O.J. Gude and me

Our LegacyFirst Electric Outdoor Advertisement O.J. Gude Co NYC 1892

Seen through the lens of advertising and technology the birth of EXCELER8 has come about as a result of some interesting twists and turns.
As far as this story goes its beginnings lie in a tradition very familiar to our young nation. A young man, a tailor by trade, makes his way to our shores from a far away place and settles in the new world. This young man is from Hanover Germany and he comes as many do to the shores of New York. Here he marries a young woman who gives him a fine family of sons and daughters, one of which they give the name Oscar. Still a boy, Oscar looses his father and continues life with his mother, brothers and sisters. He becomes a man and goes out on his own in search of his dreams. He pours his sweat and ingenuity into many things but the first proposition to take hold is with distributing circulars in New York City for a washing powder.

The year is now 1878 and the place is Brooklyn, New York. My Great, Great Grandfather O.J. Gude, starts an outdoor advertising company with $100 in capital. The O.J. Gude Company goes on to pioneer the first use of the electric bulb in a billboard sign in May, 1892 just thirteen years after Thomas Edison invents the first light bulb. The sign hangs on the side of the Cumberland Hotel where Twenty-Third, Broadway and 5th Avenue cross paths. The sign was 50 by 80 feet and used 1,457 lights that flashed its story MANHATTAN BEACH – SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES.

A great marketer, H. J. Heinz, is staying in a hotel across the street and notices the sign. He knows immediately that he has to use the new sign technology for his company. He contacts O.J. the next day and soon an electric sign with a huge green Heinz pickle dominates the same spot. O.J.’s business is off and running. Later the hotel would yield way to the Flatiron building where many more O.J. Gude installations would appear.

O.J. Gude Heinz Sign

But Times Square is where O.J. really makes his name. O.J. Gude becomes known as the ‘"Sign King of Times Square" and the "Napoleon of Publicity" and his electric "Spectaculars," the name still used today for the mammoth signs on Times Square, quickly became prolific and so associated with the bright light that bathes Broadway that O.J. is credited with coining the term and helping to create the ‘The Great White Way.’

Times Square O.J. Gude Co. Signs

By 1919 O.J. Gude’s name adorns over 10,000 billboards across the U.S. but he is remembered most for his early work with electric advertising signs. One of his most famous signs was the Wrigley’s gum spectacular placed on Broadway. "In 1917, when Gude put up a two-hundred-foot-long spectacular, on the west side of Broadway between Forty-third and Forty-fourth, featuring twelve gleaming “spearmen” who went through spasmodic calisthenics, it was as big an event in American pop culture, in its way, as the opening of “The Jazz Singer,” ten years later," according to an article in The New Yorker.

"Gude was the Botticelli of Broadway." according to an article in Newsday. "In 1917, he created what many consider his masterpiece: a Wrigley’s Spearmint gum sign eight stories high and 200 feet long. Using 17,500 lights, Gude summoned a curlicued fantasy kingdom of peacocks and fountains sure to make onlookers think "Wrigley’s" whenever they hankered for a good chew."

A more modern version of the famed Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum sign.O.J. Gude Company Wrigley's Sign

O.J.’s dominance in the outdoor advertising space and use of cutting edge technology with proven advertising methods he perfected with his many regular billboards made him a classic rags to riches millionaire by the turn of the century.

O.J. made his mark in a time of great change, where modern technological advances were having life changing impacts on people and societies the world round. Advertising, then as now, was one place where we got to see that technology pushed to its limits for the purpose of reaching people, and connecting them with advertiser brands and messages. We’re still at it: pushing technology in the pursuit of ever more effective advertisements. I am reminded in no small way of the current interactive rich media ads I deal in when I read a quote from O.J. talking about his spectaculars, "O.J. Gude declared that outdoor advertisers "forced their announcements on the vision of the uninterested as well as the interested passerby." The ads O.J. made famous drew critiques back in their time just as current online ads do today. While some called the huge signs ‘garish’ many others remember them fondly for their awesome display and entertainment value and for the American ingenuity that they symbolized. I wonder if O.J. realized that almost 100 years would transpire before a descendent of his became involved in the advertising industry again?

