A Whacky Treasure Trove in 'Bathtubs Over Broadway'

Steve Young's years-long record hunt
After years as a comedy writer for “Late Night With David Letterman,” Steve Young’s discovery of and research into industrial musicals led to a book, a film, and an appearance in front of the camera with his boss.

In 1993, three years into his 25-year tenure as a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman,” Steve Young was tasked with finding records for the show’s “Dave’s Record Collection” segments. He happened upon “Go Fly a Kite,” a recording of a Broadway-style musical performed in 1966 for a conference of executives from General Electric.

That discovery not only provided unintentionally funny material for Mr. Letterman, it also changed Mr. Young’s life, sending him on an obsessive, years-long treasure hunt for recordings of a virtually unknown genre: industrial musicals made for one-time showings to private audiences of corporate employees in order to boost morale and, more important, to motivate sales forces. 

That search eventually resulted in a book, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals,” and a documentary film, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” which will be shown Saturday at Guild Hall as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Summerdocs series.

Dava Whisenant, who directed, produced, and edited “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” first met Mr. Young when she worked as an editor on the Letterman show. “I was really happy when they put us together to do Steve’s pieces, because his comedy was different from anybody else’s, very oddball but also very smart.”

Several years after she left the show to move to Los Angeles, Mr. Young sent her a CD of songs from his growing collection of industrial musical recordings. “When I finally listened to it, the first one that jumped out at me was ‘My Bathroom.’ It’s beautiful, but it’s also insane, and Steve called it the gateway drug. You just can’t believe there’s a musical about bathrooms.”

That tune was from “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” which was produced by the plumbing and heating division of American Standard. It begins with a young woman in a bathrobe singing, “My bathroom, my bathroom, is my very special room, where I primp and fuss and groom, where I can get away from all and really feel in bloom.”

After Mr. Young’s book was published in 2013, Ms. Whisenant asked him if she could follow him as he met the composers, lyricists, and actors who were involved in the musicals. Filming took place from March 2014 to August 2017.

As his collection grew, in part through his aggressive bidding for records on eBay, he realized, “We were assembling some version of a picture of America in the 20th century that has never quite been seen before.” Among the dozens of companies whose shows are represented in the film are Citgo, Detroit Diesel, Champion Spark Plugs, Hardee’s, and Oldsmobile, which features vocals by Florence Henderson.

“These were not jingles, not commercials, but full-fledged Broadway-style shows,” Mr. Young said, adding that in 1966 Chevrolet spent $3 million on a one-off production, while, the same year, the budget for “My Fair Lady” on Broadway was less than $500,000. The record labels for the musicals prohibited commercial use or broadcast.

Among the composers and lyricists Mr. Young sought out were Sheldon Harnick, Hank Beebe, and Sid Siegel, whose 250 industrials included “The Bathrooms Are Coming.” 

Notable performers interviewed, in addition to Ms. Henderson, include Chita Rivera and Martin Short, who appreciated the “great hotels, good pay, and the opportunity to sing and dance.” The theater director Susan Stroman said she learned how to put a show together from doing industrials.

Mr. Young also tracked down lesser known performers, among them Patricia Smith Stanton and Sandi Freeman from “The Bathrooms Are Coming.” “We knew we would never become stars,” Ms. Stanton said, “but it was a way to pay the rent.” 

Ms. Whisenant, who received the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, will be present at the screening, as will Mr. Young and Alec Baldwin, the film festival’s co-chairman. The few tickets remaining at press time are $25, $23 for members.