That Was Entertainment?

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Not to “out” some of you in the My City audience, but I’d guess there are those reading this column who have enjoyed the forbidden pleasure of the industrial musical. Live, on stage, with a cast of legit professional actors singing songs by Broadway-caliber composers … about plumbing fixtures … or dog food … or copy machines.

These corporate musicals were real, in-house, one-off shows meant to promote companies by lifting the morale of the employees for whom they were expressly written. They were produced and presented, largely in secret, all over the map between the early 1950s and the early ’80s. General Motors used to sponsor them regularly, so if you were important enough in a place like Flint, you might have been invited to a sales meeting or convention somewhere to watch an hour or two of song and dance about, say, Chevrolet’s 1966 product line.

This forgotten world of entertainment is recalled in a new film documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, which will be shown January 17, 19 and 20 at the Flint Institute of Arts. Besides exposing the modern viewer to a fascinating chapter of Americana, the movie seeks to answer questions like, “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet seat company be a work of art?”

The viewer will have to decide, but the movie makes a good case in favor. One might have seen the young Hal Linden (TV’s future “Barney Miller”), Bob Newhart, Florence Henderson or Martin Short honing their skills in one of these productions. Or heard a number from the minds behind Cabaret or Fiddler on the Roof.

The onscreen focus is a TV comedy writer named Steve Young, who transitioned from penning gags for David Letterman to obsessing over record albums and other memorabilia connected to corporate theater. Young initially dismissed these orphan shows as “unintentionally hilarious,” but he became such a fan that he co-authored a book about the golden age of industrial musicals, which turned into an inspiration for the film and its director, Dava Whisenant.

Bathtubs Over Broadway must be seen if only for an explanation of the production number that inspired its title: “The Bathrooms Are Coming.” (And, yes, there is a film clip.)

Also on the eclectic schedule for the FIA’s Friends of Modern Art film series for January are:

Juliet, Naked (January 4-6), an American romantic comedy co-starring Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne and based on a novel by About a Boy writer, Nick Hornby.

Museo (January 11-13), an art-heist thriller from Mexico with a cast headed by Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education).

Tea with the Dames (January 18-20), a documentary in which a quartet of famous British actresses – Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith – discuss their illustrious careers.

Shoplifters (January 25-27), a crime drama from Japan that won top honors at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and which concerns a troubled young couple who forge an unusual family unit to make ends meet.

As customary, information on all screenings at the FIA is available by visiting FlintArts.org or calling 810.234.1695. And don’t forget – the bathrooms are coming!

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