Thursday, December 24, 2009

Text Color
Merry Christmas to all!

(This photo was used for the Melton's Christmas cards c. 1940)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas at the Melton's

Margo, age 5 (1950)

Christmases in the Melton household were always extravagant affairs.  One holiday I remember hearing about occurred when I was four.   The 10-foot Christmas tree in the bay window of the music room was decorated within an inch of its life and had an uncountable number of gorgeously wrapped gifts under it—for all of us—from friends, family, fans and colleagues.  Always there were half a dozen or so packages from the Sisters-of-this or the Convent-of-that—places where my father had done free concerts over the years.  These packages usually contained some beautifully handmade item for me—a crocheted sweater, a toy, or doll dressed in hand-sewn clothes.  I was getting more and more tired and cranky as the day progressed, overwhelmed by the sheer number of gifts.  But when my mother suggested a nap, a little rest, I cried: "Oh, just one more nun-please!"  (P.S. I still have the dolls in the picture, but I recently sold the Steiff horse (partially hidden behind me) to an antiques dealer.  Hard to think of my toys as antiques!)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Operation Brass Lamp

I recently purchased a copy of the October 1953 edition of Connecticut Circle Magazine on e-bay. It contained a story about Operation Brass Lamp, and my father's connection with the Bridgeport Brass Company.

One day in 1953, while driving his 1907 Rolls Royce down New York's Riverside Drive, one of the beautiful brass headlamps came loose from its moorings, fell off and under the wheels—damaged beyond repair. My father called his friend, Herman Steinkraus, President of The Bridgeport Brass Company, who agreed to help. The expert craftsmen were able to recreate the unusual self-generating carbide headlamp. "Operation Brass Lamp" culminated with my father presenting a free concert for all 13,500 employees, friends and families of the company in the Fairfield University band shell on the evening of July 28,1953.

They presented him with a replica of the headlamp made of flowers, part of which came loose, hence his rather unusual headband in the photo. The distinguished gentleman on the left is Herman Steinkraus.

Monday, December 7, 2009

James and Marjorie Melton on "Ford Festival"

In 1951 and 1952 my father had a TV variety show sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. It was only moderately successful, partly because he tried to do too much—both producing the show and starring on it. He really tried to engender cohesion by treating the cast and crew as “family,” often taking them out for a post-show supper. Director Garry Simpson recalls that often twenty or thirty people would go with him to a nearby restaurant. "Give us the best in the house," my father would command, and at the end of the evening pick up a thousand dollar tab.

As obsessed as he was with the Ford Festival family, his real family remained a priority, and appropriately enough, he made my mother feel very important, on Thanksgiving Day, 1951. Here's how she described her television debut (which was also her swan song):

Ten days earlier, Jimmie said to me in dulcet tones, "I think it would be wonderful to have you on the show next week."

"Me? Doing what?"

"We have a production number around the song 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.' I sing, while six chorus girls parade alluringly around me. I ignore them."

"Not possible," I interpolated.

"Quiet! I ignore them because my girl is on stage. I go to you, finish the song, and then sing 'Margie.' We take a bow together.

"What do I do?"

"Smile. Look pretty," he purred.


"Think what it would mean to your mother."

"It would be a terrible shock."

"And your relatives. And our friends. It would be great. I really want you to appear with me."

"No. I don't photograph well."

"Honey, by the time our make-up experts finish with you, you'll look great. You won't recognize yourself."

He was right. I didn't. Those eyebrows, that mouth, the hair, mine? I wore a black chiffon dress. The director, Garry Simpson, told me to 'Sit here.' Here was on a stool centered in a big gold picture frame, behind a curtain. I felt like Whistler's Mother. When the beauties left the stage, the curtains opened and Jimmie came to me still singing"...the most beautiful girl in the world, darns my stockings..."

No doubt about it. It was me.

