Inside the 1991 Clio Awards debacle, 30 years on

On June 13, 1991, the prestigious Clio Awards for excellence in the advertising industry was a night to remember – for all the wrong reasons.

Unlike the dignified affairs of previous years, the banquet at New York’s Manhattan Center studios descended into what journalist Trip Gabriel called a “crush of muscle and tuxedos” when a mob of guests stormed the stage.

Most of the insurgents — the type of creatives who brought you the Energizer Bunny, the singing raisins and the Pillsbury Doughboy — grabbed coveted statuettes they hadn’t won.

In his post-mortem for Vanity Fair, Gabriel described the debacle as “advertising’s own ‘Day of the Locust.’ ” A witness told Adweek magazine it was “beyond the beyond-o.” Another attendee compared the spectacle to “watching piranhas eat the flesh off a cow in a river.”

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the fiasco of a fête, those involved in the ceremony — an annual show known as the “Oscars of advertising” that was once featured on AMC’s “Mad Men” — have shared their memories with The Post.

“It went from this peaceful, sophisticated environment to crazy and frenetic,” said Ron Henderson, a junior copywriter in 1991. “It was surreal and ridiculous to see folks in suits and ballgowns climbing the stage.”

The Mad Men cast (from left) Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery sit at a table at The Clio Awards.
Until that fateful night in 1991, The Clio Awards was a staid occasion. The Mad Men cast (from left) Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery, was certainly a lot more respectful ahead of Don’s Clio win featured in Season Four of the show.
©AMC/courtesy Everett Collectio

The celebration was organized by then-Clio president Bill Evans, a multimillionaire with a a penchant for prostitutes and crack cocaine. His mismanagement of the awards was attributed to greed, incompetence and even fraud, an accusation that was later investigated by the Manhattan District Attorney.

Even before the Thursday night apocalypse, there had been rumblings of trouble. Rumors spread across Madison Avenue that the flamboyant Evans, who occasionally passed himself off as the brother of “Dynasty” star Linda Evans, had fled to the Bahamas to dodge his creditors. Practically the only piece of gossip that was true was the mass resignation of more than 10 disgruntled Clio employees who went unpaid for a month.

The money collected for the awards, which, at the time, cost $85 to enter and $125 to attend, went straight up Evans’ crack pipe. Earlier that year, his erratic behavior was challenged by his daughter, Kema Whelan, a member of the Clio staff. He spat in her face, and she retaliated with a right hook, knocking her dad out cold.

Ron Henderson with his 1991 Clio Award.
Ad man Ron Henderson legitimately won a Clio in 1991 but had to fight for his rightful ownership.
Courtesy of Ron Henderson

That spring, Page Six logged a series of police calls to Evans’ townhouse in Sutton Place. The residence near the tony home of Henry Kissinger had become a drug den.

“A bunch of young runaways preyed upon very wealthy people like Bill,” said Tony Gulisano, who had worked at the Clios since 1982. He added, “Before that, he’d just been an alcoholic — like the entire industry — but it never impacted the business. The crack was the beginning of the end.”

On the night that lives in infamy, the buffet was catered by the upscale company Sterling Affair. Then co-owned by Stephen Pieretti, whose job involved schmoozing with celebrities like Tony Bennett, Norman “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf and Cyndi Lauper, it also supplied sumptuous platters to the Plaza and Waldorf Astoria hotels. The boldface names who used the firm’s services included Donald Trump and Diane Sawyer.

Caterer Stephen Pieretti with Tony Bennett and Peter Fazio,
In this photo from the early 90s, caterer Steve Pieretti (left) poses with crooner Tony Bennett and Peter Fazio, the current owner of Sterling Affair.
Courtesy of Stephen Pieretti

In the late 1980s, Evans had paid the vendor to build a replica of a 25-foot yacht christened the SS Clio. The spectacular vessel — which had 15,000 shrimp attached to its sails — became synonymous with the awards ceremony and the excesses of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

That particular evening, however, Pieretti’s role went beyond supervising the hors d’oeuvres.

“We kept waiting for Bill to arrive, but he was a no-show,” he recalled to The Post. After 90 minutes — when everybody took full advantage of the free bar — a frazzled party planner asked Pieretti to emcee. He said, “A caterer will always protect the client, so I said, ‘I can pull it off.’ ”

Unlucky for him, most of the winners’ list was missing. Slides on a projector displaying the successful entries were upside down or out of focus. Much to the annoyance of the increasingly restless crowd, the creators of the unidentified radio and print ads were asked to introduce themselves onstage.

Thirty years on, caterer Steve Pieretti looks back on the bonkers 1991 Clio Awards with a combination of horror and amusement.
Thirty years on, caterer Steve Pieretti looks back on the bonkers 1991 Clio Awards with a combination of horror and amusement.
New York Post

“Eventually, I ran out of script,” admitted Pieretti, of New Hope, Pennsylvania. “I said to the audience: ‘I’m sorry, I’m just the caterer.’ And that’s when the place went crazy.”

He heard booing and sensed unrest. “I made the cut-throat sign across my neck, alerting my staff that it was time to leave,” he recalled. The crew packed up their food trucks and sped off.

It was a wise move. Spying the remaining awards on a table, an opportunist from the peanut gallery shouted: “F – – k it, I’m taking one!” He dashed to the front, climbed onto the platform and scooped up two Clios, holding them aloft like Rocky Balboa.

This act of defiance triggered a stampede. Close to 150 people jostled to bag a trophy. Evans hadn’t bothered to get them engraved or labeled, so it didn’t matter who got what.

A collection of Clio statuettes.
Golden Clio statuettes are known in the industry as “The Oscars of Advertising.”
Getty Images

Meanwhile, copywriter Henderson, the legitimate recipient of an award, surveyed the proceedings with bemusement. He spotted an acquaintance standing on a chair, frantically waving his arms and shouting, “Please, please, everyone stop this madness!” But nobody paid attention.

Minutes later, the rookie was called to action by an executive from his agency. “He yelled: ‘Go get your Clio!’ ” said Henderson. He didn’t need telling twice.

He vaulted onto the stage where a sharp-elbowed colleague handed him a random statuette. The chaos was caught on camera by photographers, one of whom landed the cover of Adweek. The headline read: “Clio Free For All” above an incriminating image of the looters helping themselves.

The following day, The Post sent an intrepid reporter to question Evans at his Midtown office. But our newsman was confronted “by a young man who threatened him with brass knuckles.” The boss was nowhere to be seen.

Evans filed for bankruptcy in 1992, claiming $1.8 million in debt. He was forced to sell the Clios, and died in 2014 at the age of 83.

Today, the Clios, established in 1959, are still held – with a greatly improved reputation. So much so that Bravo and SiriusXM star Andy Cohen hosted the 2018 event, marking the ceremony’s 60th anniversary. Ironically, it was held at the Manhattan Center.

As for Henderson, now a creative director in Dallas, Texas, he has won four more Clios over the past three decades. But the first award from 1991 is the one he treasures most. “The unlabeled statuette from that circus of a night,” said Henderson, “is oddly more fun to own than the rest.”

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