Tom Butler was the most colourful and creative public relations man of his age – a witty and articulate character who had the press beating a path to his clients’ events. He understood perfectly the relationship between the hack and the flack.
He brought reclusive astronaut Neil Armstrong to Vancouver to open a revolving restaurant atop the Sears Tower with the audacious slogan: “The restaurant that soars halfway to the moon in the night sky over Vancouver was opened by a man who went all the way.”
He invented the world belly flop championships at the Bayshore hotel to publicize its new swimming pool, and handed out a coveted green bathrobe to the winner in a wry tip of the hat to the Masters’ green jacket. The event made a splash in newspapers and supper-hour newscasts across North America.
He brought actress Ginger Rogers to Vancouver for another restaurant opening and had her dancing cheek to cheek with then-premier Bill Bennett.
To promote the Pan Pacific Hotel, he had a long-drive golfing competition off the roof, with American and Canadian golfers driving balls into Vancouver harbour.
He took a beaver from the Stanley Park zoo to New York and Los Angeles to promote Vancouver tourism. That got plenty of ink too.
Mr. Butler died June 3 in Prince Edward Island, where he had retired, leaving his wife of 26 years, Angelica, and his stepdaughter, Daniela Heuschling.
A former newspaper reporter, Mr. Butler had a nose for news and a sense of fun as a public relations professional on the West Coast. He knew whimsical stunts would be an antidote to the grey news of the day. He was a master of the photo op – elephants in ski lifts, horses in swimming pools, pneumatic cover girls and celebrity supermarket openings. It was a different age.
He brought Zsa Zsa Gabor to Vancouver for the opening of the Royal Centre shopping complex. She was, he said, the most obnoxious personality he had ever met. “Imagine, if you will, spending four days minding someone else’s cranky brat going through the terrible twos,” he wrote in his autobiography, PR Man.
She hated, Mr. Butler said, the flowers in her suite – “I hate white chrysanthemums. Why wasn’t anybody told about this?” She refused to travel in elevators with common folk, getting on at the 23rd floor and exiting when a middle-aged couple got on at the 20th. “Zsa Zsa Gabor never shares elevators. Why was nobody told about this?”
Thomas R. Butler was born in Vancouver on May 19, 1934. He was educated at Little Flower Academy and a succession of strict private schools in Victoria and Vancouver. This was an educational world, he said, of blue blazers, grey flannels, school ties and ice-cold morning showers.
He went briefly to the University of Washington in Seattle, where, he said, he was seduced by the new freedom of “beer, the glamour of fraternities and sororities, big-time college football and more beer.” His formal education didn’t last long.
His father, a well-connected lumber businessman in Vancouver, called in a favour, and the young Butler got a job as a cub reporter at The Vancouver Sun. It was here that he became infatuated with the offbeat and off-the-agenda, rather than the serious side of journalism.
“Whimsy,” he wrote later, “is the soft underbelly of the news desk. Every editor and news director from London to Louisville has the same daily imperative to include a story that lightens the day’s news – that gives something to feel good about, a counterbalance to the woes of the world.”
From Vancouver he headed to California, where he got a job as a reporter at the Garden Grove Daily News, a 25,000-circulation daily.
He was eventually fired when he was covering the police beat and decided to skip off to the beach. It was bad timing. He missed a major breaking story of two bandits escaping a bank
holdup and smashing their car into a van, killing local high-school drama students.
After heading back to Vancouver in 1963, he found a job with the James Lovick advertising agency, where he honed his skills as a public relations consultant. He also got to know every photo editor and photographer in town, and learned that “the pitch” is everything. “The PR man, at the mercy and whim of capricious and dismissive editors and news directors, relies solely on his skill and media savvy to have his pitch heard and communicated.”
He quickly gained a reputation as a creative and reliable PR consultant, with a flair for the flamboyant. He dressed sharply. He was fun to be around. He was said to have a roman candle for a brain – and the ability to get his clients on the front page.
On the cover of Mr. Butler’s autobiography is a huge belly-flop contestant leaping off a springboard, with the tagline, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
The book contains many memorable anecdotes, but also advice for the aspiring public relations professional, including “never be afraid to fail. Every publicist does.” And “never complain when your story fails to make the newspaper. Just don’t give up.”
His book also features two pages of acknowledgments – to just about every reporter, assignment editor, camera operator and photographer in Vancouver.
Getting his clients news coverage was crucial because, he said, when the message is picked up by the media, it has far greater credibility and impact than a straight advertisement would, thanks to the implied editorial approval.
The media loved him because he knew what they wanted. He also had a self-deprecating dry wit. As a young reporter in Huntington Beach, Calif., he covered the opening of a supermarket by sex siren Jayne Mansfield.
“She sweetly asked my name and posed patiently as though I was the chief photographer for Life magazine, Look, The Saturday Evening Post or Paris Match rather than a small-town sheet in the sticks.
“At the end she held my eyes with hers, reached out to squeeze my arm, and cooed her thanks. … I was being hustled by the best and I loved it. I was to encounter Jayne a few weeks later at another event. Unaccountably, she pretended not to recognize me.”
Bringing the publicity-shy astronaut Neil Armstrong to Vancouver eight years after the 1969 moon landing for the opening of a restaurant was a Butler coup. Mr. Armstrong was paid $5,000 plus two first-class round-trip tickets.
Mr. Butler said Mr. Armstrong knew little about Canada and was nervous about what to say. So en route to his hotel, Mr. Butler took a detour to Stanley Park to show the astronaut a memorial in honour of the visit to Vancouver by U.S. president Warren Harding in 1923.
The memorial bears part of Mr. Harding’s speech. “What an object lesson of peace is shown today by our two countries to all the world. … only humble mile posts mark the inviolable boundary line for thousands of miles through farm and forest.” Mr. Armstrong, said Mr. Butler, was moved by the memorial, relaxed and gave a charming speech, quoting the sentiments of his fellow Ohio native.
Mr. Butler also had the idea of encasing the foot that first stepped on the moon in concrete. So Mr. Armstrong put his size 9-and-a-half Gucci shoe into a slab of fresh cement. Another coup.
Years later, Mr. Butler asked a young waiter at the restaurant where the historic shoe print was on display. The waiter’s reply: “Huh?”
Follow us on Twitter: