfully defends his marketing and his products. "Claims are made everywhere in the marketplace," he said. "We make a money-back guarantee." He says his returns run fewer than 1%, and about 85% of his business are reorders.
But not every customer is so cheery. One woman sued California Cosmetics in 1988 because she said the products turned her hands blue. The suit was withdrawn, Sidell said. "Every once in a while, we get a letter from someone saying, 'I grew a 12-foot hive on my forehead because I used your product,' " Sidell said.
Sidell's company is also the target of a lawsuit by Beverly Hills physician Abraham Chaplan, who filed a complaint in November for invasion of privacy and breach of oral contract. Chaplan claimed in the suit that Sidell used his name in ads without his permission.
Sidell called the suit "spurious" and produced a letter from Chaplan in which the doctor provided a ringing endorsement of Silk Skin and granted the company permission to use the letter in ads and promotions. "This was just a one-shot deal to try to milk some money," Sidell said. Chaplan's attorney did not return phone calls.
Sidell's products, which sell for between $3.50 for a lip gloss and $50 for its top-of-the-line face cream, have a price edge on many department-store brands. For instance, a four-ounce jar of Silk Skin moisturizer sells for $29.95, while a 4.2-ounce Lancome moisturizer, one of the posh department store brands, retails for about $44. Sidell contends his products are as good as any face cream on the market and include ingredients such as vitamins E, A and D, and aloe vera.
"The huge difference between products in pricing is due to their packaging," said Marilyn Geller, senior consultant in cosmetics and toiletries at the Fairfield, N.J., research firm of Kline & Co. "The more upscale the product, the more aesthetic the packaging has to be."
And while the direct-mail approach might put off some consumers, Geller said, "the typical consumer in Kalamazoo might buy it. It might sound junky to us, but there's a lot of direct mail that works."
In California Cosmetics ads, Sidell is the star. He gets a lot of mileage out of his reputation. After all, "I'm not somebody who says I'm a makeup artist to the stars who once did some bit player on their birthday," he noted.
Indeed, Howard Smit, business representative of the Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Union, Local 706, said Sidell is "a very prominent makeup artist. He was very much in demand."
California Cosmetics is a second career for Sidell, who started doing makeup in 1962 and worked on movies such as "E.T., the Extra Terrestrial" and "Body Heat," TV shows including "Love Boat" and "Dynasty" and received four Emmy nominations. Sidell's office is lined with autographed photos of celebrities, including Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg and Joan Collins.
In 1972, while working on "The Waltons" TV show, Sidell couldn't find products he liked to deal with the skin problems of cast members, many of whom were acne-prone teen-agers. So he commissioned a chemist to develop a cleanser and moisturizer to his specifications. After several trials and errors, Sidell selected formulas he liked and began using the products on the actors he made up.
Sidell contracted with a health-care company to make the products for him, and he began giving them away to actors and other makeup artists. "All of a sudden, I started getting phone calls saying, 'This stuff is great.' "
Sidell started selling the products through a few beauty-supply stores, but it wasn't until 1985 when he met Paula Levey, who then ran a mail-order vitamin business, that the pair decided to launch California Cosmetics. Though makeup artists can make well over $100,000 a year, Sidell said, after 23 years in the business, he was ready for a change. Levey is now secretary/treasurer of the company; Sidell is president.
Sidell and Levey started the company in November, 1985, with $4,000, initially working from a small office in Canoga Park. Since Levey's background was in mail order, and because breaking into the mainstream retail-cosmetic business would have required a much larger investment, Sidell said, they decided to sell through mail order.
Their first ad ran in the Houston Chronicle and "did almost three times" the break-even costs, Sidell said. Most of his customers are relatively affluent working women, age 30 to 65, he says. Ads in other publications proved equally successful, and in 1986, California Cosmetics posted sales of $1.8 million. By 1988 sales were $11.5 million.
Last year's sharp drop in sales to $7 million reflected a "conscious decision" to rein in his growth, Sidell said. "We started out with 12 employees. In 1988, we had 58 employees. I turned inventory as rapidly as possible. But there was a tremendous increase in problems. The wrong things were shipped or sent to the wrong address," he said.
So he cut back. He eliminated a telemarketing department where workers manning telephones made calls to prospective cold-cream customers--that was the source of many of the errors. The work force was reduced to 33 employees. Though sales are down, the company is more efficient and profit margins are higher--well into double digits after taxes, he said.
Sidell courts his customers by sending them a card and gift of makeup brushes on their birthdays.
Even though Sidell devotes himself full time to the business, he still does makeup once a week for the Fox sitcom "Open House."
Why? "Two reasons," he said. "I like it. The other one is more practical. If you don't have something current going for you, you're a has-been."