Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Car Trouble

So, for those of you who haven't been watching the news lately, here's a quick news flash: General Motors declared bankruptcy yesterday.

Now, I am not generally as up on current events as I should be. But this is particularly relevant to me due to the fact that for the last week and a half, I have been researching the corporate history of General Motors.

No joke.

Allow me to back up and explain. For the past year I have worked as an "apprentice" for a certain small professional theatre in our nation's great capital. It's been a year of ups and downs that I don't care to discuss here (or ever really) but one of the things I actually really enjoyed about the job was getting to be a part of the selection process for next season.

I can't speak for anywhere else, but at our theatre we have a committee that starts meeting in about september and reads plays nonstop until about the first of march, when we announce the five we are going to produce in our season next year (that is, of course a VERY simplified version of the process, not including any of the business of getting the rights for the plays we want to do. buuut that's another story entirely)

Well.. around the end of February this year, we were stuck. With the economy failing and whatnot, the selection of plays coming from New York this year was at an all time low. We really wanted to do a play about the economy, but nothing seemed quite original or relevant enough. And then one Thursday morning our artistic director showed up with this dusty old copy of The Best Plays of 1953. She had found it! THE play about the current state of the American economy. The Solid Gold Cadillac, a farce by George S. Kaufman and Howard Teichmann.

Now, our theatre is not generally known for its great revivals of 1950's comedies. We did a play about pedophilia at Christmas. We're about to start rehearsals for a modern take on The Scarlet Letter called Fucking A. We generally keep things pretty edgy. So we all looked at her like she was crazy.

BUT. as it turns out, the play is hitting pretty close to home right about now.

In the play, a little old lady stockholder raises her hand at a General Products of America shareholder's meeting and asks the Chairman of the Board why he makes so much money. (Sound familiar?) She eventually ends up exposing the big bad executives for the greedy villians they really are and winning control of the whole company by a proxy vote. Apparently, the idea for the whole play came after GM stock had dropped in the early fifties, and George S. Kaufman, hearing someone remark "poor general motors," thought that might be a good title for a play. Well, the title changed, but the fictional corporation at the center of the play is mostly based on GM, which owned over half of the automobile market when the play was written in 1953.

Right now, I'm working on our performance guide for the play-- a 10-15 page book with background information for lucky subscribers (oooh aaah) and I've kinda become an expert on the history of GM (especially in the 1950's and early 60's).

Its just so fascinating to me that for decades GM was considered to be a perfect example of great business practice and now many of those same key principles have come back to kill it.

Is there a lesson to be learned here, perhaps?

Anyway, enough moralizing. I'll leave you with a few fun facts about the late, great General Motors:

1. Alfred P. Sloan (President of GM from 1923- 37, then chairman until 1956) is largely credited with the early financial success of GM. He is most famous for coming up with a marketing strategy called "planned obsolescence." Basically, he decided that models of cars would update every year so that people would want new cars before they actually needed them. (Sidenote: Sloan was also scrutinized for aiding the efforts of Hitler during WWII. Take from that what you will.)

2. In 1953 (the same year The Solid Gold Cadillac was written) Charlie Wilson left his position as president of GM to become the defense secretary for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wilson is famously misquoted as saying, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." What he actually said is "What is good for the country is good for General Motors." We'll see how that plays out...

3. In 1955, Harlow Curtice became was the first president of a corporation to see a billion dollars in profits. In January, 1956, he was named Time Magazine's man of the year for 1955.

4. Exactly one year ago tomorrow, a proposal was raised at the annual GM shareholder's meeting that would tie GM executive's salaries to company performance. It was voted down.

If that's not enough irony for you, here's one final morsel, a quote from Harlow Curtice:

"You never stand still in this business. You either go up or down."

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