John Ferriter’s Unlikely Detour Into Global Showbiz Domination

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

Yeah, it’s a weird scene.  A young Santa Barbara longhair in slightly timeworn blazer and freshly ironed slacks is being shown around an L.A. manor the size of a small town—123 rooms, 55,000 square feet, a circular drive ostentatious enough to host Michael Rennie’s gigantic flying saucer from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Craning his neck to take it all in and listening with half an ear to the determined jibber-jabber of his host, our bohemian anti-hero is enjoying the tour. Vaulted ceilings, innumerable staircases, genuine olde world chandeliers and furniture that might’ve intimidated Marie Antoinette—the place is a jaw-locking wonder.

Spelling, 1950s: Zeus of the cathode ray.

His guide—and proprietor of the sprawling compound—is none other than the stoop-shouldered Titan of Television himself; Aaron Spelling. While Spelling didn’t invent television, he may as well have, so inextricable is he from the postwar TV diet on which boomers were largely raised.

From Gunsmoke to Beverly Hills 90210, Aaron Spelling was on or behind America’s most beloved television shows. He is rich, iconic, perennially tanned, and steeped in the purest American power; Showbiz Power®. He lives in a house you can see from space, for instance.  His measured gait, though, is unassuming as he guides his guest from room to enormous room across acres of hushed carpet.

At a certain point in the tour the amiable longhair, a guitarist named John Ferriter, feels a bony hand alight on his shoulder. He turns to Spelling. The silver-haired Primetime Prometheus removes the ornately carved pipe from his mouth and gestures with it as he speaks, squinting through a scrim of aromatic smoke.

“I’m told you’re in a band,” he says to John.

“Yes,” Ferriter affirms. Somewhere in the outlandish complex of rooms and gardens a clock is heard faintly to chime.

“Are you better than the Rolling Stones?” Spelling asks casually.

“Well, I don’t think anybody’s better than the Rolling Stones,” Ferriter replies quite reasonably.

“Hm.” Spelling draws thoughtfully on his pipe, blows out an answering plume of smoke which Ferriter is obliged to politely wave away. “Then why do you do it?” Spelling asks him.

History Major Kidnapped by the Art Impulse

In 1982 John Ferriter graduated UCSB; a history major and poly-sci minor. He’d served on the UCSB Legislative Council for the ’80-’81 academic year and served as UCSB Internal Vice President in ’81-’82, and he’d hosted several radio shows at storied KCSB-FM and was the Station’s Program Director for a couple of years. He’d taken the celebrated UCSB sociology class with Walter “Mr. Lois” Capps, and in that setting had been lectured to by such tribal elders as envelope-pushing TV pioneer Norman Lear, Senator George McGovern, and once and future governor Jerry Brown.Mightily drawn to the confluence of communications and Blind Lady Justice, Ferriter began mulling law school.

Stingrays looking pensive. From left: Corey Wilson, Greg “Whitey” Pryor, John Ferriter and Troy Thacker – 1984 (photo Leslie Holzman)

Around the same time, though, he bought a Gibson Les Paul from a pal who was himself headed off to law school, and the axe felled him, as can happen. Immersing himself in music, soon Ferriter founded protean Santa Barbara rock band The Stingrays, the band ultimately recording albums and touring in small rural backwaters with names like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Phoenix, Tucson…you get the idea.

First and Last Move to City of Angels

 By ’88, though, Ferriter was feeling the pinch. The Stingrays had effectively conquered their realm, playing on the road with bands like R.E.M., while back home establishing themselves as house noisemakers at The Shack and otherwise becoming beloved and familiar club fixtures in the American Riviera. It was around this time Ferriter had a creeping revelation that would drag him down the Road Less Traveled. Known also as the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“I never wanted to be the best band in Santa Barbara. I wanted to be a really good band and I wanted to write really good songs. And I started to think staying in Santa Barbara wasn’t going to get me what I needed.”

Inventor of modern pop—Sir Paul and JF noodling on guitar (photo Judy Hallwachs Pryor)

That is, what some troubadours realize belatedly while being broken on the wheel called Art, Ferriter had divined by sheer intuition—and those thousands of gigs whose cumulative payoff seemed increasingly unlikely ever to sate the yawning, toothy maw of Tomorrow’s expectations.  

