On a September day in 1949, the sets, lights, and costumes for the hit Broadway show, Mister Roberts, were loaded into the back of a specially designed and equipped trailer. The doors swung closed. A tractor hooked up, blasted its air horn, and drove away in a cloud of diesel smoke.
While today this seems like nothing extraordinary, at the time it was revolutionary. It marked the end of one era in American show business, and the beginning of a new one.
Ralph Hoffman, who crossed the country with the National Ballet and other companies more times than he can count, remembers the old times and the new. “In the early days of my touring, the tradition had always been trains. In Detroit, the train pulled right up to the theatre. They had a loading dock with a spur from the railroad track. And I remember the old stagehands here in Washington talking about going to the railyard, offloading railroad cars onto trucks, and then bringing them to the theatre. That’s where the name car-loaders came from. Nowadays, whether you live near a railroad spur or not, it’s immaterial. Trucks can take a show anyplace. You can be in Peoria and go see Les Miserables or the New York City Ballet. They bring culture and live entertainment to your doorstep, wherever you live. And looking back, it was Clark Transfer that really made this possible.”
But getting there was not easy. It took the vision, chutzpah, and persistence of two brash young men from Philadelphia.
Somewhere around 1917, Jim Clark, an Irish fellow from a big Irish family, met Louis Molitch (aka Whitey), the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, Ukraine. The story goes that they found work together hauling dead bodies after the big influenza epidemic. They formed a special bond — one that would last for more than 40 years.
One thing led to another, and Clark came up with the money to buy a small trucking company, which he renamed Highway Express Lines. As towns along the East Coast began to build their movie palaces, Highway Express got the job of delivering the movie prints to and from the theatres. Later, they added newspapers and magazine delivery. There is no record of what they carried on their trucks during Prohibition. But Jim and Whitey were there, loading, hauling, unloading.
Times were hard, but Clark and Molitch had found a niche for themselves. Through the depression and through the war they managed to keep in business, and the business grew. Jim Clark became a force to be reckoned with in Philadelphia politics, eventually becoming the Chairman of the Democratic Party there.
Meanwhile, Whitey was always out on the road, keeping the business moving forward. When he met 16 year-old Sylvia Nadler in 1924, he began a six-year, long-distance courtship, with letters mailed from terminals and truckstops. Sylvia told him that, unless she met somebody she liked better, she would marry him when she turned 21. In 1932 she did turn 21, and they did get married. They moved first to Washington, then to New York, and finally into a row-house in North Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood. In 1933 Sylvia gave birth to Norma, followed in 1936 by Matthew. Their third child, Barry, arrived in 1942.
By the end of World War II, Whitey had seen much of urban and small-town America. He saw what the movies had done in reaching people outside of the great industrial centers, and became convinced that he could bring live theatre to them as well. The producers in New York were skeptical. The trains had served them well, and after trying out in Boston, Washington, New Haven, and a few other cities, a show was ready to sit down on the Great White Way. How could you make money driving a show all the way out to Madison, Wisconsin?
Also skeptical were the government regulators in Washington who controlled not only what could be carried on trucks and trains, but who could carry it, where they could take it, and what they could charge. At the time, outside of local moves (such as from railyards to theatres), theatrical goods could only be carried by train.
Still, Whitey saw change coming, and he was determined to be ready. He made weekly trips to New York to pitch his scheme to producers, and prepared an elaborate presentation to the Interstate Commerce Commission to persuade them of the need for a new kind of service. In 1948 his persistence paid off, and Highway Express (soon to become Clark Transfer) was granted ICC rights to carry theatrical goods throughout the 48 states of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. A few producers, swayed by the economics of carrying shows directly from one theatre to the next, were willing to give it a try. A young teamster named Charlie Hackett was hired to drive the first jobs.
And so it began. The learning curve was steep, and the market for the service grew slowly. But grow it did. Mister Roberts, Death of a Salesman, and South Pacific pioneered what became known as bus and truck tours, with the entire show packed into one or two trucks, and the cast packed into a bus. Companies like the Ballet Russe, the National Ballet, and the Philadelphia Orchestra began crisscrossing the country, sparking an explosion of interest in the performing arts. Ballet schools sprung up everywhere, and Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, and the young Leonard Bernstein became stars in their own right.
