Composer Sid Siegel, king of kitschy industrial musicals, dead at 88
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Back in the days of three-martini lunches, big corporations presented eye-poppingly lavish, peppy musicals to introduce their new products and fire up their distributors and salesmen.
The budget for one of these industrial musicals could be bigger than the cost of a Broadway show.
Onstage were skilled performers, some of them poached from Broadway. In the audience were pumped-up employees who knew loyalty and hard work would be returned with a 40- or 50-year career with the same company.
Rah-rah lyrics, gorgeous production values — and maybe a few martinis, too — got the besuited warriors pumped up to go out and sell toilets, batteries, Studebakers.
Native Chicagoan Sid Siegel, a product of Sullivan High School and Roosevelt University, was dubbed the George Gershwin of the genre by former Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra. The Harvard Business Review examined the composer’s work as a motivational tool. David Letterman played one of his songs on his TV show.
Mr. Siegel, 88, died Aug. 20 at Highland Park Hospital.
He churned out more than 1,200 radio and TV commercials and did music and lyrics for more than 250 industrial shows, with one of them, titled “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” a kitschy high point.
Written for American Standard bathroom fixtures, “Bathrooms” is “the gateway drug that makes people want to learn more about the strange world of ‘industrials,’ ” according to Steve Young, a former writer for the Letterman show who featured Mr. Siegel in a 2013 book he co-authored, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits (the Golden Age of Industrial Musicals).”
The budgets were “staggering,” Young said. One mid-’50s show for Chevrolet cost $3 million.
When he interviewed Mr. Siegel, then 87 and living in Buffalo Grove, Young found a human player piano. “He had 1,000 pieces of music at his fingers,” he said.
Young discovered a souvenir LP of “The Bathrooms Are Coming” while looking for gems for the Letterman segment, “Dave’s Record Collection.” Thanks to Young’s book, and the Internet, songs like “Look at this Tub” live on.
“ ‘The Bathrooms are Coming’ is the crown jewel of my collection,” he said.
A bemused Letterman played a snippet on his show as he interviewed Young about his book. The signature tune “My Bathroom” is a love song performed by Patt Stanton Gjonola. She portrays Femma, a Greek goddess who comes down from Olympus to urge women to revolt against boring bathrooms:
“My bathroom, my bathroom, is a private kind of place;
Very special kind of place,
The only place where I can stay making faces at my face.
My bathroom, my bathroom, is my very special room;
Where I primp and fuss and groom. . . .
Where I wash and where I cream,
A special place where I can stay, and cream, and dream, and dream, and dream, dream.”
From “Late Night With David Letterman,” with Letterman listening to “My Bathroom” starting at 3:40.
Mr. Siegel’s prolific composing and arranging supported his family — and led to a wedding. Gjonola met her future husband in 1969 when they rehearsed for “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” which was staged in Atlanta and Las Vegas.
“When they married the next year, the whole ‘Bathrooms’ cast and Sid were in attendance, and the newlyweds danced to ‘My Bathroom,’ ’’ Young said.
Another star of the show, Sandi Freeman, went on to be one of the many hosts of WLS-TV’s “A.M. Chicago” before Oprah Winfrey came to town and remade it in her own image.
Young Sid grew up in a home with a piano-playing, singing mother. After serving in the Navy, he used the GI bill to go to Roosevelt, where he composed musicals. He and a partner opened an office and wrote for nightclub acts and stars like Harvey Korman.
Mr. Siegel met his wife, Carrie, at a Yom Kippur dance on Michigan Avenue. They married in 1952.
“He got a call from an agent one day who said, ‘Would you like to do a jingle?’ ’’ she said. “And he said, ‘What’s a jingle?’ He was young.’’
The composer took the job and produced a ditty for Studebaker that was sung by cabaret legend Marilyn Maye.
“He was able to do jingles, industrial films and industrial theater,” his wife said.
“In 15 minutes, he could write a new song and lyrics,” said Gjonola, who lives in Polo, Ill.
“My first industrial show was Sylvania at the Edgewater Beach Hotel,” he said. “The 1960s. Ray Rayner [a then-popular Chicago children’s TV star] was in it. My last industrial show was 1993 for Hardee’s. I did more industrial musicals than anyone in Chicago.”
He worked corporate shows with Bob Hope, Mitzi Gaynor, Van Johnson, Gordon MacRae and Tony Randall.
As Young’s book flushed out new interest in “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” his family laughed.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, Sid, you’re like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ’’ his wife said. “The kids said, ‘Dad, you’re famous again.’ ’’
“He was really funny. He worked from home, so we got to see him a lot,” said his daughter, Jodi, a California singer-songwriter. “He was very disciplined. He’d eat breakfast, go up [to his office], stay up, then come down, have lunch and stay up there till dinner.” As he composed, she said, “You could hear him stomping on the floor” in time.
His son, David, an arranger-orchestrator on Broadway and at the Marriott Lincolnshire, attributes his career to his father. He remembers when he was in seventh grade, “He took me to my first recording session, which happened to be the project ‘My Bathroom.’ ’’
Mr. Siegel also is survived by three grandchildren. Services have been held.