The fascinating story of Clark Transfer
In 1948, Henry Fonda gave up a Hollywood contract to star in a Broadway play about sailors in the South Pacific. That play, Mister Rogers, won the Tony® for best play that year. One year later, it garnered another place in theater history: it was the very first Broadway show to launch a national tour via the highway.
The same trucking company that hauled Mister Rogers loads in the majority of the touring shows at The Straz today. In fact, Clark Transfer has been bringing shows to our stages since we opened our doors.
Not only that, but Clark Transfer invented the idea of taking Broadway shows on the road. In no small way, this humble, family-owned trucking company revolutionized the entire performing arts industry in the United States.
And it all started with the Spanish Flu.
After World War I, a global influenza pandemic laid waste to one-fifth of the world’s population in two years, killing 675,000 Americans (10 times the number who died in the war) and more than four times the number of people who died during the Black Plague. It was an awful time, and no city in the U.S. was hit worse than Philadelphia, which lost 28% of its population during 1918-1919. There were bodies everywhere, and if you owned a few trucks, there was work.
So the family story goes that Jim Clark happened to own a few trucks, and the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Louis “Whitey” Molitch, happened to need a job. The two men met amid these gruesome circumstances, formed a friendship, and ten years later formed Highway Express Lines, a high-integrity, family-owned and operated Philadelphia-based trucking company that would become Clark Transfer. Jim bought the business, and Whitey rolled up his sleeves to help make it a success.
“My father was Jim Clark’s right hand,” says Norma Deull, the current president of Clark Transfer and Whitey Molitch’s daughter. “I grew up with Jim. He bought me my first car.”
The men had their roles in the business, and Jim eventually became a power player in Philadelphia politics while Whitey focused on the logistics of their enterprise. In the beginning, the company mostly hauled movie prints, magazines and newspapers. But, Whitey was that particular brand of post-war entrepreneur who had a vision of what trucking could do as more and more highways filled the national landscape.
However, he faced two formidable obstacles: the federal government and the way things had always been done.
At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) controlled what materials went on trucks and trains and who was allowed to cart them from state to state. The ICC allowed only trains to transport Broadway shows, with trucks getting the sets, costumes and equipment from the station to the local theater. Even more impenetrable than government regulation was the Old Boy theatrical network of Broadway producers who did not believe they could make any money by mounting New York shows in places like Omaha.
However, Whitey had a vision. He’d seen small town America, he’d seen big city life: he knew he was on to something. “He went to the ICC,” Norma says, “with the idea that theatrical material could be moved by trucks. It was not easy convincing them, and he had to go many times. But, they gave him the rights in the United States to truck shows anywhere except within a 50 mile radius of NYC. He invented the industry. I can say that without a doubt.”
Whitey figured out who to know and how to get in with the Old Boys network in New York, and his impressive chutzpah and acumen eventually convinced the Broadway producers to take a chance on touring their shows around the country.
“He had to convince that Old Boy network to do something different than they’d ever done before,” says Jonathan Deull, Norma’s son and Whitey’s grandson, who earned his company chops loading and unloading trucks as his first job while still in high school, and along with his brother, Charlie Deull, now serves as Clark’s executive vice president. “I grew up in New York, and I remember that my grandfather would come every week to the city – schmoozing, deal-making, persuading and twisting arms of producers to be able to do this. He made remarkable changes.”
The transportation changes revolutionized show business, ushering in a new era of industry, opportunity and profit for an unprecedented number of people. If Broadway shows could be trucked for touring performances, so could ballet, opera, rock and roll . . . anything. Regions and mid-sized towns built state-of-the-art performing arts centers to accommodate the scale of Broadway shows. Performers and technicians had an entirely new field of work opportunities. As Ralph Hoffman, the noted ballet dancer and stage manager of Washington National Ballet, said: “culture and live entertainment to your doorstep, wherever you live . . . it was Clark Transfer that really made [it] possible.” When Jim died, Whitey bought the business, ever seeking to find better ways to do what Clark Transfer does best: getting the show on the road.
“And doing what you say you’re going to do,” says Norma.
“And don’t be late,” Jonathan adds.
Following in Whitey’s footsteps, Norma saw another family-based opportunity for Clark Transfer, but one for the modern age: dealing with the climate-change consequences of the carbon emissions produced by millions of miles per year of show-touring in diesel trucks. In the 1980s, Jonathan’s wife, Sheryl Sturges, had been a pioneer in developing the idea of carbon offsets, and in 2007 Charlie took the leadership in partnering with with likeminded Broadway folks to create the Touring Green Initiative, a pool of offsets to complement their efforts to reduce emissions. Soon after, Charlie became co-chair (with Susan Sampliner, Company Manager of Wicked) of the Broadway Green Alliance.
Now with four generations of Whitey Molitch’s clan working at Clark Transfer and the fifth generation currently learning to walk, the Deulls intend to keep Clark a family business. “That’s the vision,” says Jonathan, “that this continues its tradition as a family operation. We don’t do the glamorous stuff, the stuff that gets names on marquees. The thing that drives us is bringing live performances to people who may not have the opportunity to see that – people whose lives can be transformed by that power and magic. Being able to bring that opportunity to people is enormous.”