The 1950s and 60s are often considered the Golden Age of American musicals, both on stage and film. A special confluence of innovation in storytelling, songwriting and choreography coincided with the last vestiges of pop-cultural naiveté to produce classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Oklahoma!,” and “West Side Story.”
But these years also saw the birth of a different sort of American musical, one that will be showcased on Wednesday, July 20, at the Hollywood Theatre, when author and collector Steve Young will present “The Lost World of Industrial Musicals.” These productions were designed for a very specific audience–attendees at corporate sales conventions—and were never intended for public consumption. Their goal was to introduce a new product line, or boost morale for the coming year, and the results are frequently surreal.
Young, a longtime writer for David Letterman, has been collecting audio and video clips of the genre for twenty years, and his book “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals” was published in 2013. I spoke with him in advance of his Portland visit.
Q: How did you first stumble across this neglected corner of American entertainment?
A: In the early 90s, when I had started working as a writer on the Letterman show, they used to do a bit called “Dave’s Record Collection,” that consisted of holding up strange, unintentionally funny record albums. We’d hear samples, Dave would have a quip. I would make shopping trips to thrift shops and record stores, wherever I could find some good material. I started coming back occasionally with these souvenir records from these company events. To my surprise, there were entire, elaborate, custom-crafted musicals that had been created for these events. They reeked of money and talent, but the subject matter was so bizarre—a musical about selling insurance, or diesel engines, or silicone products. It just seemed hilariously misbegotten from the outset. But I found that some of these songs had real earworm capabilities.
Q: That would make sense, if one assumes that these songs were written by people in marketing departments.
A: The marketing people had a lot of say as far as the content of the shows—which features on the new Plymouth to promote, for example. But the people who actually wrote and performed them were generally not from within the company. There were a lot of hired guns from the Broadway world, very high-level, professional, musical-theater world people. Future household names were making very good money practicing their craft.
Q: The upcoming documentary about industrial musicals features interviews with two such names, Florence Henderson and Matin Short. Any others?
A: Hal Linden did this stuff in the 1960s, and when the book came out the New York Times spoke to him and he said that industrials were a wonderful way for an actor in New York to work and make money. He never had to wait tables or drive a cab.
Q: Have any of the companies that originally produced this material had a problem with your unearthing them and showing them publicly?
A: My contact with the companies has been limited, but pleasant and encouraging so far. I’ve just been showing the films informally, and I haven’t put any of the material on the Internet. With the making of the documentary, that’s where the real clearances will have to take place. The show that I do does have film clips, but it’s also me giving an entertaining, hopefully amusing American history lecture as well.
Q: How large is the community of industrial musicals collectors?
A: There are a handful of people, including some hardcore Broadway enthusiasts who would sometimes find these things and set them aside. Also just “weird vinyl” enthusiasts—there’s a punk rocker named Don Bolles who was in The Germs, he has a pretty good stash of this stuff. Harry Shearer actually was into it well before I’d ever heard of it. But I think I might have been the first person to specifically try to hunt this stuff down. I met my co-author on the book, the wonderfully funny and knowledgeable Sport Murphy, because I kept outbidding him on eBay.
Q: Is there a Holy Grail of industrial musicals, a production that you’ve heard tell of but haven’t yet been able to track down?
A: There was so much of this stuff done from the 50s into the 1980s, and for every show that was preserved, even on a record album—and I’ve got like 200 albums by now—there were probably several dozens that were not preserved. So I’ve got just the tip of the iceberg. But the guys who wrote the silicone show had a run of McDonald’s shows in the 70s. Hank Beebe, one of the composers, told me that they were at the top of their game and that it was a great company to work for. But so far no evidence of them has surfaced. I’ve talked to someone who thinks there could be a film or two somewhere.
Q: What is the appeal of these songs and films? It seems like it started off a mere kitsch to you, but now you have a deeper appreciation.
A: My arc went from trying to make a quick, snarky joke on late night television to puzzlement and interest to a sense of kinship in a way with the people who made these things. I had spent so long at the Letterman show—ultimately 25 years—creating material every day that, even if it was used, was usually pretty ephemeral. The people who were writing and performing in these shows also knew that they were doing something that was meant to be ephemeral. But despite that, most of these people had such pride in their work that they could not do anything less than their best. I found that to be a great testament to the artistic impulse.
Q: The works are also reflective of the time in which they were made.
A: Yes, there’s this postwar American optimism and faith in a better future that you see in the 50s and into the 60s. Then it starts to turn, and you get more cynicism and worry and questioning of large institutions, and you can track that, to some extent, through these shows. We can learn from these things how companies related to their workers, how workers felt about their companies, what we have lost, have we learned anything? We can’t go back to 1957, but there were things happening then that were positive, and if there’s a way to learn something about that, maybe this is a useful thing to study.
(“The Lost World of Industrial Musicals” screens at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 20, at the Hollywood Theatre.)