Gone Autos Podcast #9: Florence Henderson & Bill Hayes-Let's Talk About a Rocket

Have you ever done work that you loved and are really proud of, but nobody knows about it?
Photo of Bill Hayes and Florence Henderson
Bill Hayes & Florence Henderson
circa 1958


That’s what has happened to show biz veterans Florence Henderson and Bill Hayes. When you see those names, you automatically think of The Brady Bunch and Days of Our Lives. But with the latest Gone Autos Podcast, I’d like you to think of something else: Oldsmobile.

Florence and Bill are eager to talk about a rocket in Episode 9 of the Gone Autos Podcast.

Even though it was more than 50 years ago, you can still hear how strongly these two feel about their work for Oldsmobile. And how highly they regarded each other’s talents.

It’s amazing how vivid their memories are. Download the podcast. You’ll see.

Photo of 1958 Oldsmobile dealer announcement show soundtrack album cover
Album cover for 1958 model year
dealer announcement show
Back in the 1950s/60s, Henderson and Hayes were nationally recognized as two of the brightest faces for Oldsmobile. They starred in splashy, expensive musicals that were performed exclusively for Oldsmobile dealers and salesmen. They appeared together in a musical show and a drama anthology show on TV, both sponsored by Oldsmobile. They did the Oldsmobile TV commercials for Patti Page’s TV shows, which were also sponsored by the makers of the Rocket 88.

They entertained with a smile while explaining marvels like Roto-Matic Power Steering and Vista-Panoramic Windshields.

Dealer Announcement Shows

But this podcast focuses mostly on the dealer announcement shows. These were the Broadway-style musicals created and performed exclusively for Oldsmobile dealers. These shows are almost forgotten today except for the soundtrack LPs that Oldsmobile recorded and handed out as souvenirs of the shows.

GoodNews-Side1WhoCould-Side1

Youre the Top-Side 1
And these rare vinyl records, which show up occasionally on eBay and through 3rd party Amazon vendors, were my reason for contacting Henderson and Hayes. I simply wanted to know more about these shows, because there’s virtually no other information about them. No photos. No film. No oral histories. No written histories. (There are great articles about industrial shows like Oldsmobile’s. I learned a lot from this one by Jonathan Ward.)

When it comes to memories of these shows, Florence and Bill did not disappoint.

FrankEgan
Frank Egan
courtesy of Margaret Egan &
Florence Henderson

They told me that these shows were produced by Oldsmobile’s ad agency D.P. Brother and organized by a gentleman named Frank Egan. Prior to his work for D.P. Brother, Egan had been a Broadway actor before and during World War II.

Most of the shows that Florence and Bill performed were modified Broadway musicals. In other words, Oldsmobile would buy the rights to do an existing Broadway show like Girl Crazy, which debuted in 1930. They would also buy the rights to modify any or all of the show’s music and lyrics. The result was a show that sounded an awful lot like Girl Crazy but was filled with Oldsmobile sales and product language.

Oldsmobile spared no expense on these musicals. They bought the best talent they could find on Broadway and paid them very, very well.

Max_Hodge
Max Hodge

The shows were written by TV writer Max Hodge. (Hodge is most famous for creating the Batman villain Mr. Freeze for the 1966 TV series.)

One of Hodge’s most acrobatic feats is the song Let’s Talk About a Rocket from the 1959 show Good News About OLDS. It owes a lot to Professor Harold Hill’s patter in Ya Got Trouble from The Music Man, but it’s filled with tongue-stumbling Oldsmobile product language. Bill delivers it with machine gun speed and car salesman confidence. It’s truly a masterpiece.

The podcast only contains an excerpt of the song, but you can (and should!) listen to the entire cut here.


GlennOsser
Orchestrator/Arranger
Glenn Osser

Max Hodge never gets any credit on the soundtrack LPs, but others do. Abe (Glenn) Osser, for instance, was the orchestrator and arranger. Florence and Bill talked about how quickly he could create complex and authentic arrangements.

Front cover
Incidentally, you can hear all of his skills on display if you can ever find a copy of the 1965 album called In My Merry Oldsmobile. The album contains 26 different versions of that one song, which was originally written as a waltz. I never imagined that song could be done in the flamenco style, but Osser pulled it off!

LutherHenderson
Luther Henderson
courtesy of The Luther Henderson
Scholarship Fund
Luther Henderson also got credit for his special dance arrangements. Make sure you listen to the segment in the podcast dedicated to Henderson. His jazz arrangements are outstanding, and they’re very different from the musical tone of the rest of the shows.