My ADventure so far
Zoom forward to the 1970’s and a father and mother sit in their kitchen and dream of an adventure to see the world with their two boys, Lorenz Jr. and his younger brother Julian. Father regularly scans the New York Times employment display ads for overseas jobs and imagines himself continuing his university teaching at colleges in England and Australia. A new life begins when a college teaching job is found a world away in Perth, Australia and soon young Julian and his family stand in an Australian immigration office in New York City where Julian is asked what he thinks about seeing Kangaroo’s.

Julian hangs out at his Dad’s college in Australia where his father teaches media studies, photography and computing. Julian discovers the computer lab and falls in love when he realizes he can send anonymous instant messages (though they’re not called that back then) via mainframe computer to unsuspecting student’s computers in the middle of their studies, “This is God, You’ll surely flunk out.”

“A couple years abroad” turns in to ten years and Julian returns home to the U.S. by himself at 16, bidding his family a fond farewell. They wonder what a 16 year old is going to do taking care of the family farm by himself but he uses his skills of persuasion and focus to make his dream come true. Julian knows he’ll be just fine. Julian now lives in the northeast and within a 100 miles of his nearest relative, a kind and loving Aunt who is as sharp as a tack and head of a computing department that runs entirely on computer cards. “How can one make a lot of money?” he asks his Aunt and she says ‘Sales.’ Julian sells stuff. Julian sells computers, he loves technology, he understands computers. Soon Julian and a Saab full of belongings are hurtling down Interstate 10 across the nation to the promised land: Silicon Valley. No money, no specific job prospects but a big dream like so many of us have.

Julian didn’t know it as he arrived in Silicon Valley in the Fall of 1988 with dreams of working in the technology sector but he’s be on a very different path from what he envisioned only a week later. He scours the display ads as his Father once had and searches for jobs working at his dream tech companies and in the end happens upon an intriguing ad in the San Jose Mercury News for a position selling local Yellow Pages advertisements. Another one of those want ads. He never even makes it to another interview. That first advertisement makes an ad man out of him and he becomes GTE Directories’ youngest outside sales rep in the U.S. Julian is 19 and has his first company car and a new techie device that he loves called a mobile phone. It takes up a large portion of his car’s floor. The ads and the phone and the money make him forget about working for a technology company for a while. He goes to work for Pacific Bell selling their Yellow Pages, he get a lot of promotions, he manages, he trains, he strategizes, he works on a mega merger, he markets, he buys a house and starts a family, buys another house and still he can’t get technology out of his head.

The 90’s tick by amazing things are suddenly happening all around him. Julian thinks of the computer with the pulse dialing rubber phone coupler from his Dad’s college in Australia that he used to dial-in to the College mainframe with. He thinks of the first bulletin board he accesses via IBM PC clone from the family farm back east. He dials-up now to a menu based bbs like system called America Online. The number of users on their welcome page keeps growing so fast he can’t believe it. He notices on America Online that his local newspaper where he found his first big job has something on AOL called MercuryCenter. It turns out to be the very first online newspaper. He watches and wonders how an ad man can make the leap back in to technology without giving up all that he’s learned.

One day his boss select him to work on a hush-hush project that he knows Julian will just love. The boss is right. It’s about making directories online and getting their huge sales force ready to sell ads on them. Pacific Bell @Hand and later SMARTpages.com. It’s about bringing together buyers and sellers using advertising and technology. Everything goes in to a blur and all you read about is IPO’s and secretaries retiring. He hesitates too long to earn O.J.’s millions. He thinks of his kids and the mortgage and ponders if he should do a startup or something in between. The decision is made for him when a call comes from a former boss who now works for the company that started MercuryCenter. They’re called Knight Ridder and have newspapers and news web sites scattered all over the country.

