J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

It’s Electrifying!

In September 1966, General Electric hosted its Fifth Annual Utility Executives Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. Those businessmen (and perhaps a few women) came with their wives (and perhaps a couple of husbands) for a three-day meeting. This was one year after a big blackout, so the company wanted to reassure their clients about electrical power.

At the time large corporations like G.E. still had a special tradition for closing such meetings: high-class musical entertainment for the assembled couples. Companies often commissioned an entire small-cast musical comedy featuring Broadway talent.

For this 1966 gathering, G.E. had hired the songwriters John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Walter Marks. Kander and Ebb already had a hit on Broadway with Flora the Red Menace and were working on Cabaret. Marks had written the songs for the 1964 Broadway show Bajour.

And for General Electric’s Utility Executives Conference in Colonial Williamsburg? The natural theme was…Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries about electricity! Well, that was the starting point, at least.

The result was Go Fly a Kite, a show following a utility executive and his wife named, naturally, George and Martha. (Martha was played by Mary Louise Wilson, a Flora alum who would win a Tony forty years later.) After the opening number “Welcome to Williamsburg,” a leprechaun named Poor Richard appears in a tricorn and breeches and ushers George and Martha, as the song says, “Through a Magic Door” to meet Franklin.

Later songs lay out the challenges facing power executives: hillbillies who want to generate their own power (“Makin’ Our Own”), anti-nuclear power protesters (“Atom and Evil”), sons who have become folk-pop singers (“That Great Big a-Go-Go in the Sky”). But they also offer the solutions to George’s problems: Power Distribution Management (“P.D.M. Can Do”) and high-voltage direct current (“Be Direct with Me”)!

Go Fly a Kite was recorded as a double LP and sent to all the utility executives as a souvenir of their visit to Williamsburg. Over a quarter-century later, a television writer named Steve Young came across a copy in a used-record store and took it home, wondering what it was. With help from the nascent web, he learned that this show was just a taste of the forgotten theatrical genre called the “industrial musical.”

Steve and a fellow collector named Sport Murphy have now written a guide to such albums titled Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. It catalogues scores of these little-seen shows from the 1950s through the 1970s with plot synopses, images from record sleeves, quotes from lyrics, profiles of talent, and more.

Okay, so this book’s link to the Revolution, or even to remembering the Revolution, is tenuous. But Steve’s a great friend and a son of Pepperell. The book’s a hoot, and industrial musicals are a thick slice of exceptional Americana that historians of the late 20th century should know about.

Steve and Sport have launched the industrialmusicals.com website with streaming audio so you can listen to a rotating selection of songs. If you want to revive Go Fly a Kite alone, WFMU offers recordings of the entire score. There’s an abbreviated version on YouTube courtesy of Schenectady’s Museum of Innovation and Science.

1 comment:

John L Smith Jr said...

I love this theme and especially that early-to-mid 1960s period of these. Like Disney's audioanimatronic entries in the 1964 World's Fair stuff. (In fact, GE was the co-sponsor with Disney on Carousel of Progress). GREAT stuff! Thanks J.L.!