Carol Haney 3
Choreographer/Dancer
Carol Haney
Another person who really, really impressed Florence and Bill was choreographer Carol Haney. She was only 39 when she died in 1964, but she had quite a résumé. She won a Tony Award for The Pajama Game and helped Gene Kelly choreograph Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Having that kind of talent around is not too shabby when your sole purpose is to promote Detroit iron.

I was also very interested to hear Florence and Bill talk about Oldsmobile’s boss at that time, Jack Wolfram. Wolfram was the Chief Engineer of the team that developed the Rocket Engine, and he was the General Manager of the division from 1951 to 1964.

Wolfram was known as a taskmaster and a tyrant to his employees, but Henderson/Hayes remember him very differently. They recall a man who was terrified of public speaking. Wolfram actually forced himself to learn how to do it with Frank Egan’s help. They also told me that, despite his stern image, Wolfram loved actors, and he loved the Oldsmobile shows.

Television

Florence Patti-1
Florence Henderson & Patti Page
in the studio circa 1958

Courtesy of Tim Akers, Big Records Productions
We talked briefly about their work on TV. Henderson/Hayes had their own music program and drama anthology show, both sponsored by Oldsmobile.

Not only that, they did Oldsmobile’s commercials for Patti Page’s various TV shows. The commercials were both live and filmed. It’s no coincidence that Oldsmobile also sponsored Patti Page.

Speaking of Patti Page, here’s a 1959 Oldsmobile TV commercial featuring Henderson and Hayes. This was commercial was part of Page’s last major TV show sponsored by Olds: The Big Record Show.



If the song sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a revised version of Let’s Talk About a Rocket, the tune mentioned above that Bill Hayes described as “the epitome of show stoppers.” (It’s fun to actually see Bill and Florence perform some version of this song, but the best, most energetic version is the full recording from the announcement show soundtrack. If you missed it above, here it is again.)

And if that’s not enough, the Two H’s also starred in a musical version of Little Women on TV in 1957.

I asked them if they were joined at the hip during the Late 1950s. They didn’t deny it.

About That Song

And, yes, we talked about the song. The one song about Oldsmobile that everyone in the classic car hobby knows: In My Merry Oldsmobile. They had to perform it dozens of times in different styles. Bill Hayes says he never got tired of it, but I don’t know about Florence Henderson.

Incidentally, the characters that Hayes and Henderson played in the dealer announcement shows were always named Johnny and Lucille. We all knew why Florence was Lucille. It’s right there in the song’s chorus: Come away with me, Lucille / In my merry Oldsmobile.

But none of us knew why Bill’s character was named Johnny. After the podcast, I looked up the lyrics on the internet, and the answer is right there in the first verse: Young Johnny Steele / Has an Oldsmobile. (Do I need to go any farther?)

Big Finish

BillFlo_2
The best Gone Autos Podcast yet is now available for your listening pleasure. Download it now. It’s also available on iTunes. If you get it from there, please write a brief review, and tell me how I’m doing with the podcast. Your feedback helps me make better stuff. It’s that simple.

One more thing: if you’re a classic car fan, but you absolutely hate Broadway show tunes, DO NOT DOWNLOAD THIS PODCAST!! It’s filled with vintage excerpts from the Oldsmobile shows. They sound like Broadway songs, because they were written by Broadway people. If that’s not your cuppa joe, then get in your muscle car, and slowly back away.

However, for the rest of you, I hope you enjoy this history of Oldsmobile shows straight from the mouths of the performers who starred in them.

Who knew that Florence Henderson and Bill Hayes considered these shows some of the most satisfying work that they’ve ever done? Thanks to this Gone Autos podcast, you do.


Podcast
Podcast
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1951 Nash film Proof by Test: 9 Things NOT to do with your Nash

Ever thought about entering your vintage tub Nash in a dirt track competition? Does it take serious impulse control to keep from racing your Rambler Landau up Pikes Peak? Going slack jawed at the thought of going airborne with your Airflyte?

Well, snap out of it! Do you really want to make that call to Hagerty’s afterward? (Would they even believe your lame excuses?) NO!

Instead, check out this ridiculously rare 1951 Nash film, and watch some famous vintage maniacs destroy their Nashes all in the name of safety and reliability.

