Oldsmobile

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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Patti Page: Riding the Oldsmobile Publicity Machine

When Patti Page died on New Year’s Day 2013, I knew I had lost a chance to ask her about her Oldsmobile connection.

I had wanted to do a podcast with her to ask her about all of her TV shows that Oldsmobile sponsored in the 1950s. (There were quite a few different ones.)

Patti Page kit-cover

And just to score some automobilia points, I wanted to ask her about one rare piece in my collection. It’s a lavish publicity kit that Olds sent out to dealers in 1955 to promote Ms. Page’s first show with her name at the top: The Patti Page Show. Since I can no longer ask her, I’ll share this kit with you.

By the time Oldsmobile decided to sponsor her, The Singin’ Rage had become the poster girl for safe pop music during the pre-rock-and-roll Eisenhower years. She scored huge hits with Tennessee Waltz, (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window, and I Went to Your Wedding.

She had an all-American face and image. She was perfect for suburban America, and that was perfect for midsize, middle-of-the-market Oldsmobile.

Page had already fronted one show on TV: the Scott Music Hall program on NBC (1952-53). Then Oldsmobile drove by with a deal (and, presumably, the Starfire 98 convertible shown above) that she couldn’t refuse.
Preview Platter-Side 1

After Oldsmobile and her agents at General Artists Corporation inked the deal for the show, Patti headed into the recording studio to cut a customized record for Olds dealers. (You can listen to Side 1 here or click on the record label.)

The man you hear on the record is announcer Bob LeMond. He was all over the radio and TV dials in the 1950s.
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He worked the mic for Lucille Ball’s radio sitcom My Favorite Husband (1948-1951) and was the pitchman for TV’s Leave it to Beaver, Our Miss Brooks and The Red Skelton Show.

Patti Page’s show would not be his only Oldsmobile gig. He also announced for the Academy Awards program, which was sponsored by Olds. Plus, he voiced many Oldsmobile commercials.

It was common in the 1950s to pair up the star with a smooth announcer like LeMond, who pitched for the sponsor and kept the trains running on time.

Patti Page publicity photo
But this wasn’t The Bob LeMond Show. Nossir. Patti Page was in the high beams, and Oldsmobile poured money into this publicity kit like 15-cent gas down the neck of that Starfire convertible.

It was cleverly constructed like a 78-rpm record album but with paper publicity material in each of the record sleeves.

In the Patti’s Profile sleeve, you’d find a nice 8x10 glossy photo inscribed “To an Olds friend” plus a bio sheet. (Perfect for your secret Patti shrine at home, Mr. Dealer.)

The next record sleeve contained the Publicity Package. This series of single sheets was filled with a treasure trove of hand-holding instructions for dealers about how to publicize The Patti Page Show in their local markets.

On one sheet, Oldmobile wrote copy that dealers could ask their local newspapers to publish. Another sheet contained sample newspaper mats that dealers could custom order to run near the TV listings in their local papers.

(Ever seen a vintage newspaper mat? It’s like a cardboard mold that was used to print newspaper ads with a short shelf life. The cardboard didn’t last long, but then again, neither did the information.)

Local News Release Newspaper Mats


Slides _Script
Oldsmobile even offered a slide kit for television. They provided slides (or suggestions for slides) and copy for 20-second and 8-second TV spots that dealers could ask their local TV stations to produce.

(This was 1950s TV, folks. You could project slides onto TV in those days and call it commercial advertising. Today we’d call it “3rd Grade Book Report.”)

The Oldsmobile promotion juggernaut didn’t stop there. After all, Mr. Dealer, what do you do if Patti Page makes an appearance in your town? No problem. Just turn to the Promotion Patterns section at the back of the kit.

Car Cards
First, Oldsmobile suggested plastering every piece of public transportation with car cards. These cards could be custom-printed with the dealer’s name and displayed on buses, streetcars, taxi cabs, and the dealer’s own cars.

Second, do something modest like…throw a parade! Don’t let America’s singing sensation slink into town in the back of a Checker cab. Let her practice the Queen’s wave while riding down Main Street among a procession of Oldsmobiles. And Olds offered special car cards that could be mounted on top of the dealer’s parade fleet.

Parade cards

Life-size Cutouts

And no dealer’s showroom is complete without life-size cardboard cutouts.

They came in two sizes. Put the full-size cutouts next to the showroom cars. Then put the tabletop cutouts on your Parts Department counters. (Parts Department managers loved those feminine splashes of fuchsia and turquoise!)

Lastly, Oldsmobile peppered dealers with Local Promotion Ideas. Contact disc jockeys and fan clubs. Hold a beauty contest. Offer Patti Page records as dealer giveaways. (The most nostalgic one for me was the suggestion to “call on record dealers!” Record dealers are quickly becoming nostalgic trivia questions much like famous automotive brands beginning with O.)Local_Promotion_Ideas
This kit shows just how much Oldsmobile valued its nascent relationship with Patti Page. But how well did the actual show do once it hit the air? Truth is, not so well.

As Patti stated on the recording, the show hit the airwaves in July 1955. It was 15 minutes long, which was a standard program length in the 1950s. It ran twice a week. It was a syndicated show, so it was shot on film and then distributed to various local television stations. (It did not appear exclusively on any particular broadcast network.) The show lasted one season.

Here’s a clip of Patti from one of those 1955 shows:



Despite the show’s failure, Oldsmobile didn’t throw in the towel on Miss Page. They sponsored another program called The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show. It ran one year: 1958-1959.

By then, Patti’s star was growing dimmer. She only had one or two hits by the end of the 1950s. Rock and roll seriously wrecked singing careers like hers. And let’s face it: the phrases “long term career” and “popular music” do not often duet.

Oldsmobile was still investing a ton of money in popular entertainment programs, but Page’s career was no longer pegging 6,000 rpm. That meant no more Starfire convertibles for her. No more parades. No more life-size cutouts. And as you read this here today, there’s no more Oldsmobile or Patti Page.

What did she think of her partnership with Oldsmobile? I wish I could tell you. Better yet, I wish she could tell you. But that’s one podcast I won’t be able to produce.

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