The orchestra segued into 'Margie.' Jimmie was nervous because he knew I was nervous, and he skipped two bars of the song. Thankfully, the orchestra caught up in the next measure. We finished in a close-up—I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. We did some dialogue which went nicely, and I was identified to the millions as Mrs. James Melton, not Whistler's Mother. Proud and happy, I didn't take my nice face off until 4:00 AM. Next day I awaited the glowing telegrams from my mother, relatives and friends. None. Everyone I knew was out in the kitchen that night picking at cold Thanksgiving turkey.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cooking up a Storm in Hollywood

Here's another "cooking" shot I came across—although this one is obviously staged by the Warner Brothers press agent. The soon-to-be diners are (left to right) director William Keighley, actors Frank McHugh, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

In the mid 1930s by father made three movies for Warner Brothers: "Stars Over Broadway" (1935), "Sing Me a Love Song" (1936) and "Melody for Two" (1937). More about his film career in a later post.

Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh appeared with James Melton in "Stars Over Broadway," a prototypical Hollywood musical of the time, it had something for everyone, from original music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, to “Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie,” to the operatic aria “Celeste Aida,” which came as the dramatic climax to the film. The plot was not unusual for the Depression era, with its rags to riches story, bumpy love affairs, lavish nightclub numbers and crackling (for its time) dialogue. A down-on-his luck theatrical agent (O’Brien) discovers a singing hotel porter (Melton) and takes one last shot at the big time. As success carries them both to the top, the agent watches sadly as too much high life threatens to ruin his ‘investment’. (Prohibition had ended a few years earlier.) The singer eventually comes to his senses, goes to Europe to study, comes back a changed man, and ends up with a triumphant debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

You can see the trailer for the movie via Turner Classic Movies at What a hoot!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chef Melton

James Melton at home in Weston, Connecticut

My father loved to cook—not so much for relaxation, as to impress guests with his culinary skill in an era when few men entered the kitchen.  (Although the photo shows him at the outdoor stone grill, he was at home in the kitchen as well.) He also liked to take over when Southern cooking was demanded, making spoonbread or his special fried chicken breaded with Kellogg's Cornflakes. (Kellogg's was one of his early radio sponsors.)  

I remember Thanksgiving dinners with two kinds of stuffing in the turkey—traditional (Northern) bread stuffing in the front end of the bird, and Southern cornbread stuffing in the rear end.  There was always a bit of a battle over which guests would prefer which stuffing—with most diplomatically opting for a little of each.

My father was always glad to send a recipe for inclusion in celebrity cookbooks.  And flattery got him a lot of "secret" recipes from prominent chefs.  I don't recall many of them being added to his repertoire.  Perhaps his sous chef (my mother) rebelled.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Marjorie and James Melton's Wonderful Partnership

        Marjorie McClure Melton (1942)

After years of radio, recording and concert work, my father made his opera debut in the summer of 1938 with the Cincinnati Zoo Opera Company in Madama Butterfly.  The New York Times wrote: "Melton Captures Opera Lovers' Hearts. Young tenor's debut brilliant success."

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut four years later on December 7, 1942, as Tamino in "The Magic Flute."

This time, The New York Times wrote:

"James Melton's name and voice have been known to the American public for a good many years as a result of his work in radio, concert, records and the movies. If that public needs any further endorsement of his attainments, Mr. Melton provided it last night by becoming a member of the Metropolitan Opera Association.  He made his debut in the role of Tamino in Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' and proved beyond question that he belongs in the company.  The only question was: Why had it taken the company so long to add this gifted American tenor to its roster?

Mr. Melton acted and sang with the poise that a singer gains only from years of appearing in public...Mr. Melton's is a true lyric tenor voice. It is not like some other lyric tenors that are too frail for the vast spaces of the Opera House; it is sturdy enough to be heard...Mr. Melton sang it intelligently, and with sensitive regard for the Mozart style. He brought dignity and elegance to the part of Tamino. He should grace other roles." 

In that memorable debut performance the other leading roles were taken by Ezio Pinza as Sarastro, Jarmila Novotna as Pamina, John Brownlee as Papageno, and Norman Cordon as the High Priest. Good company, to say the least.

The day after his debut, my father took my mother to Bruno of Hollywood saying he had to have a photograph of her in her gold lamé "Papa's debut dress." She managed to get the beautiful topaz ring, her trophy of the occasion, to the foreground in every picture.