Proof by Test
was produced by Florez, Inc. They’re the folks who produced all of Nash’s dealer training material like these Nash Metropolitan filmstrips. (As far as I know they didn’t produce many films. In fact, this is the only Florez-made film that I own.)



So how does Nash tackle the formidable challenge of proving that their cars are safer, stronger, and more reliable?

1950 Carrera Panamericana
The original Carrera Panamericana was the most dangerous open road race in the world back in the 1950s. The Mexican government organized it to celebrate finishing something: its portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Organizers allowed anyone with a qualifying 5-seat, stock sedan to enter. That may be one reason the race was so dangerous. Anyone could drive in it. (In fact, a virtual unknown in an Oldsmobile 88 won the race!)
Nash #37
The Official NASCAR Pace Car
driven by NASCAR Daddy Bill France, Sr.


But the founder of NASCAR was no anonymous face. Bill France, Sr., entered the race with a Nash Ambassador. His partner was hot NASCAR driver Curtis Turner. (Incidentally, Turner was the only NASCAR driver to win driving a Nash Ambassador: the Charlotte 150 in April 1951). I love how the car was labeled as “the Official NASCAR Pace Car.” Nash was, indeed, a very early NASCAR sponsor, but zero-point-zero percent of classic car fans remember Nashes as race cars.
Nash #29
Car #29 driven by
José Antonio Solana & Javier Solana


The movie shows France and Turner waving at the newsreel camera, but Turner didn’t finish the race with France. In the 8th of 9 stages, he bought Roy Pat Conner’s Ambassador after Conner became too ill to continue driving. Turner finished the race in third place, but he was disqualified for breaking the rules by changing a car’s crew after the race had begun.
Nash #33
The steady hand of S. Santoyo,
who finished 36th


As France’s Ambassador barrels past the camera, the movie’s narrator exclaims, “And here’s the finish as Nash completes the 2,000-mile grind with flying colors!” These words are truth telling without a lot of truth revealing.

Fact is, France crashed the car, and it didn’t finish the race. Still, he and Turner drove the car back to the States and later raced it on dirt tracks that year.

Final note: Eight Nash Ambassadors were entered into the race. Three of them finished. One of them was driven by S. Santoyo, who finished 36th. For me, the most interesting Nash was Car #116 entered by The People’s Republic of China! It was driven by two Mexicans: Manuel Luz Meneses and José O’Farrill Larranoga. They finished in 39th place.

Pikes Peak
Who could have had a better name for driving up Pikes Peak than Floyd Clymer?
Floyd_Clymer

According to my online research, Floyd Clymed Pikes Peak on a 1916 Excelsior motorcycle, in a 1926 Oldsmobile, a 1947 Kaiser Special, a 1957 Metropolitan, a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, and god knows what else on wheels. Clymer was a relentless promoter and publisher who was always trying to get his name and face in print. He practically invented auto history journalism with his endless series of Historical Motor Scrapbooks back in the 1940s. He was publishing the yearly Indianapolis 500 scrapbook until the day he died in January 1970.

Clymer always seemed to be pitching some promotional angle related to cars, so it should be no surprise that he successfully convinced Nash to film him driving his 1950 Rambler Landau up Pikes Peak. I’m surprised he did it with the top up.

1950 Mobilgas Economy Run
Wish I could tell you more about this, but the film got chopped u--

Stock car racing
Although the film lurches into this section without any warning, there’s plenty of great footage of Herschel Buchanan racing his Nash Ambassador in the dirt.
Dirt track Nash
Herschel Buchanan at the wheel


Hudson always get the glory for winning early 1950s stock car races, but Nash was also on the track always plugging away. Buchanan won a lot of IMCA Stock Car races with his tub. Indeed, 1950 was one of his best years with Nash. According to Ultimateracing.com, he won 9 races and finished in second place four times.

Nash seems pretty justified in making their claims that “power, acceleration, and ability to maintain top speeds hour after hour enabled the Nash Airflyte to outdistance heavier, more expensive cars in dirt track competition.” At least for 1950.

Lucky Lee Lott and the Hell Drivers
There were a lot of stunt drivers back in Lee Lott’s day. Joie Chitwood smashed up Chevrolets. Aut Swenson destroyed Kaiser-Frazers. There was even another Lucky: Earl “Lucky” Teter, who mangled Plymouths (and died in one while doing a 150-foot jump in his last show before quitting to help the war effort in 1942).

Nash on 2 wheels
No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!

