While it had the potential for disaster, I was confident we could pull it off. My crew had arrived at the Silvercup Studios in Astoria Queens hours before the black tie crowd of VIPs would begin to gather on the evening of December 16th 1992. Famous in later years as the site for shooting Sex and the City, Mad Men, the Sopranos and numerous major films, on this particular night the huge top floor studio resplendent in Christmas trappings would host a dinner honoring the President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America. Tonight would be his gala retirement dinner. My responsibility would be to deliver a special gift as part of the entertainment. Hours before delivery it remained a work in progress. No worries.

A Volvo Christmas Classic – “It’s a Vunderful Life”


Cheery, bright, in the midst of her career and utterly fearless if she believed in the mission, her name was Nancy Fiesler. Fiesler was part of the Volvo North America Holding Company Communications Department at a time when the Volvo name in North America adorned trucks, marine engines, construction equipment, buses and sports equipment in addition to automobiles. Fiesler had been assigned many of the responsibilities involved in planning the retirement dinner of CEO Mr. Joseph L. Nicolato.

“Fearless” Nancy Fiesler

Nicolato a retired Marine had started working for Volvo in 1958 as a Volvo parts representative in the New York area. By 1981 Nicolato had reached the heights as President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America. He had been my boss when I had worked for Volvo. A savvy, no nonsense guy with a keen understanding of the automobile business, Volvo customers and Volvo dealers, Nicolato could be tough but was always fair.  And Nicolato loved Volvo. It used to be said, “If you cut Joe, he’d  bleed Volvo blue.”

As part of the evening’s entertainment Fiesler wanted something unique, Christmas themed and memorable for ”Joe.” My phone rang. As a one-time Volvo employee and life-long “friend of Volvo” well grounded in Volvo lore, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to make Fiesler’s vision a reality. We brainstormed and despite many thunderclaps of creativity we kept returning to a ridiculously funny and inspired concept that made no sense for such an important occasion except that the thought of it simply made us laugh. God bless Nancy Fiesler. She had guts. She pulled the trigger.

We would produce a film portraying the origins of Volvo based on the iconic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” CEO Nicolato and Volvo senior management, family and friends from Sweden and North America would be entertained by a Volvo Christmas classic, It’s a Vunderful Life.” The challenge would consume me and in the process afford me one of the best single afternoons in my professional life.

Right out of the box this daunting task benefitted from a motherload of serendipity. “It’s a Wonderful Life” had been allowed to slip into the public domain. With a copy in hand, I set about to whittle, twist and script Frank Capra’s 130-minute American Classic into a cogent, entertaining and humorous 10-minute feature overdubbed in “Swenglish” dialect.

Two requirements stood as personal non-negotiable issues in my undertaking the creation of “It’s a Vunderful Life”. First, though intended to be funny, it had be faithful to critical facts pivotal in the birth of the iconic Swedish car company so that loyal Volvophiles in attendance would feel good and this great brand would not be disrespected. Second, I would not let my adaptation spoil or diminish in any way my ability to enjoy this truly wonderful movie.

Cutting, shaping and subtracting scenes while scripting dialogue to match the new storyline was not rocket science but it sure felt frustratingly close. However, slowly Capra’s masterpiece shrank to a manageable collection of scenes that when strung together formed a buck around which a story could be beaten into shape.

With concept and copy finalized, I sought to hire the voice-over talent to overdub the video. Through my years as a Volvo employee a few of my Volvo cohort and I had developed this zany faux Swedish banter which just became part of our natural conversation. Think, Muppets Swedish Chef. Now, I would hire professionals to really nail it. Surprisingly, I could not find anybody who could do it. Everyone was too professional and polished. Of all the problems I never saw this one coming. Then it dawned on me. As the saying goes, shop your own store.

Unbeknownst to my Volvo friends, we had been rehearsing for years in preparation to do this project. We would perform all of the voices. Two dear friends Peter Desbets a Marketing Manager at Volvo and Scott Cheesman who now worked at Mercedes-Benz and I gathered at the sound studio of my brilliant recording engineer Cliff Hahn. We would do a running dialogue and synchronize it to the visual movie track playing in front of us. That afternoon, to this day, remains one of the single most nose-run funny experiences in all my working life.

As the concept came to life, a creative itch I needed to scratch demanded a way to truly engage all to be in attendance.

Final scene followed by singing Volvo VIPs

With Fiesler and me, already well out on the limb, climbing a little further would not make the fall any worse. My intention would be to leave “It’s a Vunderful Life” without an ending until the night of the dinner. Then at cocktail hour I would herd all the VIPs into a studio set up off the ballroom where they would be filmed singing a Swedish drinking song. Once done the freshly shot footage would be run down to one of the Silvercup Studio editing suites. There my crew would edit the new ending as the concluding scene of the movie. Thus, when George Bailey with Zuzu in his arms looks back to the gathering of friends the scene would show the singing Volvo attendees. What could go wrong? Probably a hundred things.

As December 16th fast approached “It’s a Vunderful Life” had become a pleasing reality for Fiesler and Me. However, “potentially looming debacle” might better describe what some senior Volvo executives began to manifest in their corporate consciousness. For some reason at this late hour they experienced misgivings about an outlaw version of a classic American Christmas film re-cut to tell the story of their Swedish founding fathers in a humorous manner employing bad Swedish accents before an audience of VIP Swedish and North American Volvo executives. Really? What’s the problem?

In advance of the dinner, senior management decided to “test” the film. Volvo invited a small focus group of Swedish executives to preview “It’s a Vunderful Life.” Our good luck held. The Swedish Siskels and Eberts shared a great sense of humor and came out laughing. Home free, so far. We, however, had farther to go.

Commencing to sing Helan Gar

Night fell on a chilly New York City. As the VIPs filled the wonderfully festive ballroom, we waited till everyone had at least one drink. Then, on cue, two attractive women in black clingy evening gowns gently directed the guests off to a brightly illuminated area facing a film crew. Employing a technique similar to that used by police to initiate compliance from disoriented people during a raid, I gave specific and confident directions to the somewhat unsure attendees. The Swedish executives in attendance lifted my efforts on the wings of their firm determination to party hearty.

In jubilant stentorian voices the Swedish execs lead a spirited rendition of Swedish drinking song Helan Gar. It was great. Then, not giving their sing-a-long another thought, everyone retreated to dinner as the video made its way to final edit.

With dessert a delicious memory the audience turned its attention to the large screen. Show time at last. Fiesler and I took a deep collective anticipatory breath. They laughed! Everything after that stands as a blissful blur.

Much like the last stagehand exiting the theater to the sound of his own lonely echoing footfalls, I departed the empty great room for the elevator. As the elevator doors parted there stood retiring CEO Joe Nicolato and his lovely wife Marylou. They too had just put a big night behind them and for the Nicolatos a proud career as well. A brutal critic if displeased, Joe Nicolato flashed a large and unusually warm smile.

A wonderful life indeed.


Watch “It’s a Vunderful Life”

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