Rock n’ Roll Stars and Cars: From Concept to Reality

    The ZZ Top “Eliminator” is shown in its role in a music video.

    In 2007 The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., assembled a collection of cars and guitars that were associated with some of the best known stars of rock-n-roll. Essentially the day it opened they began planning for a sequel. Three days before the opening of the new exhibit Corp! talked with Tom Veritek, senior manager of program operations at the museum, for a backstage look at what it takes to put together an original exhibition of things large and small that are -“ or were -“ associated with some of the largest egos in show business. We especially wanted to know what a show like this can do to the bottom line of a nonprofit museum.

    Visitors to Rock Stars’ Cars and Guitars 2 are greeted by this 1986 Chevy Van, well used by the Seattle Grunge band Soundgarden.

    “We decided to do this sequel,” said Veritek, “because of popular demand. The first show was so successful it really helped drive our audience that summer.” Driving audience numbers, after all, is the name of the game. The Henry Ford (formerly known simply as the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) is credited with being “America’s Greatest History Attraction” and it’s a sizable business. Long associated with the Ford Motor Company, The Henry Ford has been on its own for several years and, particularly in these troubled times for the automotive industry, receives minimal financial assistance from the company its namesake founded.

    A collection of rock stars’ guitars, carefully tagged and waiting for their place on the ‘guitar wall’.

    Getting those audience members to show up at the doors is a complex and expensive undertaking in itself. “The first version of the exhibit required going to only a couple of resources,” explains Veritek. “For this one we had literally dozens and dozens of contacts to reach out to, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to the Experience Music Project in Seattle and, of course, the rock stars themselves. That’s partly because after the first show word of mouth spread among the rock and roll community and people said that they wanted to be a part of our action.”

    Alice Cooper’s fabricated “Billion Dollar Baby” next to the guillotine used as a prop in one of his shows.

    The cars get to Dearborn via the same specialized auto transport firm that carries prototypes and show cars for the manufacturers, while the guitars and other memorabilia reach the show in a variety of ways -“ including personal pick-up by some of the show’s staff members in Ford vehicles. Hybrids? Corp! asked. “Possibly,” Veritek answered. “We do have some, but they’re not owned by Ford -“ they’re ours. We’re loyal and that’s a good thing. Each item in the show, no matter where it comes from, has a separate loan agreement and has to be covered by the appropriate insurance,” Veritek continued.

    1936 Ford owned by Kirk Hammett of Metallica awaits the proper color of lighting “gels” to make it shine.

    The actual costs for an exhibit (you really just have to call it a show, surrounded as it is by so much showbiz paraphernalia,) such as this is hard to calculate until many weeks after it has opened. “For most of the exhibits we’ve had here in the gallery -“ Chocolate, Cooperstown, James Bond to name just a few -“ those were traveling exhibits,” says Veritek. “They’re pre-packaged and they come with a price tag. This show is totally ours and it’s unique. Since we started on this sequel in 2007 it’s hard to pinpoint a cost number because we have the internal costs of full-time designers, part-time designers, curators, historians, graphics folks -“ all of whom have been working at some point to make this show happen. That’s in addition to the external costs. Some of the cars are on loan, some for various reasons had to, in effect, be leased,” Veritek explained.

    Corp! wondered if any of the cars involved just had to make a short trip from another location in the museum. “No,” Veritek replied, “Unlike last time, all of the cars in the current show have come from somewhere else. Elvis’ 1973 Cadillac, for instance, was used by him personally for some period during the ’70s, then given to a member of his entourage, and eventually it ended up in the huge collection of Harrah’s in Las Vegas where it was them sold to another museum -“ and it’s here on loan now.”

    Elvis’ “Elvis-Dorado” complete with license plate.

    All of the cars in the show are associated with a specific rock star or band. There’s an actual “tour van,” complete with a covering of road dirt. “Soundgarden, the grunge band from Seattle, pretty much lived in this ’86 Chevy van,” relates Veritek, “and it pretty much drove them to success. We found a few French fries behind the seats, but definitely no illegal substances,” he says with a laugh.

    Many of the cars have stories. Veritek explains that rock stars have historically had their own version of what “cool” is and they express that in their music, the clothes they wear and the cars they drive. A 1932 Ford coupe in the show, for instance, was owned by Ricky Nelson of the Ozzie and Harriett Nelson TV show back in the 1950s and ’60s and appeared in the show.