About that ring: At breakfast the morning of my father's debut he dropped a "rock" into her lap—a huge topaz ring, rich in color and depth, set afire by the rubies and diamonds that flanked it. "Tonight, if I'm any good, there'll be applause. I'll take the bows, but I want you to know that the applause is for you, too. Here's something to help you remember that I think so."

What a guy...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

1917 Winton Housecar

One of the stranger vehicles my father owned was something called a "Housecar."  In this particular case, it was like a combination bus/camper/Pullman car. A six-cylinder, 48-horsepower vehicle, which was 13 feet tall, my father had to keep it at Fitzsimmons Garage in downtown Greenwich, because that was the only space tall enough to house it.  My father nicknamed it "The General."

The housecar was built in 1917 for a well-to-do politician,  Dr. E. J. Fithian, as his campaign vehicle while he stumped for governor of Pennsylvania.  It had Pullman-style seats that folded down into bunks, re-upholstered in cut velvet during the resoration by my father.  There was a tiny galley, with ice-box ( an ice-cooled, copper-lined refrigerated compartment), and an even smaller lavatory.  The back deck, from which Dr. Fithian originally made his speeches, was large enough for a deck-chair or two, and was surrounded by a wrought iron railing, such as one saw on the last car of railroad trains well into the 1940s.  This vehicle was not only a pleasant way to travel to antique car meets, but a pleasant place to spend the day at such events.

Our house in Greenwich backed up to St. Mary's High School, which also had a small convent for the nuns who taught there.  In his neighborly way, my father made friends with the sisters, and occasionally did musical afternoons for them.  On one particular occasion, he took them on a picnic—in the housecar.  Imagine the surprise of other drivers upon seeing such an unusual vehicle filled with black-habited nuns!

The housecar was bought shortly before my father's death by Bill Harrah for his huge collection of antique autos in Reno, Nevada (now the National Auto Museum).  Word has it that after Harrah's death in 1978, it was bought at auction by Buck Kamphausen,  California mortuary and cemetery entrepreneur and car collector.  I don't know where it is now.  Do you?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

War Bonds and "Willie"

James Cagney and James Melton—1943

I'm sure my mother saved metal for bombers and fat for explosives just as other patriotic housewives did. Like many people during the war, my parents had a victory garden where they grew vegetables and fruit for home use. Unlike most people, however, they also had a full-time gardener to tend it. Robert was diabetic, and so exempt from military service. He not only took care of the vegetable garden, but tended the apple trees, blueberry bushes and grape arbor. I imagine he also took care of the chickens and Willie the lamb. Ah, Willie! Goodness knows what prompted my parents to this experiment in animal husbandry. They evidently didn't know the first rule of farming: don't name something you intend to eat. When Willie was finally turned into chops for the freezer, even though he was mixed in with a batch purchased from Gristede's, no one wanted to eat lamb for months on the chance it might be you-know-who.

Clearly, the Meltons' greatest contribution to the war effort was in terms of fund raising, whether it was my mother serving on volunteer relief committees, or my father lending his talents to raise money for War Bonds. War Bonds were U.S. Savings Bonds sold to the public to help finance the war. By the end of World War II, 85 million Americans had invested in War Bonds. These bonds provided not only financial security for the bondholders but allowed members of the public to contribute to national defense in time of war.

In 1943 my father sang at an old-timers baseball game at the Polo Grounds to raise money for War Bonds. Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, James Cagney, Milton Berle, former New York Mayor Jimmie Walker participated, but Babe Ruth stole the show with a home run.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

James Melton aids the war effort

My father's expanding collection of antique cars posed a serious problem during the war when the scrap metal drive was at its height and gasoline rationing was in effect. Convinced that as antiques the cars would be of greater advantage to America as working models of the early days of the automotive industry, than if they were melted down to produce ammunition and ordnance, he succeeded in getting an exemption from the federal government.

The July 27, 1942, issue of Life magazine carried a three-page photo spread prematurely headlined “Melton's Antique Autos Will Go in a Connecticut Museum.” (The museum in Norwalk didn't actually open until 1949.) That issue of the magazine also carried less upbeat stories, covering Atlantic convoys, the Battle of Midway, and the possibility of a second front in Europe. Nearly all the ads relate to the war effort: General Electric—“First Win the War,” Studebaker Airplane Engines—“From the Highways of Peace to the Skyways of War,” even Camel Cigarettes—“When Bombers are Your Business, You Want Steady Nerves.”

