Thursday, December 16, 2010

1957 Glidden Tour, Plus Queen Elizabeth II




The other day I had an e-mail from Tim Martin (a friend I’ve never met!) who forwarded me recollections of the 1957 Glidden Tour written by Tom Marshall.  Tim gets a weekly e-mail from Friends of Auburn Heights, the foundation now managing Tom’s family’s property in Yorklyn, Delaware, which houses a large collection of Stanley Steamers, Packards and electric cars.  (See http://www.auburnheights.org/)

 I did not go on that 1957 tour myself, but my mother and I joined Daddy in Jamestown for the Queen’s visit celebrating the 350th anniversary of the first English settlement. I remember having to write a composition about the event for my sixth grade class.  And, of course, I have some photos of Her Majesty.  Were any of you on that 1957 Tour?

 Here is what Tom Marshall wrote:

 The tour began in Roanoke, Virginia, and Bob Way (my third cousin and the owner of a 1919 Model 735) and I drove from home in the Model 76 to Luray, Virginia, over 200 miles the first day and on to Roanoke on the second. On the first official day of the tour, we were headed for Charlottesville, via Natural Bridge and Waynesboro, our luncheon stop. As we approached Waynesboro, I looked in the rearview mirror, and just behind was Locomobile #16, with its owner, Peter Helck, and a friend at the controls. For those who don't know, this is perhaps the most famous antique racing car in the world, in which Barney Oldfield won many races. Helck was a well-known artist who depicted in great detail many of these early auto races. That afternoon, we visited Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, with the Glidden Tour cars climbing the mountain by the old driveway used in Jefferson's time. Arriving at the historic site, I needed water for the Stanley and asked a groundskeeper if there was a spigot nearby. He told me to pull onto the front lawn of Monticello, where numerous connections for attaching a garden hose existed. This worked out well, but seeing the Stanley on the front lawn, everyone on the tour wanted to be photographed there, and the yard was soon full of Glidden Tour cars. Today, it's not possible to drive within ½ mile of Monticello itself.The next day we went to Williamsburg, via Richmond, where I dropped off Bob Way, as he had to return home by train. On the last stretch, it was a very hot afternoon, and as I stopped for water, an exhausted man and his wife pulled in with their 1906 Jenis boiling over. This was an impressive car with a lot of brass, and it happened that its owners were in the room next to me at the Williamsburg Motor Lodge for the next two days. I invited them to ride to an outdoor picnic in the Model 76, and the husband was somewhat impressed. It turned out this was Carl S. Amsley (1921-1998), who, within a couple of years, was in the business of restoring and building Stanleys in a big way. While we were in Williamsburg, Queen Elizabeth II was in town to help celebrate the 350th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown. She spoke in front of the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary, and most on the tour went to see and hear her. I did not. However, I recall riding with Curtis L. Blake (co-founder of Friendly's Ice Cream) in his newly restored 1920 Pierce Arrow.

At Mount Vernon, I took on water at the rear entrance to the grounds, and the next day in the rain on the final leg to Hershey, Pennsylvania, I came up behind a most unusual vehicle traveling about 30 m.p.h. It was a huge machine and had a rear platform like an old-fashioned railroad observation car. Sitting on this platform and bouncing up and down on the overhang was its owner, James Melton, well-known tenor of the Metropolitan Opera, Hollywood, and the radio, probably the most famous collector of old cars in the mid-twentieth century. The "car" was an oversized Winton of about 1918, built especially for Sam Pennypacker when he was running for Governor of Pennsylvania. We ended the tour at Hershey and had to clean up our cars that night for displaying them at the annual Fall Meet of AACA the next day. A fun tour!

Actually, the 1917 Winton Housecar was built for E.J. Fithian when he ran for Governor of Pennsylvania.  I’ve written about this vehicle in an earlier blog post (November 5, 2009).

Note:  My posts may become irregular for a time.  My husband is going through a very serious health issue at the moment.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Belated Veteran's Day post

During the first year the United States was in World War II, in addition to his normal radio and recital schedule, my father did 50 concerts for servicemen or war-wounded in the U.S. and Canada. Often he would arrange to sing at a hospital or military camp in the afternoon in whatever city he was concertizing, rest for a few hours, and then do his regular performance at night. He also participated in War Bond rallies in both countries. The border was no impediment to his loyalty, “It all goes into the same pot,” he said.

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.

Although all of his efforts to entertain the troops were in North America, my father's radio broadcasts were heard overseas through Armed Forces Radio. Fifty years later, one soldier, Colin Dyer, wrote me:

“In April 1945 I was in the 15th General Hospital in Liege, Belgium, recuperating from a wound. Often the Armed Forces Radio would broadcast a half hour of James Melton recordings. All of the orderlies, janitors, and others comprising the staff of menial workers were German POWs. We noticed that one of them found it appropriate to mop the floor at the door to our ward during these half-hour James Melton programs. In due course, we learned through his halting English that he had been a music student at the University of Leipzig before the war, and that he was much taken by Melton’s voice. At least for the 30 days I spent in that hospital, the doorway to our ward was the cleanest spot in Belgium.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Political Memorabilia



A propos of the recent election, I decided to check the "politics" folder in my JM archives. Look what I found.

I'm sure it pained my staunchly Republican father mightily to sing for FDR, in spite of the prestige involved in singing for an inauguration celebration. (No doubt he was much happier 12 years later singing for Eisenhower's inaugural!)

I've only scanned two pages from the multi-page program, which included toasts to the president and vice president, an address by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, "God Bless America" played by the U.S. Navy Band under guest conductor Irving Berlin. I have not been able to track down what selections my father sang at the event.

The menu, in case you are interested, included Diamond Back Terrapin Soup with Sherry, Pompano Saute, Filet Mignon on Smithfield Ham, Coupe Tortoni with Brandied Figs and Gateau Mille Feuille.

