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?