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.

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