There is a great Jam Handy film dedicated to Joie Chitwood. There’s also this action-packed commercial featuring Aut Swenson’s drivers for Phillips 66 Tires. But there’s not that much good footage of Lucky Lee Lott. A few home movies at best.

However, when I saw this segment, I knew I had some really rare footage. Lucky Lee Lott swore by Nash and crashed with Nash throughout his entire career. The sequence in this film shows his hell drivers pulling off a lot of stunts. Two-wheel ramps. Criss-crossing two-wheel ramps. A broad jump. We even see Lee wreck a 1941 Nash and climb out of it unharmed while doing his trademark pose for the fairground audience.

My favorite move is the reverse slide skid. It’s a commonplace stunt in movies today, but I can’t imagine trying it with the automotive equivalent of a humpback whale. (Calm down, haters. I love the Airflytes! They are enablers for romantic activity. But let’s face it. They’re, um, bulbous.)

(BTW, if you want to see a good movie about hell drivers in general, check out Pete Koziell’s documentary Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies. I wish I had this footage available when he made it.)

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As we park this baby in the garage, I have some common sense, whack-me-in-the-frontal-lobe-with-a-shovel tips for avoiding impending doom while driving a Nash Airflyte (Rambler, Statesman, or Ambassador):

  1. Don’t drive it in a dirt track race.
  2. Don’t drive it in the Carrera Panamericana race.
  3. Don’t drive it really fast up Pikes Peak.
  4. Don’t drive side-by-side with another Nash and go sideways on a two-wheel ramp. (You’ll end up looking like a typical highway pileup in an old CHiPs episode.)
  5. In fact, don’t do any kind of two-wheel ramp jump. Your masculinity is already secure. I affirm you in advance. You have nothing to prove.
  6. Don’t try to drive your Nash on two wheels. (See #5.)
  7. Don’t drive your Nash through a “blazing board wall” with another guy on the hood. (It’s not the kind of “Airflyte ride” you want to enjoy, especially if you’re the designated hood ornament.)
  8. Don’t try to create your own rollover accident. (You can do this in a newer car. Just keep texting.)
  9. Don’t do a reverse skid slide.

Just watch the movie instead, and save yourself the spinal cord compression surgery.


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Gone Autos Podcast #8: Tim Dye, extreme Pontiac collector

Tim Dye is a self-professed Extreme Collector. It’s on the cover of his book The Extreme Collector #1: Pontiac-Oakland Memorabilia.

Tim i
Tim_Dye
s a well-known Pontiac automobilia expert, and he earned that title by amassing an incredible collection that spans from the Pontiac Buggy Co. of the early 1900s through the Oakland Motor Car Company years to the end of the Pontiac Division of GM in 2009.

But what’s the difference between collectors like Tim and the hot messes you see on reality TV shows like Hoarders?

I think the major difference is that Tim has done the most important thing with his collection: he’s sharing it. He wrote a gorgeous book featuring dozens of items from his collection. And then he started a museum devoted to it.

Tim is my guest on Gone Autos Podcast #8. You can listen to it here, or download it to your iPod through iTunes.

(If you listen to this podcast through iTunes, please leave us a review. We’d love to hear your feedback. Plus, your reviews can help our iTunes ranking, which encourages us to bring you more podcasts like this one.)

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My contribution: if you’ve listened to my previous podcasts or read a few of my blog posts, you know that I collect vintage car radio commercials, especially orphan brands. So I threw a few of my own Pontiac collectibles into the audio gumbo.

The first is a 1935 radio spot featuring America’s Ace of Aces, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. This recording is mega-rare and was
35 Pontiac label-side 1
distributed on a 33 1/3 RPM record at the dawn of radio commercial distribution. It would have been very expensive to distribute commercials this way, especially during The Great Depression. Only large companies like carmakers could have afforded it.

The record itself is notable, because it features two tracks that have X marks scratched throughout. I always wondered why, so I sacrificed a turntable needle to play those tracks. In between jumps, skips, and loud, rude noises caused by the needle dancing over those Xes, I learned that those tracks were mistakes. Captain Eddie would flub a line, and they would stop.

These days, you would simply erase those tracks. But back in the 1930s, the track was recorded live, all at once. The cutting needle was recording onto a master as Captain Eddie spoke into the mic. Since there was no erasing, all they could do was scratch X marks into the botched tracks to give DJs a clue about which tracks to play or avoid. I’ve never seen another recording from that era quite like it.