So Ferriter and fellow Stingray Whitey Pryor packed up and moved to L.A. In short order the ceaseless electric current of the city began to conduct itself through Ferriter. “I started meeting a lot of Industry people and I began to realize that the business was very much about who you knew and what you could do for them, and vice versa.” Ferriter and Ford hunkered down and wrote and recorded, occasionally joined by Beatlemaniac and nascent Cavern Club habitué John Finseth of SB’s the Tearaways, who would drive down from SB to jam. It was the Glamorous Life that has ever drawn out poets and unicorn wranglers.

“I was working at a swimming pool store in West Los Angeles. I started dating a girl who was the great granddaughter of Louis B. Mayer. She was very sweet, and we did lots of dinners, and people like Claudette Colbert would be there, or Roddy McDowall, John Forsyth; that whole crowd (see: Aaron Spelling tour and benediction). Through her and her family I started meeting people,” Ferriter understates maniacally—a possible symptom of his later cavorting with bespoke superstars of every stripe. “I was making about $17,000 a year.”

Temp Job Heard Round the World

 Roddy McDowall aside, in ’91 Ferriter was still devoted to music and casting about for a new “food and shelter” gig to support his creative endeavors. Fatefully, he took a temp job with the storied William Morris Agency (WMA); the venerable 120 year-old talent outfit whose roster included Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. Not the coiffed Hollywood Blvd knockoffs pacing and wheedling in front of Grauman’s, you understand—the actual screen gods whose mitts and shoes are fossilized in Grauman’s concrete.

Birds of a feather Tom Green, Donny Osmond, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and John Ferriter raising a glass. (photo courtesy John Ferriter)

“I took a job working as an assistant for an older agent named Dick Howard.  Dick covered both Television and Music, and he was just a great guy. He was also about 90% deaf. At that time I figured that if the Music Agents in Hollywood were deaf it pretty much defined the industry at that point.”

Ferriter’s executive assistance played to the glamour theme to which he’d grown accustomed, and included smuggling bags of dialysis fluid into and out of Howard’s office so’s to keep the boss’s indecisive kidneys on the down-low while he awaited a transplant. Ferriter approached the job with all his heart and will. “I learned that the business was very complicated, and as assistant your job was to make your boss look good. You needed to make their life easier. The same theory applies to your clients. Make them look good, and make their lives easier.” So; early lessons, but more to do with renal failure than caviar at Cannes. Still. The Fates rustled impatiently in the wings.

Rocky Mountain “Hi!”

Dick Howard’s kidney situation made him an absentee agent. Meaning his jittery, green, and scrambling new assistant was thrown into the fire from the get-go. “I had to learn very quickly how to stay alive at a major talent agency.” Well…we’ve seen this movie. Clearly, Ferriter dug down and found the stuff, rallied heroically and by the end of the first reel was a conquering wonder, emitting preternatural competency rays. 

Friends in high places: John Ferriter, Laura and President George W Bush, and a pleased Ryan Seacrest (photo courtesy John Ferriter)

“I was scared out of my mind,” he corrects with some gravity. “I thought ‘I don’t have the clothes, I don’t have the car, I don’t have any money’. You know, I’d just come off the road and had all this credit card debt. I looked around and said ‘I’m not one of these guys. I’m not an agent. I’m not this type of person’— I was overwhelmed, and I just worked around the clock.” Very shortly he had his epiphany, what animal behaviorists call a “Fight or Flight Response”.

“Dick was ill, so he was out a lot. I had to do some deals. I had to do some deals for John Denver, who was a big client of the agency. Afterwards, he called me one day at the office. ‘Thanks, man’. John Denver! He’s calling me. And he knew my name! By then I’d met Dick Clark and Johnny Carson and Bob Hope and all these other people (yes, dear reader: cultural icons in Tinseltown talent agencies do mingle as freely as super heroes on an overwrought comic book cover), and I thought, I guess I can have some impact here!”

Base Camp Blues

Having tasted of the fruit of the tree of “Holy Sh*t, I AM This Guy”, Ferriter moved quickly from strength to strength, leveraging his particular admixture of grit and ambition, and an integrity he’d had baked into him from childhood.

JF, Hope Hicks, and client Piers Morgan

Meanwhile,  Mr. Spelling’s question had borne fruit as an animating principle. Why do anything you don’t intend to absolutely crush?