There's also a two-page announcement from the War Production Board “An Emergency Statement to the People of the United States” concerning the desperate need for scrap metal. A few months later, in a publicity event to announce New York City’s reorganized scrap metal collection plan, there were some unusual sources of victory salvage. This included 600 pounds of steel “thunder balls” formerly used to create Wagnerian din (before the invention of an electrical thunder machine) from the Metropolitan Opera, half a ton of old musical instruments from Carnegie Hall’s basement, and a 1919 Packard limousine donated by James Melton. The photo above shows my father donating some old tires, but the car pictured is a Ford, not the Packard limo. I don't know the story behind that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rolls-Royce Memories

Some years ago when I was doing research for my book,  I received a letter from a man named Roger Morrison, who was the current owner of my father's custom-made 1952 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.  My father's car collection wasn't all "old" cars—there were some classic cars—a 1932 Chrysler, a 1949 Daimler, and an experimental 2-seater Raymond Loewy-designed Packard given to him by the car company (more about which in a later post), as well as the modern Rolls.  I remember my father describing being measured for the driver's seat as one would be measured for a suit. Such was Rolls-Royce perfectionism.

Cars were a big deal in my family. I had two of them by the time I was five (more about that, too, in a later post). But about the Rolls— Mr. Morrison's letter said "In the back seat there is a fold down armrest with a secret compartment which has room for personal effects as well as a pigskin covered cigarette case and notebook.  Some notes it it refer to a 'Tiny Melton.'  Can you please let me know the significance of this?" 

Suddenly, all these years later,  I could feel the sheepskin rug in the back seat between my toes, I could smell the leather of those pale cream pigskin seats, and see the glossy inlaid fruitwood bar with its Waterford decanters and glasses.  Such elegance!  Tiny was the much beloved Boston Terrier I had as a child.  For some unfathomable reason, I chose to record his death in that secret notebook.  

Driving the Rolls was always a bit of an adventure, for the car's steering wheel was on the right, English-style. One needed a co-pilot for passing or parallel parking.  Although my mother was a confident and excellent driver, she only took the wheel of the Rolls when absolutely necessary.  We never had a chauffeur, much as such a car cried out for one!

That's me, age seven, in the photo sitting on the luggage rack on top of the car in front of our Weston, Connecticut home. 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Opera Memories

James Melton as Edgardo in Lucia de Lammermoor

I was too young to have heard my father in opera at the Met, or anywhere else.  But he frequently included operatic selections in his concerts and broadcasts, and over the years I acquired a taste for opera.  He always set the scene vividly before singing.  I could feel Mimi’s cold little hand as she searches for her key in La Boheme, or see Cavardossi’s shaking hand as he writes his farewell letter to Tosca. I could visualize the faithless Pinkerton bidding “Adio” to his Japanese bride, and Germont toasting Traviata. Attending my first Metropolitan opera, at seventeen, two years after my father’s death, was a little like going to a Shakespeare play.  Suddenly I could see how all those familiar bits fit into the whole picture. My father’s close friend and head of the Met’s press office, Francis Robinson, invited my mother and me to be his guests for lunch at the Grand Tier restaurant and for a performance of Madama Butterfly.  During the intermission, we were invited backstage to Francis’s office, where we were welcomed like celebrities ourselves, and  shared a glass of champagne with Mrs. Douglas Macarthur.  What a day!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.  He posits that extraordinary people don’t just  “rise from nothing.’  Rather, they “owe something to parentage and patronage,” to where and when they were born, and to an innate ability to take advantage of opportunities.  Timing is a big factor.  Radio was in its infancy in the late 1920s when my father embarked on a singing career. Hollywood in the early 1930s was looking for known talent at the advent of “talkies.” And in the 1950s radio stars were making the transition to the new medium of television. He was able to take advantage of all three media. And conquer them.

