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A Brief History of the Industrial Musical

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Post-WWII, behind closed doors in the United States' bustling businesses, a peculiar bit of showbiz was born: the industrial musical. These lavish shows were put on to boost the morale of a workforce while imparting brand platitudes. If you've never heard of industrial musicals, you're in good company. None of these elaborate productions were ever meant to be seen by the public, even though the creative minds behind them had names that lit up Broadway.

Why would companies put on shows for employees who'd probably rather see a bonus?

In today's less secure economy, an expenditure like a musical seems downright gauche. In the context of post-war America, however, the atmosphere was quite different, largely because of the surging economy, which was helping the musical theater industry experience its own boom. Productions like West Side Story, Damn Yankees, and Guys and Dolls achieved mass popularity and made it to the silver screen. Corporate America noticed and figured that shows tailor-made for their companies would have similar appeal. What better way to liven up stodgy industry events than to put on a big, rollicking show made by bona fide writers, performers, and musicians?

What workers got were shows like this one from the mid-1950s, put on for the Chevrolet sales force (never mind the guy at 2:24 celebrating his grandmother's curvy physique):

Who Produced These Shows?

The thought of "selling out" didn't worry the talented and well-known theater professionals who put on these shows—they were happy to take the job. People like Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) penned industrial musicals extolling the virtues of General Electric, Oldsmobile, Coca-Cola, and more. This illustrious pool of talent wrote songs that could have easily passed for traditional musical theater numbers, had they not been about lightbulbs or family sedans.

The 1966 industrial musical Go Fly a Kite, presented by General Electric and written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Walter Marks, was performed at that year's Electric Utility Executives Conference. It featured the catchy song "PDM Can Do," about the exciting world of power distribution management:

Can you spot and forecast trouble,
Switch equipment in and out? -- Can do! Can do!
Can you sense things well enough to make reports about? -- Can do! Can do!
We can read folks' meters and make out the bills they get!
What can't we do? -- The waltz, I bet.

It's not easy to find material from these shows, but bits and pieces are out there, including this gloriously weird (and flat-out politically incorrect) short film made for Dodge starring the great musical satirist and scientist Tom Lehrer (writer of "The Elements," sung here by Daniel Radcliffe):

Note the Dodge-friendly jabs at their automotive competitors: "Only squares today drive a Chevrolet!"

The Bathrooms Are Coming!

Sometimes, industrial musicals were downright bizarre. In Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, authors Sport Murphy and Steve Young reveal rare lyrics and promotional materials for tons of these shows, including the 1969 American-Standard production, The Bathrooms Are Coming!, which featured catchy tunes about toilets. Murphy said that Young recently found a full-length film of Bathrooms and described it as "fascinatingly awkward." This is certainly apparent when you consider the privacy of your everyday commode while listening to the ballad "My Bathroom."

The best resource for industrial musical media is the companion site for Everything's Coming Up Profits, which features a handful of songs and links to even more on iTunes. The book is a wealth of information about this genre of shows and discusses the many recognizable names involved. A pre-Brady Bunch Florence Henderson got her start in industrial musicals as well as Ernie Cefalu, whose album design for the International Paper Company show Dolls Alive! led to his later work, the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks cover.

Murphy says that we outsiders are not the only ones who might find the industrial musical genre a little bit ridiculous. These shows were really meant to serve as a "pressure valve" for everyone from the CEO to the workers on assembly lines, providing some "gentle ribbing" that was just self-aware enough to make it easier to look each other in the eyes at meetings.

The Death of the Industrial Musical

Like many fads, the industrial musical faded. Rather than go through the trouble of staging a whole show, celebrity appearances became the preferred corporate attraction, a practice that has survived, but nowadays can be met with minor scandal and resentment. But fans of nostalgia, musicals, and good ol' American industrial might should be tickled to learn about this oddly glamorous mid-century movement.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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