dealer announcement shows

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.


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