 I’ve always liked to say that my father didn’t just have “lucky breaks”—he created them. He was a terrific networker before the term became a business buzzword in the 1980s.  He was gregarious and loved the attention and adulation of his fans. He rarely left a city where he had sung without staunch new friends.  He was a good correspondent with these new acquaintances—dropping them notes about cars or mailing items of interest.  (He couldn’t have done it without the help of his incredible secretary, Catherine Birmingham.) He truly enjoyed the connections, but these thoughtful gestures often paid off, too, in terms of cars or automobiliana for his collection, or special hospitality in far-flung concert venues. His Rolodex was bursting with contacts from every state in the union.

 In 1937, Dale Carnegie used James Melton as an example in one of his columns on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  When my father tried to break into New York show business in 1927, he decided get a job with Roxy Rothafel, the King of Broadway.  The Roxy Theater not only put on elaborate stage shows and motion pictures, it was also the home of a weekly radio show.  When, after numerous tries, my father couldn’t get an audition with Roxy, he sang right there in the reception area.  As Roxy said, “You’ve got a million dollar voice and two million dollars worth of nerve.”

Dale Carnegie’s column put forth three principles for success:  Find the person who can help you; don’t get discouraged; and do something to get noticed.  That’s exactly what James Melton did, with Roxy Rothafel—and others— and it paid off!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New CDs Available!

Good news!  My friend in Australia, Frank Bristow, has recently put out three new James Melton CDs. All selections  are taken from radio and TV shows. They include guests like Jane Froman, Lawrence Tibbett, Jo Stafford, Ethel Smith, Jarmila Novotna, Alec Templeton and Virginia Haskins.  Tracks include some rare and historic stuff, as well as old favorites like "Don't Fence Me In," "I Got Plenty o' Nothin,'" as well as a few opera and operetta selections.  Something for everyone!

In the past, Frank has put out quite a number of other Melton CDs: "Vienna to Broadway," Selections from Die Fledermaus, even several of The Revelers (the quartet my father sang with in the late 1920s).

Do check out Frank's website:

If you want to order, he can be reached at : 
Frank Bristow
2 Cross Street, Brighton, Victoria 3186, Australia. 
Telephone and Fax  Number
International: +61 3 9528 3167         

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dressing the Part

Mr & Mrs James Melton at antique auto meet

Often on a weekend the Meltons would go to an old car "meet."  My parents would dress in the appropriate motoring gear of the era—a duster and veil for my mother, a duster, cap, goggles and driving gloves for my father. (I don't remember being coerced into similar period attire.) One costume I did delight in was a hoop-skirted, off-the-shoulder ruffled yellow organdy number like those the Southern Belles at Cypress Gardens wore as they graced the landscape at that (now defunct) Florida attraction.  There was even a plastic cameo on a black velvet ribbon for my neck to complete the antebellum look.  I think my father was doing some business with Dick Pope, the owner of Cypress Gardens at the time. He was possibly hoping to combine operations with his antique care museum, or perhaps just getting pointers on running a successful tourist attraction.  Here we are in his favorite car, a 1907 Rolls Royce.

James Melton & daughter Margo in 1907 Rolls Royce

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Surrey with the Fringe on Top"

One of my father’s favorite concert songs was “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”  If there was a willing little girl in the audience, he would call her up on stage to sit beside him as if in an open carriage, while he sang the song to her. If I was in the audience, that little girl was me.

 “May I have a couple of chairs, please,” he’d call to the stage manager.

 “I’d like to sing you one of my favorite songs from Oklahoma. But I need some one to sing it to. How about that pretty little redhead in the front row.”

 My heart would be pounding. I was sure I’d trip getting up to the stage. Oh!  Did my hair look all right? Was my dress wrinkled?  My socks pulled up?

 “Come on up here, little girl,” he'd coax. “What's your name?”

 “Margo? Margo what?—Yes, folks, this is my daughter,” he’d say, beaming proudly.

 I think he might have been almost as nervous as I was. But I knew my cues. I sat beside him, and at the moment when he sings, “I can feel the day getting older, feel a sleepy head on my shoulder,” I would do just that and close my eyes, feigning sleep, while he finished the song.

 This scenario was re-enacted over a period of several years, between the time I was old enough to be trusted on stage (about age six) until I got too embarrassed to do it (probably three or four years later). My mother and I traveled frequently with my father during those years when concerts were his primary focus.   