Julian joins them just before they make a new separate company called KnightRidder.com. Julian gets his first glimpse in to the power of print and online classified advertising in the real estate, automotive and recruitment space. Before this he didn’t realize that the papers and their online properties make most of their money this way – but it makes more sense when he thinks back on how profound an impact those job ads have had on his life. Although Julian goes to Knight Ridder to help with the online advertising nuts and bolts he ends up starting the first national network sales team instead and has reps all over the country. He works with national Ad Agencies and Fortune 500 businesses. He’s exposed to the Internet version of Madison Avenue and thinks about how this same town was a crowing achievement for his Great Great Grandfather. These Madison Avenue types need to understand how Internet advertising works like everyone else. He has some answers. He works with the Sales VP to build a sales force, operations and processes to get the local and national sales network running.

The boss has Julian focus on a major problem area and shifts his focus there completely. It’s about sales and ads, graphic design and some technology stuff that he thinks Julian will understand. It’s online ad serving and nothing really works the way it’s supposed to. He deals with sales people, ISP’s, servers, clients, tech vendors, newspaper publishers, site leaders, editorial staff, Internet elitists, national advertisers with millions in the budget and local advertisers with hundred in the budget and some not so happy site users along the way. Some of them have the opinion that Julian’s ads are as annoying as those garish billboards in Times Square. A lot of people still don’t understand what people like Julian do, even people in the industry but Julian knows it’s just about bringing buyers and sellers together, people and brands, people and jobs, people and cars, people with their new homes. It all works better now because we’re combining advertising with high technology.

Julian opens a new chapter in his life when he bumps into a girl who is a colleague that works at Knight Ridder in Miami. She’s a rising star who’s made her own way in the Internet. She’s never been a newspaper reader or used the Yellow Pages like Julian. She was a net girl from college on and it’s just how she thinks. Newspaper companies understand that she gets it and and have hired her to help them get it. They meet over business in Phoenix but feel they’ve known each other since the Phoenix has been rising from the ashes. They make a family. They move to Florida where she’s from. He does his same job that he had in San Jose from Miami now. They love it but Julian misses his oldest boys back in the Bay Area and sometimes even the Valley with all the things that go whir in the night. There’s a connection between these places in time, space and the Internet and even with his history back in Times Square and Madison Avenue.

NowJulian E. Gude
Now it’s the Fall of 2005 and I think about how it’s been twenty years and four kids since my smart Aunt told me about how I could make money in sales. I think about O.J. and how I want to have the family business he never really got to have despite all his money. None of his money is here anymore, my Grandfather spent the last of his Father’s share to help buy that family farm I took care of once and it’s gone now too. I know I’m lucky because the money’s gone and not the other way around. It wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t earn it on my own. I live in America and I have the same opportunity that O.J. once had.

For all his business success O.J. seems to have failed with his family. He didn’t succeed in teaching them the value of money, of common sense and ingenuity and hard work that he used to make himself a success. His kids were classic first generation silver spoons that kept their hands out for daddy’s money. They burned through O.J.’s money tout d’suite and since none of it lasted my Grandfather led a normal man’s life with an occasional perk thrown in to his early childhood. My father just worked his ass off on the farm and vowed to use his brain to change all that. And he did that and went on to conquer New York in his own way.

O.J. would understand my motivation. I’m not sure if I’m the entrepreneur that he was but I understand some things about this Information age and how today’s companies work and what they need. And I have some answers and a whole lot of passion and I want something that my kids can do with me if they want to someday. I’m not in it for the money. I found out on my own that making a lot of money without having any time to spend with those you’re working for is a bankrupt way of life. We’ll find the balance by working together and working smarter. And my wife is an entrepreneur as her mother is and she has no fear for our future. We’re going t be one hell of a team. And my Dad is here to help out as well. He’s a history buff who has always helped connect the past with the present as a way to better understand the world and act intelligently. He’s studied and taught media and computing and has a bards tongue and an educator’s verve for helping people learn. He’s also got that technology bug like my wife and I do.

