Between "A Star Is Born" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," 2018 was a big year for music movies – and that's not even mentioning the best of the bunch. Indeed, while crowds sang along to "Shallow" and Queen hits in those blockbusters, adventurous audiences were similarly humming along to a tiny but terrific documentary ... and its musical odes to Oldmobiles, copy machines and bathroom fixtures.
The movie's called "Bathtubs Over Broadway," a strange title nowhere near as bizarre as its stranger-than-fiction subject matter.
Directed by Dava Whisenant, the doc follows Steve Young, a former writer for "The Late Show with David Letterman" who, while researching a bit for the show, happens upon the seemingly buried world of industrial musicals, often full-scale original theatrical productions (mostly from a half-century ago) paying tribute to commonplace brands presented at corporate meetings.
What starts as simply a goofy fascination very quickly evolves into a loving appreciation for Young, gathering vinyl records of these quirky shows, meeting fellow avid collectors, connecting with the stars and creators of these productions, and helping preserve as much of this oddball art from being lost potentially forever.
It is indeed art, too, with stars like Martin Short and Florence Henderson getting their starts on industrial musical stages, singing original tunes from Broadway staples like Kander & Ebb ("Chicago," "Cabaret," GE's "Go Fly a Kite") and Jerry Bock ("Fiddler on the Roof," the 1959 Ford Tractor show "Ford-ify Your Future").
Much like Young, "Bathtubs Over Broadway" viewers go on a journey from seemingly simple quirky amusement to genuine affection as the doc pays tribute to finding the meaning and value in all art, those who create it and those who keep it alive. With a limited release, the film wasn't a box office smash – Hollywood biz website The Numbers doesn't even register its domestic theatrical run – but those who did catch it in cinemas were captivated and charmed. (Then and now, the movie sits as a serious contender for my personal top 10 for 2018.) And much like its on-stage subject matter, the doc got a second life thanks to Netflix, landing on the streaming service and drawing even more eyes and ears to its addictively odd musical melodies.
Unfortunately "Bathtubs Over Broadway" is no longer available on Netflix or any other streaming services. You can still rent the film off iTunes, YouTube or Amazon – but as luck would have it, there's an even better option available this Thursday night: witnessing Young's collection of these quirky rare artistic artifacts in person.
Indeed, the bathtubs are coming – and so is Young's touring live show, bringing the world of industrial musicals and their oddball orchestrations to The Cooperage on Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. Part film screening, part entertaining art lecture and part concert, the evening promises to be just as charmingly idiosyncratic as the retro musical numbers cheering on beer brands and insurance salesmen in Young's traveling collection. Before he hits Milwaukee with a little "Diesel Dazzle," I got to chat with Young about the movie's impact, the world of industrial musicals, his latest delightful discoveries and more.
OnMilwaukee: For a documentary, "Bathtubs Over Broadway" was a little bit of a hit, and a lot of people found it on Netflix too. What’s been the reaction since its release?
Steve Young: I knew nothing really about the world of making or being in films or marketing films until I was with “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” We found that, although it was hard to market in traditional corporate conglomerate ways, it was an unbelievably powerful and successful word-of-mouth movie. I still get emails on a regular basis from people who just saw it and get excited and say, “I’m going back to work on Monday, and I’m going to grab everyone by the lapels and tell them to watch this movie.”
You had people really fired up about it, and it was something so unlike what they’d ever seen or heard of before, going so far beyond just kitsch or novelty to the biggest questions of “How do we decide the value of what we’ve done with our careers?” and “What is art?” and “How do we connect with one another?”
It really turned into something magical, so I’m very happy to go wherever people are excited to have me, and I love to show off these films – some of which you see briefly in the documentary but many of which will be new completely.
The film really helped uncover this unique subgenre of music. Has it been easier to find more industrial musical records and evidence, or has it been harder because there’s more people interested and simultaneously looking for them?
It’s both, but I’m OK with the downside of it. Once in a while, there’s a new record that comes up somewhere, and somebody now thinks, “Well, because there’s a movie about this stuff, I better charge $2,000 for this record.” That’s the outlier fringe of it.