Saturday, August 29, 2009

1911 Mercedes in front of Melton home

1911 Mercedes in Woodstock, Vermont

1911 Mercedes

A few days ago, Tim Martin of Rutland, Vermont alerted me to an antique car meet in Woodstock, Vermont.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get over there.  He sent me photos of two cars previously owned by my father, a 1911 Mercedes and a 1908 Packard. I found a photo of the Mercedes parked in front of my parents' house in Weston, Connecticut (no date on the photo). My father noted in his book about car collecting, Bright Wheels Rolling, that the 1911 Mercedes had water-cooled brakes as well as a water-cooled engine.

Thanks to Tim for the current photos.  I'm looking for an archival photo of the Packard, and will post it when I find it.  Tim is a member of the Packard Club (

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cuban Adventure

With all the recent talk about Congress planning to lift travel restrictions to Cuba, I got to thinking about my own trip there in February 1957, when I was eleven. My father was engaged to sing for a month at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. My mother and I joined him for the last week of his stay there.


Built in 1930, the hotel looked like a Spanish castle, with gleaming tile floors, high ceilings and pots of tropical plants in the corridors. (I learned just this week that it was designed by McKim, Mead & White to look like The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.) It stood on a hill at the center of the curving shore.  To the left, the severely modern U.S. Embassy building thrust its gleaming glass and steel toward the sky.  To the right, toward the city, stood the ancient fortress, Moro Castle. Cuba was under a dictatorship. Order and prosperity seemed in place, but communist insurgents were even then organizing in the Sierra Maestra hills for the revolution that would bring Fidel Castro to power. I have several vivid memories about our 1957 trip. Here’s one of them:


One day my family decided to go for a ride in the country.  As we were driving through what was obviously one of the more prosperous neighborhoods outside Havana, the car started to make a knocking noise. My father, being a collector of antique cars, was very sensitive to the slightest strange sound emanating from any internal combustion engine.  He pulled over and stopped the car.  We were immediately surrounded by half a dozen militiamen with automatic rifles pointing in our direction.  Always cool in moments of crisis, my father tried joking with the men – then he started to put up the hood to indicate that we had car trouble.  He was stopped by the barrel of a gun.  Switching to Spanish, which he had learned easily for this trip (given his opera-cultivated facility for languages) he got serious, asking what was wrong, what had we done, what they wanted us do.  One of the men jerked his head in the direction of a house, hidden behind typically Spanish ornate wrought-iron gates and masses of bougainvilla.  "Batista mama!"  he spat out.  So that was it!  We had chosen to check our engine noise directly in front of the home of the mother of dictator Fulgencio Batista.  My father decided to take a chance with the engine noise, rather than with the armed guards, and they let us drive away.  This was two years before the Cuban Revolution, but believe me, the undercurrents were there, and even I, as an eleven year old, could feel them.

Interestingly, in my extensive archives there are no photographs from my father's engagement in Cuba ...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

James Melton as Lt. Pinkerton (1938)

My Love of Opera

I was too young to have heard my father in opera at the Met, or any other opera house for that matter.  But he frequently included operatic selections in his concerts and broadcasts, and over the years I acquired a taste for opera.  He always set the scene vividly before singing.  I could feel Mimi’s cold little hand as she searches for her key in “La Boheme,” or see Cavardossi’s shaking hand as he writes his farewell letter to Tosca. I could visualize the faithless Pinkerton bidding “Adio” to his Japanese bride in Madama Butterfly

Attending my first Metropolitan opera, at seventeen, two years after my father’s death, was a little like going to a Shakespeare play.  Suddenly I could see how all those familiar quotes (or in this case arias) fit into the whole story. My father’s close friend and head of the Met’s press office, Francis Robinson, invited my mother and me to be his guests for lunch at the Grand Tier restaurant and for a performance of Madama Butterfly.  During the intermission, we were invited backstage to Francis’s office, where we were welcomed like celebrities ourselves, and shared a glass of champagne with Mrs. Douglas MacArthur.  What a day!  I was well and truly hooked on opera from then on.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Whenever I Pick Blueberries I Think of Helen Keller

It's blueberry season in Vermont and whenever I pick blueberries I think of Helen Keller.