It’s all coming together in a moment of clarity. We see a formula where the right people with a singular focus can leverage that focus and their expertise to create exponential results. Julian E. GudeWe think it will speed things up in a world where the most valuable asset we have is time. It can shorten the distance between two points like the Internet makes the world a smaller place. We call it EXCELER8ION even though Dad isn’t so sure about the name he still believes in the cause. I’m just so thankful to have been involved in the infancy of Internet advertising because it is the ultimate marriage of my passion for advertising and lifelong love of technology.

Just like my Great Great Grandfather, O.J. Gude I’ve had a front row seat to some stuff that my Great Great Grand kids will read about and marvel upon. For a long time I’ve helped a lot of big companies make their mark and now it’s time for my family and I to work for ourselves and make our mark upon this place. Perhaps we’ll even be fortunate enough to work with people like you who might care to join us on our ADventure.

With warmest regards,

Julian

19 Replies to “O.J. Gude and me”

  1. My house at 486 Greenwich Street in Manhattan has just been landmarked. 25 years ago when I was removing tar and tin that had covered over the dormer and rebuilding it, I came across a sign above the windows “The O.J. Gude Co. N.Y.” At that time I was curious about what the company was but never pursued it. It was at a height where it would be seen by passengers on the elevated trains that went along Greenwich Street back in the 19th/early 20th century.
    With landmarking giving me a history of people who owned the building, but with gaps, I was curious about the name on the sign. Googling it I discover he was an innovator in electrical outdoor advertising and found your site. Do you know when your great-great grandfather would have had his company at 486 Greenwich Street? Would like to exp;and on the history of the building, and correct information that Landmarks has given. Am curious to learn what you know. Thanks.
    Geoffrey Hendricks

  2. Hi Geoffrey, thanks very much for writing. I have no records of OJ’s company ever being at that location but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. I will check with relatives and see if the location rings any bells for them. In the mean time can you give me more information about the sign’s dimensions and appearance? It sounds just like the typical placard that would normally sit underneath one of his billboards. I’ll dig up a photo that would show that and email it to you for comparison.

  3. Hi Julian,
    Thanks. It’s a wooden board 36″ long and 5 1/2″ high, half-circles at the ends. Could be a placard as you say, but don’t know where a billboard would have been.
    Look forward to seeing your photo.

  4. Hi Geoffrey, As fate would have it Frank Jump found my story on O.J. shortly after you did and by a nice twist of fate he took a picture in New York that appears on his web site. The photo features the very kind of placard that I believe you found in your dormer. If you navigate to this page on Frank Jump’s site you’ll see the picture for M. Rappaport’s Music Store at 4109 Jamaica Ave near Woodhaven. I’d be interested to learn if the placard that sits on the bottom right of the painted Rappoport sign is the same. Let me know. And Thanks!

  5. Hi Frank, It was really great to get your comments and see your two photos of the O.J. Gude Signs still in New York so many years after his passing.

    I am inspired and very appreciative of your own living legacy and your will to live through all you have. My hat is off to you. I will contact you via email to see how we might collaborate (I’d love to). Cheers

  6. I thought it was cool, in a book of NY historical pictures I saw your great great grandfathers name on a small sign on a building, googled it, and now Im reading your piece. Amazing.

  7. Hi Pete, Thanks for stopping by and reading more about O.J. May I ask what book you were looking at? I’d love to see the picture. Cheers!

