History of brand musicals: Before Hamilton, there was Diesel Dazzle and The Bathrooms Are Coming

Brand musicals were produced by companies like American-Standard. / Courtesy of Blast Books. The Bathrooms Are Coming: American-Standard, 1969. Music and lyrics by Sid SIegel.

Fans of Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s perhaps surprising turn in the 2015 Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption are in for a treat – the actors are teaming up again to star in an as-of-yet untitled scripted feature film based on another potentially unexpected topic: The so-called “Golden Age of Industrial Musicals”.

Meanwhile, there’s also a documentary in the works on the subject, The Industrial Musicals Movie, per its website, follows the co-author of the book that inspired it “into this bizarre and hilarious world [of brand musicals] as he tracks down rare industrial show ephemera, talks to famous veterans of the scene and considers how these mind-boggling musicals about tractors and bathtubs give us new perspective on 20th century American history and culture.”

That’s right: We’re talking about musicals about tractors and bathtubs...and much, much more.

According to Dava Whisenant, director and producer of The Industrial Musicals Movie, the documentary will be completed in late 2017 and “will include some rare and incredible film clips from industrial musicals that have never been seen by the public.”

During its heyday, which Steve Young, co-author of “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals,” said was roughly the 1950s to 1980s, brands like GE, IBM, Westinghouse, American Motors, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Oldsmobile, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Seagram, McDonald's, 7-Eleven, J.C. Penney, Exxon, Standard Oil, Xerox and American-Standard put on these musicals. However, he also noted that of the “many thousands” of shows that were produced, only a small percentage survive in the form of film or records, so there isn’t a complete record of all the companies that produced them.

But thanks in part to Young’s work – which started when he was a writer for David Letterman and had to hunt down “unintentionally funny record albums” for the Dave's Record Collection segment – we have proof of shows with titles like GE's Got to Investigate Silicones, American-Standard's The Bathrooms Are Coming and – my personal favorite – Detroit Diesel Engine's Diesel Dazzle.

“I started accumulating these rare souvenir albums and I was amazed by them conceptually. They seemed like something that must have been invented by comedy writers like myself, but they were real,” Young said. “And while not all of these shows were great, the best ones just blew me away with the quality of the work. The fact that I wasn't the intended audience just made them even more alluring. I started searching out industrial musical records on my own and tracking down and interviewing the personnel who'd been involved.”

The song titles are equally compelling.

“Some song titles are amusingly blunt, like Sell Truck from Diesel Dazzle, or Make It Happen At Retail from an RCA show or How To Sell Shirts from Arrow Shirts,” Young said. “Sometimes you get the weirdness of a song title that's just a product model number, like 1265–1260 from a Monroe Calculator show.”

For her part, Whisenant said she is partial to Vari-Width, Vari-Depth Handle Mechanism from the 1974 Westinghouse show.

“You never find out what the damn thing is, but the song is still great,” she added.

What’s more, Young said these industrial productions paid very well, which, in part, made them excellent training ground for up-and-coming writers and performers. The former includes Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who wrote the music and lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof, and John Kander and Fred Ebb, who were the composers behind Cabaret and Chicago. Performers included Valerie Harper, Hal Linden, Chita Rivera and Florence Henderson. (The documentary includes Henderson and Harnick, as well as actor Martin Short and director, choreographer and performer Susan Stroman.)

Per Young, industrial musicals were intended for company insiders rather than the public. Why? To “entertain the sales force while also educating them about new products, features and programs and motivating them to get out there and sell,” Young said. Along the way, they also “boosted morale and fostered a stronger team spirit,” he added.

According to Whisenant, corporate musicals indeed helped develop internal brand awareness and loyalty.

“The songs were written specifically to make these employees feel better about their jobs and what they had to sell. Some of the musicals told emotional stories, commiserating about management or what it’s like to be away from home so much and some were teaching methods for how to better appeal to ‘the lady of the house’ or an indecisive customer,” she said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of songs in [Young’s] collection...some of them are brilliant and some are horrifying. And the film clips he’s discovered are a wonderful window into the time period. Absolutely fantastic and hard to believe.”

What is not clear, however, is whether these shows had a positive impact on the bottom line.

“There are so many factors that go into a company doing well or poorly – it seems unwise to attribute a great year to a great convention musical,” Young said. “But for several decades, there was a belief that they did serve a useful function, perhaps both in tangible and intangible ways.”

By the late 1980s, however, Young said tastes had changed and traditional musical theater was not resonating as much. Plus, brand musicals were expensive to commission and produce. Cheaper alternatives became increasingly popular and eventually the novelty wore off.

Some companies, however, kept doing industrial musicals, and Young said he has seen video of some “very good examples from the 21st century” and “probably the most significant one I know is a Walmart show from about ten years ago.”

“I doubt they will ever be as pervasive as they were during the golden age, but I don't think the industrial musical will ever die out,” he added.

Young is not alone in his enthusiasm for these musicals. In fact, fellow record collectors include Jello Biafra from Dead Kennedys and Don Bolles from The Germs. They also make cameos in the documentary.

“Industrial musicals are hilarious and weird, but they're more than that,” Young said. “They're a fascinating window into American history and culture and they raise profound questions about what qualifies as art and how creativity can transcend profit-making origins, how company/employee relations have changed over the years, how people get motivated and bonded together, and...what are the features of the new Ford Tractor transmission?”

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