FARGO — As far as record collections go, 250 won’t raise eyebrows as a total amount of albums.
But the approximately 250 titles in Steve Young’s collection won’t just raise eyebrows — they’ll drop jaws.
For nearly 30 years, the New Yorker has been scouring record stores looking for oddball industrial promotional albums from the 1950s and ’60s. Some of his cherished copies include “Got to Investigate Silicone,” “The Music from Ford-i-fy Your Future,” “Once in a Lifetime: The Complete Musical Score from the Edsel Dealer Announcement Show” and the gem “The Bathrooms Are Coming” from plumbing fixtures manufacturer American Standard.
One brand’s promotional trash is another man’s personal treasure, and Young is laughing all the way to, well, across the country.
A documentary on Young, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” has been a hit on the festival circuit for a year and opens the Fargo Film Festival Tuesday night, March 19. The starring subject and the filmmaker, Dava Whisenant, will be on hand for the screening and talk about the film after.
“It’s about a weird topic that people think is going to be light, kitschy, surreal and funny. But we want people to understand that that’s just the beginning,” Young explains. “We go into some very profound places in this movie, talking about American history and the nature of art and how you value your career and how we can make wonderful connections with people through unlikely adventures like the one I had.”
The unlikely adventures started when Young started as a writer for “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1990. In addition to writing jokes, he was asked to head up a bit called “Dave’s Record Collection,” in which the star would hold up and play clips of actual, oddball albums.
Young took the funny bit seriously and started scouring record stores for weird selections.
“I began finding souvenir albums from company conventions and sales meetings, which to my great delight and surprise were full-fledged musicals, like a Broadway show, only for people in the company,” he says. “It was sort of infotainment and motivation. I thought, 'This is terrific, so ridiculous and hilarious, we can work with this.' Then I realized after a while, ‘These things are really well done. I keep going around singing about diesel engines and insurance.’”
His curiosity piqued, he looked beyond the front album cover to find out who was making the records and what the history was with these trade promotions.
“The spectrum of these things ranges from cringingly awful all the way up to astonishingly powerful and well done,” he says. “At the bottom of the barrel is something like ‘Everything is Coming up Profits,’ the name of a floor tile and floor covering show from the late 1960s. I have the one known copy of that record in the world. That’s how rare these things are.”
They aren’t all bad. In fact, some stand on their own as listenable albums.
“Up at the top you get things like ‘Diesel Dazzle’ from the 1966 Detroit Diesel Engine Show, which sounds fantastic,” he says. “I just want to listen to this because I like these songs. I don’t sell or service diesel engines, but damn it, these songs just do something to me.”
There’s a reason some of these albums were so catchy — they were written by Broadway, film and TV composers, like Hank Beebe, who penned “Diesel Dazzle.” The 92-year-old is one of the interviewees in “Bathtubs,” as are former trade show performers, like Tony Award-winner Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson — better known as Carol Brady from “The Brady Bunch” — and Martin Short, who performs at Bluestem this summer.
“I’m a musical theater nerd and have been all my life, but I knew nothing about industrial musicals, so I found it pretty fascinating,” says Emily Beck, executive director of the Fargo Theatre. “It’s funny, it’s uplifting and lighthearted. We thought that captured the celebratory atmosphere of what we’d like opening night to be.”
Meeting these people isn’t just a matter of seeking out stars for Young, who admits that when he began collecting, he had few friends or even interests outside of his work. His curiosity with the albums didn’t just lead to celebrities — it led to him making friends.
“It goes from hilarious, surreal and kitschy to emotionally powerful as I meet these people and they change my life,” he says of the movie.
There are other musician subjects in the film, but not the kind that performed in trade musicals. Punk rockers Jello Biafra (The Dead Kennedys) and Don Bolles (The Germs and Ariel Pink) are collectors of these odd recordings and have become unlikely friends of Young.
“There is some affinity that some of these punk rock guys have for the discarded and overlooked material,” Young says. “People find each other through record shows, flea markets or mutual friends. It delights me that I’m friends with these guys. There’s no logical way I should have met them, but there we are.”
A quarter of a century after he started finding these treasures, there are still some rarities he’s looking for.
“I am still finding stuff 25 years in. I don’t think that will ever stop. Things will keep trickling my way,” he says.
He no longer feels alone in his searches and research and now knows he’s not solely responsible for archiving the genre.
“This movie, ‘Bathtubs Over Broadway,’ tells the story so beautifully it’s been taken off my shoulders whether this is being saved. The history of this little genre is beautifully preserved for all time,” he says, crediting Whisenant, a former editor on the Letterman show, with seeing story potential in Young’s collection.
“I don’t know that I did anything on the 'Letterman' show that has this long-term resonance that’s ended up changing my life. And that’s OK,” he says. “This is such a rare event in anyone’s life, I’m fine if it’s only going to happen once where I’m going to stumble upon something that turns out to be so vast and weird and interesting. But I try to keep an open mind, and everyday might be the day I start down a new path of discovery of something else weird.”
If you go
What: The Fargo Film Festival
When: Tuesday, March 19, through Saturday, March 23
Where: The Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N.
Info: Tickets range from $5 student single session, $7 adult single afternoon and $9 adult single evening passes to $125 for an all-access pass. For a full list of times and descriptions of films, go to https://fargofilmfestival.org or call 701-239-8385.