Producing the First Great Big Rollin' Railroad Commercial
by Galen Lillethorup
Kicking it up. Some of the girls who appeared in the original Great Big Rollin' Railroad commercial having fun between takes.
Bailey Yard. Rehearsing for opening scene of original Great Big Rollin' Railroad commercial.
Cast and crew. Some of the girls who appeared in the original Great Big Rollin' Railroad commercial. Back row, Bob Spittler, director. Third from left front row, Galen Lillethorup, producer.
We filmed the original Great Big Rollin' Railroad commercial in October 1970, at the Bailey Yard in North Platte. Bill Fries had created the song, then asked me to plan the video and make a commercial. I decided the video should show as many UP employees as we could possibly squeeze into 60 seconds, and have them sing the song instead of the professional singers.
I hired Omaha's Chapman/Spittler Company to shoot the film. Both Don Chapman and Bob Spittler were heavily involved. Bob was director, I was producer.
We told Ed Schafer, UP's General PR Director, that we wanted people from all over the UP territory to sing in the commercial. He arranged for several to fly to North Platte, helped us pick employees from Omaha, and introduced us to the Superintendent of Bailey Yard, Jerry Rector, who helped us pick North Platte employees.
We took the employees to a motel room where we recorded them, one at a time, singing the entire song while listening to the music on headphones. Then we went back to Omaha and spent an entire week listening to the singing, selecting a word or two from each of 32 employees, and creating a sound track by mixing their voices with the professional singers. We used all the tracks on a 16-track tape machine twice, and we were happy with the mix.
The next step was to bring our stars back to North Platte. We filmed them, one at a time, while a special UP train rolled past in the background, forward then back again, all day. We didn't record the singers this time. We just had them mouth their words while they listened to the song on speakers. The shooting went well, but we wouldn't know for sure until the film was developed.
There were still two more steps to accomplish. Step one was cutting tiny lenglths of film and splicing them together to match lip movement with the recorded sound. Step two was finishing the job. We made an excellent Kodachrome print of our edits, then Bob and I took it to Hollywood where a division of the Disney Companies helped us enhance the picture even more. Finally, we released the commercial on videotape, which was a bit unusual in 1970.
I was assigned to write and/or produce a dozen or so Great Big Rollin' Railroad commercials in the 1970s. Bob Spittler and I collaborated on most of them, and frankly we had a great time. Bob had an airplane and we are both pilots. We'd scout locations by air, then land and shoot film. As my boss at the ad agency once asked, "Do you really get paid for this?"
It's a great pleasure for those of us who were involved in the Great Big Rollin' Railroad campaign to know that our efforts are still getting some attention over 40 years later.