The Meltons lived on a 40-acre hilltop gentleman's farm in Weston, Connecticut for the first eight years of my life. We had an apple orchard, grape arbor, and a variety of fruit trees and bushes -- blueberries amongst them--as well as a large vegetable garden. We considered Helen Keller and her companion, Polly Thompson, our neighbors, although their home in Easton was about 15 miles from ours in Weston. Helen and Polly came annually in mid-summer for a day of blueberry picking.

Helen's magnetism radiated so that even our dignified German shepherd, Caesar, usually slow to make friends, sat at her feet accepting loving pats. It had somehow been explained to me, age three, that Helen would "see" me through her hands -- not to be afraid, but just to stand still and quiet while Helen touched my face, my hands, my hair. I remember standing there awed while this large shadow in slacks with a huge sun hat bent down to meet me. Afterwards she said through Polly: "Beautiful! Slender, pretty, lovely hair."

Then she and Polly and our dog would go off for the berries, while my mother prepared a lunch of freshly picked corn on the cob and hamburgers cooked to order on the outdoor stone grill. Someone would ring the big old Navy bell on the back porch to call everyone to chow. Afterwards, Helen loved to wander through the vegetable garden, gently touching the sun-warmed tomatoes, bell peppers, squash. They resumed their berry picking in the afternoon.

My logical mind now wonders: How did she know which ones were ripe? Was her touch so delicate that only the ripes ones fell into the bucket on a string around her neck? Or did she simply pick everything for someone else to sort out later? Or didn't it matter? Was it the sun and activity and a meal with friends that were the only important thing?

More about the Meltons and Helen Keller in a later post.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lebendige Vergangenheit: James Melton

A couple of years ago an Austrian recording company came out with a wonderful CD. It's all opera and classical, with such arias as Oh Image Angel-Like and Fair (from "The Magic Flute," in which my father made his 1942 Metropolitan Opera debut) and the Adio from "Madama Butterfly" (my personal favorite).

You can buy the CD on e-bay or Amazon, but the best deal is $5.99 through Berkshire Record Outlet (; BRO code # 139012 for this CD).  

I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with producing this CD, nor do I gain anything from it financially.  But I enjoyed it and thought you would too.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Car That Started it All

Recently I heard from Michael White of Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  He is the new owner of the 1910 White Touring Car that started the obsession that resulted in the James Melton Collection. (The JM Collection numbered 110 automobiles when he sold the contents of his museum to Winthrop Rockefeller in 1960). 

My father’s obsession began with a small boy's promise to himself.  As a youngster back in the tiny town of Citra, Florida James Melton took pride in polishing the brass of his Uncle Charles's handsome 1910 White Touring Car.  As my father said, "That White was the finest car ever made.  Uncle Charles always said so.  He’d drive over from Micanopy every Sunday to visit our family.  I’d polish it, I’d pump up the tires, I’d do just about anything to get a ride in that car. I always wanted one.  Always said, some day I would have one." There rarely was such a thing as wishful thinking in his life—if he wished for it, he usually made it happen.

 My father bought his first White in 1935.  After soliciting help from Robert Black, president of the White Motor Car Company, he finally found a duplicate of Uncle Charles’s car. It was drivable, but in pretty tough shape. A White mechanic drove it to New York. When my father's “new” 1910 White Touring Car sped over the Pulaski Skyway, bound for New York City, from its long-time hideaway in Clarence Zahner’s barn in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, a motorcycle policeman pulled over the dilapidated vehicle for speeding.

It was beautiful only to my father, for in the dingy, rusty vehicle, he saw his Uncle Charles's brazen red beauty.  He fussed with the car for months.  First a new paint job, then new leather and authentic accessories. She was a spirited creature, brass lamps catching the sun, her scarlet coat and cream spokes dancing down the road.  He drove it in the 1937 Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue in NYC. with fellow radio singers Jessica Dragonette and Lanny Ross as his passengers.  He managed to stall it right in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, eliciting cries of “Get a horse!” from the crowd. But they applauded wildly when he got it going again, and of course the incident made the papers next day. The publicity it drew caused people from all over the country to write him offering cars for sale. He had his longed-for White, and that was enough, or so he thought.

And NOW look at her!  Isn’t she gorgeous?