Carrie Rengers

Learjet, local references on ‘Mad Men’ delight Al Higdon, Wichita’s original Mad Man

Johnny Carson sitting at Bill Lear’s desk in 1965. Al Higdon is sitting on the credenza to his side.
Johnny Carson sitting at Bill Lear’s desk in 1965. Al Higdon is sitting on the credenza to his side. Courtesy photo

One of Wichita’s foremost Mad Men got a special kick out the penultimate episode of “Mad Men” Sunday night.

“I haven’t missed an episode in seven years,” says Al Higdon, co-founder of Sullivan Higdon & Sink, the state’s largest advertising agency.

Though he’s enjoyed the whole series, Higdon was shocked and delighted to find Learjet, his former employer, was a new story line.

“Ten minutes into the show, my jaw just dropped,” Higdon says. “It was really amazing.”

A character, Pete Campbell, was offered a top marketing job with Learjet in Wichita. This episode is set in 1970, which is when Higdon was promoted from manager of information services for Learjet to director of public relations.

“I knew all those guys,” Higdon says of the marketing staff.

“Those were heady days for Learjet. It was kind of incredible to think it all came to life last night on ‘Mad Men.’”

The show references Los Angeles-based ad agency Carson/Roberts.

“That was the agency that Learjet had at the time,” Higdon says. “It was extremely well researched. … I’ve been captivated by the show’s accuracy.”

He laughed at some hyperbole, though, such as Pete Campbell’s job offer.

“What was funny was some of the enticement he was going to get,” Higdon says.

Campbell was promised a Learjet would be at his disposal.

“Well, I tell you, the only person who did that was Bill Lear,” Hidgdon says. “Company airplanes were not made available to the working folks.”

He says the show’s reference to the company’s marketing strategy being influenced by Hollywood was an exaggeration but not total fabrication. He says Lear and his wife, Moya, were well connected to Hollywood and showed many of their friends through the factory.

People who dropped by included Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Milton Berle and George Peppard among others. Danny Kaye was on Learjet’s board for a time.

Higdon says Learjet had the informal name of “Hollywood East.”

Social media blew up during and after the show with Wichitans – and others – joking about “Mad Men’s” references to “beautiful” and “wholesome” Wichita where you could get a two-bedroom house for $100 a month.

“WHAT IF MAD MEN IS JUST A LONG AD FOR WICHITA,” Canadian Anne T. Donahue (@annetdonahue) tweeted.

“I would love to take credit for something like that,” says Ken Evans, the city’s strategic communications director. “Perhaps we should look into that for the future.”

There were many suggestions of a Pete Campbell spinoff in Wichita, and there was even one tweet about a Campbell sighting at the Beacon.

Higdon says he’s looking forward to seeing what happens with the story line.

“It was just so much fun … to hear Wichita talked about on the program. How often do we get that much favorable exposure?” he says.

“It was just a rush of kind of nostalgic adrenaline.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRengers.

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