The cover of Our Future’s Now!, the private-pressing souvenir album of Trane’s 1971 First Annual Meeting, gives a clue about the oddness of what’s inside. The two performers striking “ta-da” poses don’t look like they’re from a Broadway show. They’re wearing workin’ man caps and coveralls. And that title has a whiff of corporate rah-rah.

Welcome to the alternate universe of industrial shows, where musical theater can be about the challenges and triumphs of…selling and servicing air conditioners. A tragically stupid idea? You might think so. I used to think so. But then I got hip to the coolness of the uncoolness. (I wasn’t trying to make an air conditioning joke there, but if you want to read it that way, be my guest.)

I discovered the secret world of industrial musicals years ago while writing for the Letterman show. Tasked with gathering unintentionally funny record albums for the “Dave’s Record Collection” bit, I started finding ultra-obscure souvenir LPs from corporate conventions. At first I thought I’d just found a couple isolated oddities, but by the time I had six or eight I realized “God help me, this is a genre.”

And it was a genre almost nobody knew about, because it was deliberately hidden from the public. You could only get the “Diesel Dazzle” album, for example, if you were a Detroit Diesel guy who’d attended the 1966 convention. The records were marked “Not For Airplay.” “Not For Sale.” “Souvenir Use Only.” I loved that conceptual strangeness and the sense that I’d opened a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.”

If the songs had been just mediocre, the genre would have only been a kitschy novelty. But so many of the shows were weirdly great, featuring wildly improbable lyrics paired with genuinely catchy music. It turned out companies were spending amazing amounts of money to hire serious talent for these private gigs. I couldn’t get these insane songs out of my head. I began actively searching for more records, as well as tracking down writers and performers.

Now, a book and a documentary film later, I’ve got over 200 rare industrial show albums in my collection. Only one represents a Wisconsin company: Trane, the air conditioning company based in La Crosse.

For its November 1971 Miami meeting, Trane commissioned a show with musical elements by Bob Williams. The slick, jazzy horn-based title track delivered the core messaging to the Trane sales force:

Trane’s the one we all agree
Offers what must surely be
Greatest opportunity
Yes our future’s now-wow!
Work together, make it last
Comfort Centers comin’ fast
Your success will be a gas
Yes our future’s now-wow!

While the more ambitious industrials featured original music and lyrics, many relied on the easier option: song parodies. But those can be goofily satisfying. “Our Future’s Now!” includes a number titled “If I Were A Wise Man”:

I’d hire all the extra help that I needed
I’d never do it all alone
Then I’d teach them all of the things I know
And that would surely mean an increase in the business
Think how rapidly she’d grow
No longer would I be a one man show…

This “If I Were A Rich Man” rewrite was performed by Ken Senn, who had a long career in regional musical theater, including productions of “Fiddler On The Roof.” That legendary musical was written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who before making it on Broadway, were themselves writing industrial shows like “Ford-i-fy Your Future.”

Mind. Blown.

“Our Future’s Now!” has that appealing cover and some decent tracks. But I don’t put it in the Hall of Fame with genius corporate infotainments like “Diesel Dazzle” and American-Standard’s “The Bathrooms Are Coming.” The Trane record has an over-reliance on parodies, or even straight covers—plus there are two speeches by Milt Bevington, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Consumer Products Division. Unless you’re a hardcore Bev-Head, one speech by Milt is plenty.

If all this sounds like your kind of deeply twisted rabbit hole, you’re in luck. I’ll be at The Cooperage in Milwaukee on August 31, hosting an evening of industrial musical films that you’ll never be able to unsee, in the best possible way. The films are far rarer than the records, which are plenty rare already. Sadly, no film has surfaced of the Trane show. But I’ll be screening GE’s 1973 “Got to Investigate Silicones,” the 1967 Purina Dog Chow musical, the plumbing fixture musical “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” and many more.

And I’ll bring the Trane record for your reverent inspection. On Wisconsin!

About The Author

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Steve Young is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer who’s written for David Letterman, Matt Groening, and Lorne Michaels. He’s also done feature punch-up, written musical comedy lyrics, and won WGA and Annie Awards. His weird record collection inspired the critically-acclaimed documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway, and Amblin is developing a feature from a book he wrote. Steve loves combining his comedy chops with long-form storytelling, and combining gin with tonic.