By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
In second grade, Denise Pendleton was hit by a car. She ended up in a full body cast for a year and went to an elementary school for disabled children. By the time she was in high school though, she was a Soul Train dancer, and the winner of innumerable dance contests that were so popular back in the sixties and early seventies. “My mother thought I was doing something nefarious when I would come home with two or three thousand dollars but [me and my dance partners] were winning all the dance contests!”
Pendleton though, who attended Chicago’s High School for Metropolitan Studies, the first alternative high school in America, had overcome the trials of her childhood to become much more than just a dancer. At just fifteen years old, she had the ear of the founder and producer of Soul Train, Don Cornelius in its earliest days when it still filmed in Chicago. She recalls, “I used to book talent, was assistant to the producer, dance choreographer. I did a lot!”
It was around this time that one of the teachers at her high school introduced her to some of the staff at Burrell Communications. Founded in 1971 by Tom Burrell and Ed McBain, it was the leading Black owned advertising agency and revolutionized the way Blacks were depicted in commercial advertising as well as how the Black demographic was targeted by advertisers. Pendleton recalls one of her first visits to Burrell. “They were doing a Coca-Cola commercial with Bill Cosby and Betty Carter. There were all these amazing Black people!”
Natalie Cole, who had just married Pendleton’s minister, exposed her to the music industry via her connections to Capitol Records. “I got to see how a record is made, from the ground up. In my mind, I said I want more people to see that!” Pendleton ended up at Motown where she worked as a film and television producer, artist management, tour coordinator and image consultant. She subsequently oversaw the concert tours for such artists as El Debarge, Jennifer Holiday, Deniece Williams, The Temptations and Luther Vandross.
Pendleton leveraged her knowledge and contacts in the entertainment industry and her relationship with Burrell Communications where she says, “I always kept my relationship with Burrell even when I went to Motown. They were like my second family.” She spearheaded Burrell’s signature use of musical talent in its commercials. She explains, “I used to tell them who was hot and who they should look to use in their ads especially for Coca-Cola since Coca Cola was grounded in the music industry.” Her proudest moment was producing the 1995 Super bowl commercial hit ‘Big Mac Scat” featuring Al Jarreau and Vesta. “That ended up being in the Superbowl and the Special Olympics. It was the first black commercial to have that prominence.” Pendleton explains. So iconic and historic were the Burrell Agency’s commercials that many of them are catalogued in the Library of Congress archives.
It was a no brainer that Pendleton would choose the Burrell agency as the subject of her first documentary. First, there was her intimate personal and professional history with the company. Burrell Communications also launched the careers of many pioneering Black television and film talent and has won multiple CLEO Awards; the equivalent of an Oscar for the advertising industry. Pendleton also has tremendous respect for Tom Burrell, the agency’s founder. “I think Tom’s story is so inspiring! He’s been legally blind since the age of 27 so he really had to trust his instincts and trust the people around him. It’s one thing when you have one hundred percent vision and another when you only have five.” Indeed Pendleton’s film documents not just the triumph of a Black man, “Inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements,” overcoming all of the odds, it is also the story of a disabled person refusing to limit himself.
Called Burrell: Advertising Revolution the film is about an hour long and features a treasure trove of archival footage from the seventies forward. It’s important American history wrapped in a delightful walk down memory lane. Pendleton had full access to the library at Burrell Communications and was able to get much of the footage for the film that way. Now in the midst of trying to raise funds to expand to a full length feature documentary, she was also the recipient of a lot of people’s largesse. She laughs, “There were just people sending me stuff and not telling me where it was coming from!”