    A ’33 Ford, called the Eliminator is the car of ZZ Top, says Veritek. “It’s featured on album covers, music videos -“ almost everything they did in the 1980s. It was their visual brand.”

    One car had to be covered up because, “once it was wheeled onto the floor it was mobbed by visitors like this,” says Veritek as he points out a group of teenaged girls giggling and pointing nearby. “It’s the Smart ForTwo used by Miley Cyrus in the Kids’ Choice Awards on Nickelodeon last year. She couldn’t drive it onstage for that event because she didn’t have her driver’s license yet -“ so she was pushed on. Here kids saw the ‘Miley Cyrus-ness’ of it and mobbed it.”

    A ’57 Ford Ranchero features the checkerboard of Rick Neilson of Cheap Trick. It is accompanied in the show by several items, all bearing the visual “brand” of the checkerboard motif.

    “Several of the cars reflect what the stars considered ‘status’ vehicles when they were just beginning their careers,” Veritek explains. “So Snoop Dog has his Fleetwood Cadillac, Kid Rock has a Lincoln Continental. Alternatively, Alice Cooper has a car that’s completely fabricated. It’s called Billion Dollar Baby, after his famous hit and it’s decorated with flowing dollar signs. It’s here with the guillotine that he used in his show -“ sort of half-Houdini, half-rock and-roll.”

    Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche. Nobody in San Francisco had to wonder who owned this car.

    One of the “Holy Grails” of the show is Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche. “Nothing speaks to who the artist was like this car, painted during the ‘summer of love’ in 1967,” Veritek says.

    Throughout the show there will be music associated with the artists blaring from inside the vehicles in addition to videos and high-tech lighting effects, all combining to create a high-touch rock experience within what used to be a Midwestern version of the Smithsonian, complete with steam heat in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. All that changed in a recent multi-million dollar makeover of both the museum and Greenfield Village.

    The guitar portion of the show features real, and often well-used, guitars “as opposed to what are called ‘signature series'” explains Veritek. “Those are the ones they may strum once then hand it off to an assistant and they get used for a variety of purposes. Ours have real rock star sweat on them,” he laughs again. “Sometimes we work with agents to get the artifacts, or guitars, sometimes we deal directly with the stars. Ted Nugent, Rick Neilson of Cheap Trick are a couple like that. In the case of Snoop Dog’s Cadillac we dealt with a guy in his organization whose job it is to manage his vehicles.”

    No rock show would be complete without high-tech lighting effects, created with this electronic console.

    How does The Henry Ford determine how much of a bounce in attendance it will have? “We do audience surveys,” says Veritek. “We asked, back in 2007, whether Rock Stars had an influence on visitors making the choice to come here and more than 50 percent said it did. And our attendance figures for that year were up over previous years.”

    Are there projections for this year and this show giving a similar increase in visitors? “Last year was a really good year for us, even with gas last summer at $4 a gallon,” replied Veritek, “a lot of that came from local folks who decided to stay close to home. Even with the economy in the shape it’s in I think we’ll have a similar situation. Our goals are vey high, but because of where we’re priced and, because we are considered a ‘local’ destination for several states, I’m very optimistic.” Unlike in days gone by when interns went out in the parking lots and tabulated out-of-state license plates “We ask visitors for their zip code when they buy a ticket and it goes into the computer so we have a much better picture of where people come from,” Veritek comments.

    Unlike previous exhibits, this show spills out into the regular museum floor, with additional cars, and display cases filled with costumes worn by Kiss and the Jonas Brothers among others. Just outside the exit of the show is a retail space, run by a promotional partner, according to Veritek. “Event Network is a company you’ll find in a lot of museums, and we’ve shared with them the kinds of cars we’ll have, the artists who are represented, and they are providing items for sale that work with that. There’ll be a lot of the kinds of things that you could find at a concert -“ t-shirts, posters, that kind of thing,” he explains.

    Retail sales contribute to the overall visitor experience as well as to the museum’s bottom line. “We look at a per capita contribution,” says Veritek. “It’s primarily the people. Overall numbers count because we’re an independent, nonprofit organization and we have to depend on volume. We fund ourselves in thirds. One-third is from gate receipts, one-third is from memberships, our endowment and similar sources, and one-third is food and retail. It’s pretty simple, really.”

    About as simple as a rock guitar chord.