In 1954, Clark Transfer carried 11 shows on national tours, including Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, The Moon is Blue, The Boston Pops, The New England Opera, The Ballet Russe, and The Berlin Philharmonic, running a total of 161,027 miles. Total theatrical revenue that year was $98,156.41.
Soon thereafter, Whitey assumed the presidency of the company, and in 1957 his son Matthew came to work there as well. When Jim Clark died, the Molitch family bought the outstanding shares of the company from the Clark estate
A family business was born. In 1965, Man of La Mancha went out on tour, and “Let’s Get the Show on the Road” became the registered service mark of the company. Louis Molitch died, just short of his 61st birthday. The family carried on, as 29-year old Matthew stepped in to assume the presidency of Clark Transfer.
He saw new opportunities, and moved aggressively to build the company from a small business to a large, diversified group of enterprises with theatrical trucking, film distribution, and books and magazines at its core. In the 1970′s Barry joined the team and oversaw the expansion of the company into Rock and Roll. And still later, Norma took over responsibility for sales after the retirement of long-time employee Bill Reed.
Sylvia too came to work. Norma remembers: “After my father died, my mother worked in the office. She was in charge of collections. And she was the most fabulous collector of money that I have ever run into. She would get on the phone and say, I’m just a poor widow, and I need the money, and how come you won’t pay me? We did the work and I want the money.” Sylvia came to work every day until her death in 1979.
The 1960s opened the door to another sea change in touring theatre, as the Metropolitan Opera abandoned the rails for the roads. Each summer, Metropolitan Opera head carpenter Joe Volpe and a Clark Transfer team led by Charlie Hackett would pull off a logistical tour de force, as they brought show business on a grand (opera) scale to America’s heartland. It was a breakthrough that set the stage for the era of the mega-musical.
But not everything always went smoothly. Charlie Hackett tells the story: “We were in Atlanta, Georgia. We went to unload a trailer for that night’s show, but somehow, it was nowhere to be found. We scrambled and we panicked, and eventually figured out that it had been sent to Memphis by mistake. I called Matt, and told him what had happened. We got the load to the airport in Memphis, hired a plane, brought it to Atlanta, met the plane, loaded it onto trucks, and drove it with a police escort to the theatre. We arrived just before show time. We took the scenery off and put it together right there on the sidewalk. Sir Rudolph Bing got up on stage and explained to the audience exactly what was happening. The show started against black, but by the second act everything was in place. I’ll never forget that day. The opera they were playing that night was called Norma.”
Today, there are shows that go out in one or two trucks, but there are also shows that move in 30 or more. The dispatchers no longer rely on a set of index cards on the wall to keep track of trucks and loads – they now use sophisticated customized computer programs.
Clark teams don’t need to search for a pay phone to reach someone with an update, or in case of emergency – they are now linked by advanced technology so that they can stay in communication anywhere and under any conditions. The logistics of show business are now global, and Clark relies not only on trucks, but on planes and ships as well.
And drivers no longer fit the stereotype of brawny roughnecks working a timeclock. They are independent businesspeople who have made an investment and a commitment to getting the show on the road. Many are married couples who share the driving responsibilities and life in a Peterbilt or Freightliner.
Yet, according to Norma, the most important things have not changed. First among these is the commitment to the customer and the show. “They are the entire reason we are here; they are the alpha and the omega for us. They have treated us very well, and have given us a tremendous opportunity to serve an industry we love.” Also still the same is the “familyness” of the business. “All families have their quirks and conflicts, but we work them out together, and we take care of each other. It’s the only way I know how to be.”
Finally, there is the unique Clark Transfer culture which was fostered by Whitey, Matt, and Charlie. A culture in which, as Norma says, “We make promises and we keep them. We do what we say we’re going to do, and we do it on time. It’s really very simple, but it takes an extraordinary person to do it. The people who work for Clark Transfer are the most extraordinary people in the world. I don’t know why it must be something in the water in Pennsylvania, but they will stop at nothing. They do not give up. They do not fail. They keep at it until the job is done. That’s the quality that has kept us going for the past 50 years.”