    – Julian

  8. Hi Julian!
    Thanks so much for posting this information. I am ever curious and appreciate being able to google things and get an interesting answer.
    I am in the process of scanning old photo’s from my husbands grandmother’s photo album. Back in the late 19 teens or early 1920’s this grandmother, Frances Nerich Rascoe and her husband, Henry W. Rascoe took a road trip from New York City to Oklahoma. Along the way they stopped and took quirky photo’s. I would love to send you a copy of a billboard they are posed in front of that was put up by your great great grandfather’s company. It very clearly has the “O J Gude Co NY” marking.

  9. Hi Julian,
    I have stumbled recently on your OJ Gude story and would love to let you know about another branch of the Gude family. Let me introduce myself: David Warren Gude, born in 1957, living in Burlington NC and I grew up in Chatham NJ. I live with my wife and we have two children, a son and a daughter, college age. I work for Stevenson Vestal, a drapery wholesaler, doing web and print publications and sales and marketing work. It looks like you and I are 3rd cousins once removed. We share OJ Gude’s parents, my great great grandparents Frederich George Gude (born 1826) and Louisa Wentz (born 1839) as our common ancestors. My part of the family decends from your great great grandfather OJ’s brother, Arthur James Gude (born 1860). Browsing through your various blogs, it looks like we have a lot to discuss and a lot in common, including left handed guitar playing, technology, marketing and macs. My father, John Warren Gude (born 1921) is the oldest living Gude in my part of the family. He now lives nearby in Chapel Hill, NC. He has recently had contact from his previously unknown cousin Jeanne Gude Taysom and more recently had a phone call from your dad, Lorenz! This in part has prompted my renewed search for Gude history and living relatives. My dad tells of his father working on Time Square for his uncle Oscar, being hoisted up in a basket to change light bulbs for his signs! He also has a rousing version of the OJ story about Eating a Man Alive that apparently Jeanne also knows. My dad’s branch of the family (his father and five siblings and their families) all settled in the West Caldwell NJ area. My dad, an engineer by training, made a large chart many years ago that shows many generations of Gudes. I am currently in the process of trying to combine that information with my wife’s family history to create a mega-chart for my own kids. To begin I am organizing family history details (not complete yet though) on a free geni.com wiki. I would love to invite you to look at that and see how we are related and to build it with me. We could surely fill in many Gude gaps together. Julian, please contact me at dgude57@gmail.com or give me a call at 336-263-6088. I would love to get to know you and share our family histories.
    Cheers,
    Dave

  10. My uncle was O.J. Gude. Her married my aunt Barbara Williams. I was born in 1946. Uncle Jay was a very gifted man who, I’m told, burned through money. As a very young boy, I remember riding in his MG. He was a pilot. He apparently had several planes when he lived on Long Island. I know he flew in the Berlin Airlift after WWII. I remember him taking me up in a Piper Cub once as a very young boy. He also worked as a cartoonist. He was an artist, among other talents. I have a drawing of a Curtis “Jenny” biplane that he did on cardboard and gave to me. I also have several brilliant letters that he wrote to me as a young boy, illustrated for birthdays and other occasions. Sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s he and my aunt moved to the Seattle area. He was helping write and illustrate manuals on planes for Boeing. Something like that. Any idea whether he is part of your family. There seem to be too many connections to ignore, but who knows. Let me know at your earliest convenience. Thanks.

  11. Hi Dave, Nice to know you! I certainly look forward to speaking with you and lament my tardiness in doing so!

    -Julian

  12. Hi Bill, yes, I believe I know where your Uncle O.J. fits in. I’ll check in with my Dad Lorenz and my Aunt Pat and perhaps my cousin Jeanne Gude about him. It’s great that you took the time to write and I’ll surely contact you. It’s good to meet you. Cheers for now!

    – Julian

  13. Hi Julian, my name is Amanda and I am a graduate student pursuing a MS in Historic Preservation. I'm writing my thesis on the preservation of illuminated signage and I was wondering if you own the copyright on the images in this article and if so, if I might be able to gain your permission to utilize some of the photos in my thesis. Your great, great grandfather was a pioneer in this form of folk art and someone who figures prominently in my paper.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Amanda

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