The second radio spot is really recognizable to 1960s Pontiac fans. The Breakaway jingle by Steve Karmen was a huge hit and was later used as the basis for a dance track in Britain.
69 Pontiac-Side 2


You can see from the label the jingle was recorded in several different styles. They’re all really entertaining to listen to even today. The music is so good that Steve Karmen took the song and recorded a pop version with soul singer Jimmy Radcliffe doing the vocals. Exact same music but with vocals and no Pontiac name check.

(I think Tim Dye would appreciate my geeky analysis of my own collectibles. We’re all alike that way.)
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Eydie & Plymouth: her career climax?

Outstretched
Sadly, Eydie Gorme left us for that great gig in the sky on Saturday, August 10th.

She was a great vocal stylist. Together with her husband Steve Lawrence, she was half of the ultimate über-lounge nightclub act.

But what does this have to do with orphan cars? Well, nothing, I guess. I don’t know what I was thinking by bringing it up. I blame my cronut addiction. I blame it on the bossa nova. I blame it….WAIT A MINUTE!

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Kathy Kroll: upstaged/offstaged by the AMC Pacer

Has an AMC Pacer ever tried to kill you? Were you ever hired for the sole purpose of dodging its rounded corners at the last second before its moon rover body plowed over you? Kathy Kroll has, and she lived to tell the story.

Kathy was one of the dancers in a 1975 Pacer TV commercial. The 30-second spot was one of many that American Motors made to introduce the Pacer to the public before its official launch on March 1, 1975.

When Kathy first contacted Gone Autos about the commercial, I was floored. It's really rare to actually communicate with onscreen talent from these commercials. They're usually fast productions. Made fast. Shown for a few months. Then gone. And did I mention that this spot is now 37 years old?

But Kathy didn't come to me directly. She started her search for this spot through Jeni Panhorst's AMCPacer web site. Jeni contacted me and helped with the introductions. Then I promised Kathy a copy of the spot in exchange for all her behind-the-scenes stories.

Kathy agreed to tell me everything she could remember about sharing the stage with an AMC Pacer. (Actually, that's not correct. Watch the spot first. You'll learn that the Pacer doesn't share a stage with ANYONE!)



Here's the Gone Autos interview with dancer Kathy Kroll:

GONE AUTOS: Kathy, how did you get cast for this spot?

KATHY KROLL: My commercial agency sent me to the interview/audition.

GA: How long did it take to film the spot?

KK: It took two days. The first day we learned the routine, which only took a couple of hours. The second day we shot the commercial. That took about 10 or 12 hours.

GA: Who choreographed the dance sequence?

KK: Her name was Lee Theodore. She was a famous choreographer. (She played the original Anybodys, the tom boy Jets gang member in the first Broadway production of "West Side Story.")

GA: No film shoot goes perfectly. Did anything unexpected happen?

KK: For the dancers, yes. Every time the Pacer came down the white ramp, it left black tire tracks. (The air in the tires was deliberately low, by the way.) In between every take, the crew would come in and repaint the ramp. We would have to wait for it to dry. Then we would get stuck dancing and turning in each new coat of damp paint!

GA: There are a lot dancers in that spot. Which one are you?
KathyKroll1


KK: I'm the first one to jump into the guy's arms on the left when the car starts coming down the ramp. My hair is up in the top hat. I lead the line up the ramp, and then I'm the second from the top on the left. In one of the takes, I remember almost breaking the guy's jaw jumping into his arms.

GA: You probably filmed endless versions of jumping off that ramp. Did any of the dancers miss their cues and get bumped off by the Pacer?

KK: Endless takes, yes. Nobody got bumped that I can remember, but we had to be careful. A stunt driver was driving the car down the ramp. I can't remember his name, but he was in a lot of movies.

GA: Tell us about the star of the show. What was it like working with the Pacer?

KK: The Pacer was a diva and was treated better than the performers! (LOL!)

GA: The Pacer was a radical-looking car for its time. What did you think of it when you first saw it?

KK: I thought it looked like a pregnant Porsche!

GA: Do you remember when you did this commercial?

KK: I know that the Pacer hadn't come out yet when we shot the commercial sometime in '75, so it must have been early in the year.

GA: When was the first time you saw the spot and how did you feel?

KK: I first saw the commercial on TV just like everyone else did. It was a lot of fun! It was campy. It was definitely a different time and place.

GA: Kathy, thanks for sharing your memories with Gone Autos.

KK: My pleasure!

A9FE
Kathy Kroll today with her husband, character actor Lee Paul

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