I’m definitely the guy that people come to now and say, “Hey, I got a bunch of stuff from my grandfather’s basement or my uncle’s attic or whatever, and you seem like the person who should have it.” So stuff comes to me in this very beautiful, generous way. And there are more collectors now who I’ve talked to and networked with. And as you see in the movie, the network of collectors is such a sweet thing; we all get excited to share our finds with each other. Some people think collectors are these sweaty, paranoid hoarders who think I must win and you must lose.
There probably are some collectors of some things like that out there, but all of the people I deal with – like you see me talking (in the movie) to Jon Ward and Don Bolles – are excited to show their friends what they’ve just found and make them a dub and somebody maybe they’ll get their own copy, too.
But yeah, I do get a lot of stuff flowing to me. It’s harder now to find new records that I’ve never heard of. That’s just going to get rarer and rarer – but it does still happen. Suddenly, I’ll get in the mail a package of scripts or playbills that I never would’ve known about if it weren’t for the movie telling people that someone cares about this.
Have you had a favorite discovery over the past recent years?
There are occasionally completely out-of-left-field great new records – there’s a Pearl Beer one out of Texas that’s pretty great, the first ever tobacco company industrial musical on vinyl that I didn’t know about until a couple of years ago.
Probably the best story is, if you remember from the documentary, Don Bolles had the world’s only known copy of a record called “Gould Growing.” I’d been looking for that for 20 years, and he had made me a copy of it so I knew all the material. But after the movie came out, a guy in Chicago named Angel wrote into the Facebook page and said, “I love this movie so much. It’s crazy you had that Gould record in there; I’ve got a copy of that.” And I wrote back, “Oh my god, you do? That’s only the second copy confirmed in the world. Would you – and I understand if it’s got sentimental value; I’m not gonna be this guy who has to have it – consider some kind of trade or whatever?” He wrote back and said, “Even now you don’t have that record!?” And I said no, you can’t get that record; it’s impossible. And he said he was going to send it to me. Guy’s name is Angel, and he’s an angel. So he sent me “Gould Growing,” and I sent him a copy of the book and a few other goodies.
We’ve stayed in touch. I’m doing a show in Chicago shortly after the Milwaukee show, and I expect to finally meet him face to face for the first time, which will be sweet.
That is a great story! The documentary is so charming and winsome about this community, and it’s really cool that’s how things actually are.
Dava did a great job of showing that people take pleasure in trying to preserve something that’s so unlikely and so close to falling into the darkness forever. Because all these people I’ve met and all the things in their basements, if things had gone a slightly different way, we wouldn’t know about any of it, and the world would go on.
I was just so happy that people like Hank Beebe and Sid (Siegel), late in their lives, got a spotlight and people paying attention and saying, you know what, this is actually kind of awesome – and maybe all the more so because it’s strange and improbable in its messaging. People were so kneejerk about “oh that’s got to be garbage,” and I just thought: Listen to it. I’m not so sure it is garbage! In fact, I think some of it is genius. And the people I tracked down, they have a lot to teach me about how to think about my own life and my career and how to be a person. There were so many layers there once we got past the snarky young comedy writer cynicism.
Do you think industrial musicals or anything like them will come back? Or do you think that was from such a particular moment in time?
It will never be back in the same way as those first golden decades, but it never goes away entirely. Because there’s always a need to get people together and get them fired up about the mission and the prospects for a great future. That’s just human beings being together in the world.
And I will tell you: There are glimpses of some modern ones in the documentary, but there are even more. I know that State Farm Insurance did one as late as 2018, and they may have even done more that I don’t know about. But the visibility of the documentary has helped the pendulum swing again.
