Bathtubs Over Broadway provides a look into the wonderfully bizarre world of Industrial Musicals, staged song and dance productions put on by companies designed to celebrate their products and the employees who sold them. Decades later, these curiosities have become collectibles for a small, but avid group of collectors. Longtime editor Dava Whisenant makes her directorial debut with this ode to a forgotten genre and a charming look at the unbridled enthusiasm of true fandom.
At the center of Bathtubs Over Broadway is Steve Young, a veteran comedy writer of the Tonight Show with David Letterman. After more than 1,500 episodes, Steve is a hard laugh. But, while looking for albums for a segment called ‘Dave’s Record Collection’, Steve stumbles upon a corporate record and falls head over heels into a genre hitherto unknown. More than two decades later, Steve probably has the most extensive collection of industrial musical records in the world, with names like “The Bathrooms Are Coming!”, “Diesel Dazzle”, and “The Wide New World with Ford”. He’s literally written the book on the subject – “Everything’s Coming Up Profits – The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals”.
Whisenant’s film first serves as a primer on the genre, getting plenty of mileage over the sheer absurdity over ballads composed about Xerox and farming equipment, but then it delves deeper. These records are more than just curios for Steve, if they were just for laughs, I doubt they would have spawned a decades long obsession. There’s something ineffable about these musicals that speaks to a unique time in American manufacturing and business, a time that was marked by unbridled optimism and limitless potential. For an old, broken comedian, these musicals were something of a missing puzzle piece. Young starts reaching out to the singers and composers of these musicals, originally looking for records missing from his collection, but finding and helping to create a community of people tied to the genre.
While making the documentary, Steve gets the rare and potentially dangerous chance to meet his heroes, including two actresses from “The Bathrooms Are Coming” as well as the musical’s composer Sid Siegel. The people Steve meets are generous and welcoming and often tickled that they’re being recognized for forgotten works from forty years ago that were often dismissed as commercials. The film touches on questions of artistic value. Do industrial musicals have a place in the American Song Book, or are they merely song and dance commercials, and can they be both? Steve Young thinks so. So do I.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
There’s a moment in the film when Steve listens to 7” about Frigidaire for the first time and a smile comes across his face that’s pure joy. There is a connection that exists between people and art that exists outside of time and rationality. Dava Whisenant’s film is an ode to an unsung art form, but it’s also an ode to unabashed, unironic fandom. I don’t know if the age of Industrial Musicals will ever come again, but I’m glad that it did. And I’m glad that Steve Young uncovered it, and that Bathtubs Over Broadway let me in on it. The film is having its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival, and if you are able, you should check it out. It’s the most charming documentary you never knew you wanted to see.