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Songs about bathrooms, and other Chicago creations in the age of industrial musicals

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:42PM

The industrial musical promoted big deals with a light touch.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, a stable of Chicago songwriters worked in the form where fully staged live shows and limited edition records were presented for corporate meetings and events. Chicago was second only to New York as a hub for these productions.

A key figure in the industrial musical is Sid Siegel, 86, of Buffalo Grove.

The George Gershwin of the genre, he wrote the words and melodies for more than 200 industrial musicals, for clients ranging from A.C. Delco to General Electric. He is featured in the brilliant new book “Everything’s Coming Up Profits (The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals)” by Steve Young and Sport Murphy (Blast Books, $39.95, with music at Young is also a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman,” where he queued up the “Dave’s Record Collection” feature.

Among Siegel’s creations was the musical “The Bathrooms Are Coming!” which was presented in live and film form in January 1969 at the American-Standard bathroom fixture distributor’s conference in Atlanta and Las Vegas. “The Bathrooms Are Coming!” is the hit chapter from the 251-page coffee-table-not-bathroom book.

A souvenir album was presented to attendees, with songs including “Ultra Bath Dream” and the ballad “My Bathroom,” where Siegel’s lyrics declare: “My bathroom is much more than it may seem/Where I wash and where I cream/A special place where I can stay/And cream, and dream, and dream, and dream, dream ...”

“My first industrial show was Sylvania at the Edgewater Beach Hotel,” said Siegel, a successful jingle writer. “The 1960s. Ray Rayner [the popular Chicago children’s television star] was in it. My last industrial show was 1993 for Hardee’s. I did more industrial musicals than anyone in Chicago. Most jingle writers didn’t do industrial shows.

“Instead of writing for 20 seconds or 60 seconds, you’re writing for a full song in industrial musicals.”

The client and/or copywriter would tell Siegel what they wanted to say. “But it’s not to the consumer,” he pointed out. “You’re selling to salesmen and store managers. You got them all worked up. Sometimes a whole plot ran through an entire meeting in between the speakers. In most cases a big inspirational song at the end worked best, where a CEO summed it all up. I’ve written several of those: ‘Let Us Try.’ ‘Be All You Can Possibly Be.’ Before this a sales meeting was a bunch of speakers and slides.”

The lovely, loungy “My Bathroom” began as a straight no-chaser ballad. “It had nothing to do with the toilet at first,” he said. “It was about a woman who was making up in front of her mirror and singing to herself. The image sang back to her. I had no idea people would talk so much about it. There was another plumber’s song where the flush of a toilet was music to his ears.”

Patt Stanton Gjonola, who now lives near Dixon, sang “My Bathroom” on the record and film version (she did not sing the live version). In 1970 she married fellow “Bathrooms” cast member Dick Gjonola, who is pictured as a caveman (depicting the the evolution of the commode) on the album cover.

Her friends and fellow cast members sang “My Bathroom” at their wedding reception at Brigante’s restaurant in Chicago.

“My mother was singing it, everybody knew it,” she recalled, and she began singing how her bathroom is a “private kind of place.”

Dick Gjonola went on to wear a crown in 1980-83 Burger King commercials. The Chicago native died in 2009.

“The song is so popular because everybody has a bathroom,” his wife says. “Everybody does not have a Ford tractor or a Detroit diesel engine.”

Some industrial musical players went on to mainstream fame. Songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret”) and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof”) did industrials.

“I did Hardee’s shows with Tony Randall in San Diego and Las Vegas,” said Siegel, a graduate of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. “It was almost like a Broadway show. He was the emcee between the skits. I even wrote the song ‘I Wish I Could Be You’ for him, which he sang to the president of the company. Whenever I went on the road with the show I conducted the orchestra. Sometimes the band was on tape.

“I did a show with Van Johnson for International Harvester tractors at McCormick Place. He spent the whole week rehearsing for it in Chicago.”

Siegel has been married 62 years. He and wife Carrie have two children and three grandchildren. David Siegel, 58, is a longtime Marriott Lincolnshire arranger-orchestrator now based in New York. Siegel’s daughter Jodi, 55, is a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. Son Mark was a drummer who passed away in 2012.

Another Chicago connection is that many industrial films were produced at Fred A. Niles Communications Center, the West Loop production studio that became the home for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. The musical parts for industrials were laid down at Universal Studios, 46 E. Walton, which is where jingles were also cut.

“I did a couple scores for feature films at Fred Niles,” said Siegel, a graduate of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. “One for Marcel Marecau. Another with Basil Rathbone in his later years. I think it was an anti-Communist movie. I’m still working on musicals.”

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