A couple of years ago, Skittles, instead of doing a Super Bowl commercial, decided to go in a different direction and did a one-time-only live musical in a theater in New York City called “Skittles Super Bowl Commercial: The Musical.” The public could go to it, so it was a little different from the older things – but it was still so arcane that I thought there’s no way they don’t know about “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” So I wrote Skittles and said, “Can you tell me if this was prompted by the documentary?” And I don’t know if I believe them, but they said no – but they also said, “Would you like to come? We’ll give you some VIP tickets.” So I went and it was terrific! It was hilarious, even for my jaded sensibilities. Again, real talented people firing on all cylinders, elevating this stuff beyond where’d you think. And I got the VIP goodie bag, and guess what was in it? A souvenir vinyl record. I thought: No way was this a coincidence. (Laughs)
Just this year, I had a gig. I occasionally do corporate gigs now, writing comedy for sales meetings and events and things like that. People who’ve seen the documentary find me and say, “Hey, you want to help out with this Silicon Valley CEO’s keynote address?” and I say you bet I would. But the most recent one, in winter, a production company found me and said, “We think we can talk this pharmaceutical company into doing a musical opening for its sales meeting; would you be interested in consulting?” So I ended up writing lyrics for pretty much a modern industrial show. I have crossed over the whole way now.
You went from an admirer to an actual part of this pocket industry.
Right – and it was the moment of truth. I’d been fanboying for the past 25 years; do I have what it takes? Luckily, they were very happy, and they actually ended up flying me out to San Diego to be at the event because they were so happy with it. I would love to keep doing that occasionally. I do take a pleasure in saying, “I have noooo business being here with these pharmaceutical people and yet I brought them something that they might be able to find value in.”
Is there a holy grail record that you’re still on the hunt for?
Oh yes, I have a want list. Occasionally I knock something off the want list, but then I’m always putting new things on the want list. This will continue for the rest of my life. I’m at peace with that. The great thing at this point is Dava told the story so magnificently with the movie, I don’t feel any burden to be desperate to save things anymore for myself. The genre is secure now.
I would say the holy grail record, now that I have “Gould Growing,” is a 1967 Ford introduction show record – a full LP. Usually these car show records are relatively common in this field because how many Ford dealers and Ford salesmen were there? Thousands. So usually those car salesman show records you can find. But this 1967 Ford record? They must’ve just pressed a couple dozen copies for the executives or something, because there’s one copy known in the world, and it belongs to a Broadway collector who covets it because it has music from Cy Coleman, who was a very famous Broadway composer. I went to a Broadway production of “On the 20th Century” a few years ago, and I opened up the program and went, “Holy crap, Cy Coleman! From the ’67 Ford show!” So that’s the twisted lens that I view the world with.
If there’s one copy of something, maybe in my lifetime a second one will turn up. It happened with “Gould Growing.” It could happen with the Ford record. But again, I don’t lose sleep over it. Someone has one, and that’s enough. I have such a crazy big sprawling collection now; everything else I find is just gravy at this point.
What will the live Milwaukee show be like?
So what I do with the show is introduce myself and now I’m going to ask who’s seen “Bathtubs Over Broadway” because those people will already get what we’re talking about. But there will be people who I will bring up to speed with a few efficient paragraphs of my origin story, and I’ll hold up a copy of “Diesel Dazzle” and “My Insurance Man,” the early ones I found. These records are very rare and sometimes I have the only known copy in the world – but what I started acquiring along the way from friends, fellow collectors, cast members and writers were the super super rare films of these things – which I think, in almost every case, the films that’ll be screened are the only known copy in the world. It’s amazing that something like this was made and has survived and reached me.
Some of the things are super great treasures that you glimpse briefly in “Bathtubs Over Broadway” – you get a little of the understanding of “The Bathtubs Are Coming!”, the American Standard Plumbing Fixture musical. Which for a long time I just thought was the record album, and then it turned out once I met Pat – one of the singers – she said she had the film, and that blew my mind. So we have 20 minutes of surviving fragments of the film. It was a 60-minute film, but we now only have 20 minutes for a very funny reason that I’ll explain during the show.
Hank Beebe, my great friend and mentor who did the “Got To Investigate Silicones” musical for General Electric, was the source of the 20-minute silicones musical film. And I have several others that are not at all in the documentary and are really only something you’re going to see if you come to my show. Some of them are edited-down excepts; some of them are a little longer. There’s one I’m going to try that I think is going to be worth browbeating the audience into doing a sing-along. I’m going to borrow a guitar and do one song live. It’s a musical cornucopia of film and music and a little bit of live-action stuff. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes, and people will walk out of there feeling like they’ve been on the weirdest roller coaster of their lives.
"The Weird Wonderful World of Industrial Musicals" will take place at The Cooperage at 7 p.m. For more information, click here.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.