 “What I realized very quickly was that I  wasn’t better than the other guys, I wasn’t smarter than the other guys, but I could out work the other guys.” He ingratiated himself to the William Morris Executive suite by doing everything he was asked. It was a varied continuum. “I took the word ‘No’ out of my vocabulary. Read this script and give coverage. Drive this package to an actor’s house in Malibu. Take the minutes in a staff meeting. Cover someone’s desk. Drive to Anaheim to see Ronna Reeves—a country singer from Nashville. Drive to Bakersfield to cover Tracy Byrd—another country singer. Go to TV tapings on weekends.  Whatever they asked, I did. From August ‘91 to October ‘92 I worked seven days a week while still playing about 20 shows a month with the Stingrays at night.”

Ferriter’s reward for all this earnest hump-busting?  The usual. In October of ‘92, WMA bought a smaller agency called Triad, and the ensuing Venn Diagram revealed overlaps and redundancies that meant, among other things, that WMA was laying off Ferriter’s boss. Needless to say, Ferriter would also be leaving. “A business affairs exec named Brian Rabolli called me into his office and said ‘…if you don’t go in and fight you will lose your job!’  I went in Monday morning. Human Resources told me I was gone. I refused to leave.” 

That’s right, reader. The guy would not leave the premises. Kids reading this, take note.

Serf to Summit

Finally WMA television pooh-bah Bob Crestani called the intractable Ferriter into his office. When John had gently closed the door behind him, Crestani posed a simple question. “Who the hell are you?!” It was the non-rhetorical question for which Ferriter had arguably been waiting his whole life. He snapped. Or he snapped-to, rather.

Baby’s In Red – gray-flannel businessman Ferriter and omnipresent axe (photo by Markus&Koala)

“I laid down all of my booking slips and said, ‘I’m the guy who’s making money for the agency while you pay me $18,000 a year!’” After a pin-drop silence Crestani burst out laughing. “Go back to your office and we will figure something out.” Ferriter blinked twice and got back to work. 8 months later, Crestani called Ferriter back in. Behind his enormous desk the exec was hangdog.

“Look, John,” Crestani murmured, “…the worst part of my job is that I have to let people go, and I have to let a couple people go today.” Ferriter braced himself. “The Best part of my job,” Crestani continued, brightening like a schoolboy with an uncontainable secret, “…is promoting people. Congratulations, John! You are now the newest William Morris Agent!” Ferriter still marvels at the moment. “Crestani told me I couldn’t say anything for a couple of weeks while they made the other changes. So I continued to sit at my assistant’s desk even though they had given me a business card and a credit card. It was surreal.”

Today, John Ferriter runs his own outfit, The Alternative, and is living…well, not the dream, exactly; more like the gilded reality. His snapshot collection is whiplash-worthy and runs the gamut from George W. and Laura Bush (bookended in the photo by Ferriter and a stunned-looking Ryan Seacrest) to Donny Osmond and Glenn Weiss; the fella who roiled the recent Emmy broadcast (and his gf) by dropping to his knee on live TV. Ferriter’s roster of talent includes (among some 60 other quasars of the showbiz firmament) Piers Morgan, Garth Brooks, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, Mark McGrath, Jim Moret of Inside Edition, Red Carpet Confessor Melissa Rivers; and a little band called The Tearaways, whose drummer Clem Burke (another client) hails from Blondie; whose founder John Finseth is one of Ferriter’s longest-standing partners in musical rhyme; and whose yearly sojourn to Liverpool sees the band pack the legendary Cavern Club. Yeah, that Cavern Club. With a certain John Ferriter on bass guitar. 

The Tearaways, Santa Barbara’s Fab Five: l to r Clem Burke (Blondie), JF, John “Fin” Finseth, Greg Brallier, David Hekhouse (photo courtesy John Ferriter)

Most gratifying of all, Ferriter’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. Casey Kasem would’ve dug him. He is not a blowhard, and neither a preening ego-bot. He’s a sweet guy who stands by his friends and is still aswim in the gee-whizness of his arc.

All this could be described in Frank Capra-esque terms. This former Santa Barbaran and Stingray and earnest pal to many has gone far on a bachelor’s in History. Ferriter has a wonderful life. What drives it? Maybe not surprisingly, heart and spine. “My dad, a career military officer, always instilled in me, go to bed every night with your integrity intact, know that you did the very best you could that day, and give an honest day’s work.”

Not as glamorous as dinner with Claudette Colbert, but apparently it’ll do the trick.