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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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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