We know Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” We know Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But stop anyone on the street and ask who penned “My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place” and you’ll get blank looks. Unless you ask someone who attended Steve Young’s gala revue of corporate musicals; he might not only know, but he could sing a few bars.
It’s a bygone art form: elaborate song-and-dance shows for corporate conventions, designed to put the troops in a happy mood as they slosh through a week of seminars and rubber-chicken dinners. The heyday was the ’50s and ’60s, when corporate culture and American culture were singing from the same page — a pro-business, confident, God-Bless-the-Brand-Name zeitgeist that took its tune cues from Broadway, not rock.
It might have been forgotten if it weren’t for Young, author of “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals.” How did he come to be the leading expert on this happy propaganda?
“It was really a byproduct of being a writer for the [David] Letterman show,” Young said. “When I began in the early ’90s there’d been a successful segment called ‘Dave’s Record Collection.’ The head writer said I could be the captain of the segment, rounding up the raw material from the record stores. But they’d already strip-mined the ‘singing actors’ genre with [William] Shatner and [Leonard] Nimoy, so I was left with instructional stuff about teaching your parakeet to talk.”
Spoken-word albums didn’t have enough pizazz for network comedy. But then something else in the secondhand bins snagged his eye.
“I found these souvenirs of some corporate event. You’d think it would just be speeches, but to my shock and pleasure they were musicals created to sell typewriters or electricity or diesel engines. We got a few of them on the show. Then I realized that the segment was weeks behind me and I would be walking around New York singing songs about selling insurance.”
Catchy kitsch, completely obscure: Young was fascinated by the genre and made a fateful decision to take it seriously. This wasn’t an amateur show. These albums weren’t six guys from Accounts Receivable boozily warbling a parody song. This was actual art.
“They were surprisingly well done. In the golden age of postwar America, there were huge amounts of money sloshing through the companies,” he said, and they could hire the best. “It began dawning on me slowly that some of these things had been created by big names.”
If you’re thinking a Sondheim-Bernstein collaboration for Amalgamated Chlorine, well, close.
“There was a little musical for a Ford tractor in 1959. I showed it to a friend, who looked at the credits. His eyes widened, and he said, ‘Do you have any idea who these people are? Bock and Harnick?’ They were Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They wrote ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ ”
Another team known as Kander and Ebb — full names: John Kander and Fred Ebb — wrote a show for General Electric, yet for some reason they’re better remembered for “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” (Too bad they didn’t work on the bathroom show: “Life is a new bidet, old chum.”)
Most of the shows, however, relied on the sort of talent that never broke through to the top tier — composers who made a living churning out music by the yard for soundtracks and industrials but never became famous like Oscar winners Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Max Steiner.
You might think some composers would be glad they didn’t get famous, lest they be eternally associated with American Standard’s deathless opus, “The Bathrooms Are Coming!” As it turns out, that’s not quite so.
“ ‘Bathrooms’ is simultaneously the best of the bunch and the worst,” Young said. “The music is stratospherically far above every other bit of work that went into the film. This film is an utter train wreck. The music — if you let yourself understand the music, it’s a work of genius. It was written by Sid Siegel.”
Young tracked him down and let him know he hadn’t been forgotten.
“That’s the beautiful dimension of the story: It has brought belated and unexpected pleasure to a range of elderly people who thought, well, I thought this [bleep] was pretty good, but pointless to think anyone cares. Then, 40 years later, they get a call from some guy who says, ‘I’m a big fan.’ Who is this? they’d think. Is this a joke? Who put you up to this?
“There was another elderly gentleman now in Portland, where I went to do a show and interview him. I screened the General Electric film he’d done the music for, then brought up the lights and said, ‘Here’s the hometown hero, Hank Beebe!’ And he came out on stage to applause. Friends and colleagues had known vaguely what he’d done, and now they knew.”
Death by rock ’n’ roll
When you think about it, most of modern pop culture relies on the forgotten and unknown. For every big-name star there are a thousand talented people who bob on the waves for a while, then sink or drift away. Commercials are scored by names we never know; radio jingles have no authors. We can hear the theme for the radio news every hour seven times a day for years on end and never ask who wrote it. The participants in these shows — the musicians, actors, dancers — wouldn’t have balked at fame, of course, but the work paid the bills, and sometimes you’d land a job with a Coca-Cola show that toured the country with a 40-piece orchestra.
Sometimes. Not often. “Many of them were the huge extravaganzas,” Young said, “with the life span of a mayfly.”
They went out of style as tastes changed. By the ’70s and ’80s, “people working in the company hadn’t grown up with ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘South Pacific.’ There was an attempt to add a degree of rock ’n’ roll, but anytime you get rock and corporations together, you’re on thin ice. Westinghouse had one — the world’s first disco sales meeting! It’s deadly. Eight minutes of thumping along, as we hear about every speaker who got up and every dinner they had.”
It’s a pity, really. As goofy and kitschy as some of the films may appear to contemporary eyes — possibly because they are, in fact, goofy and kitschy — there were some fine shows that ended up repurposed as Broadway musicals, and a few more that stirred the hearts of the corporate cadres.
“They’re not always rah-rah. Sometimes they’ll admit: We just had a terrible year, and we’ve been kicked bloody by the competition. We’re rallying, but we’re not feeling it yet. But you will.”
It could make the audience feel a cathartic relief — management gets it; they’re not pretending.
“Properly done — if you got the right music and songs and messages and characters — you could punch through the cynicism and get a lump in your throat about working for the company. One composer told me that some ballads could actually have the tears streaming down the face of the audience: We’re all in this together; it’s going to be a brighter future for you and your family and the country and mankind, because we are involved in a noble effort that will improve people’s lives.”
Whether he’s talking about the Hamm’s Beer show or the musical they made to introduce the Edsel — well, perhaps he’ll explain at the show.