Does anyone have a clue who signed the program's cover in the lower right-hand corner?






Monday, November 1, 2010

Look what I found on e-bay!











It never ceases to amaze me what one finds on e-bay! I check periodically for Melton memorabilia, though I think I’ve gotten most of the “good stuff” by now. However, a few weeks ago, much to my surprise, look what I found (and bought, of course). A photo of my parents from 1928, taken at a costume ball given by the Seiberlings of Akron, Ohio—at which my parents announced their engagement. (It was at the Seiberling’s that my parents had met the year before.) Nearly 300 guests were invited to this bal masque, and every conceivable kind of costume was in evidence, Colonial dames, princesses, gypsies and sheiks. Mr. and Mrs. Seiberling welcomed their guests dressed in 16th century Venetian attire. The announcement of my parent’s engagement at this event gave, as one newspaper put it, “the final bit of interest to a party that for color and social importance has not been equaled this year.”

Here is how my mother remembered that evening in her unpublished memoir:

Mrs. Seiberling had asked Jimmie to sing the tenor aria from Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, “Ah, léve-toi soleil.” She sent him off to rehearse, and led me up a small staircase to a balcony over the music room, and arranged “Juliet”, in her blue lamé gown, pearl cap and long scarf, facing south. “Cheek in hand, dear, and as Jim sings, toss your veil gracefully over the balcony so he can kiss it when he's through singing.”

I crouched like a caged mouse, glued to the little stool on the balcony. The lights came on, the orchestra played, and Jimmie walked out on the stage, lifted his face, and began to sing, facing north, to my back. I tried to turn, but was wedged in by the smilax and holly decorating the tiny balcony. Craning my neck in the right direction and I gazed feebly down at him, tossing my scarf ardently toward his outstretched hand. It caught on the greenery. I tugged. Smilax fell, scarf didn’t.

Jimmie was in a bad mood when we met later. “I couldn't sing a note with my neck stretched out like a turkey gobbler on the block. And you making smoke signals with that scarf didn’t help my concentration any!” I was crushed, but Mrs. Seiberling’s glow reassured me somewhat, until friends, polite but honest, told me I looked like a frightened rabbit peeking through the bushes.

The orchestra started playing and I smiled hopefully at Jimmie. He said he couldn't —or wouldn't?— dance in his costume, and stood their clutching his cape around his doublet and hose all evening. My father, a jaunty Capulet, was delighted to show off his knees, and whirled me around the dance floor happily. I will never forget how doggedly Jimmie clasped that cape around himself for the rest of the night. This was my first lesson in an artist’s temperament: super-sensitiveness and with a need for perfection.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

James Melton CD available


At last! The James Melton remembered CD set is finished! It’s a selection I hope will have something for everyone. For CD-1 I tried to choose music of the sort that would constitute one of his concerts—some classical, some popular, a show tune or two. CD-2 contains some historically important tracks, such as his first recording (playing the saxophone with Francis Craig’s Orchestra), a couple of selections from The Revelers Quartet, a few art songs, etc.

At any rate, as my father would say (or rather sing) “I will bring you music….”

The CD set can be purchased through its producer, the amazing Lance Bowling at Cambria Music in Lomita, California. The website is at http://cambriamus.com/. Click on “vocal” on the left side of the screen to order. (You’ll also see a CD by Dorothy Warenskjold, my father’s long-time singing partner available for sale.)

Hope you enjoy it!




Wednesday, October 13, 2010

1942 Antique Auto Derby







Through my trusty "Google Alert" for any mention of the name James Melton, I came across the following blog, which links to a marvelous video of a 1942 Antique Car Rally in which my father played a large part.  Do check it out; it's wonderful!

 

http://www.vanderbiltcupraces.com/index.php/blog/article/sunday_10_10_10_film_vmcca_1942_antique_auto_derby_50_of_americas_first_car/

 

And here's what I've written in my book about the event in the chapter about my parents' wartime activities:

 

Meanwhile, my mother was contributing to the war effort in her own way.  On a hot July day in 1942, she and Mrs. John Davis Lodge sailed coolly and silently along the back roads of Connecticut at a stately 25 miles an hour in a 1904 Baker Electric, bound for a committee meeting at the Fairfield County Hunt Club.  The saucy electric, which looked like a buggy waiting hopelessly for a horse, had a leather whip affixed to the dashboard, just in case.  Perhaps it was to scare off dogs who, alarmed at a carriage without a quadruped, stormed the little rattle-trap as it passed?  No, the whip was for the horse—the one that had to be summoned to pull the buggy home when the batteries died.

 

An antique auto derby was to be held the following Saturday for the benefit of United China Relief, sponsored by the Veteran Motor Car Club, and chaired by my mother.  Attendees included local residents Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, Lily  Pons and her husband Andre Kostelanetz, Time publisher Roy Larsen,  the Lawrence Tibbetts,  and veteran auto racer Ralph DePalma.  Gasoline needed for some of the cars was sanctioned by the government in view of the benefit nature of the rally.  Two thousand people attended the event and $3,000 was raised at the derby for China Relief.   Clare Booth Luce cautioned spectators not to laugh at the ancient buggies, “because if we don’t win this war, we’ll be lucky to have them.  We’ll probably be riding in rickshaws if we don’t lick Japan, or worse than that, we’ll be pulling them!”  Political aspirant Mrs. Luce was hoping to get a nod from the Republicans to run for Congress. 

 

As “Cholly Knickerbocker” wrote in his August 2, 1943, column in the Journal American, “Time has ‘reversed its field’ up in Connecticut, and junior doesn’t have to turn the pages of the old family album to see the gentry riding high and handsome in vintage electric broughams.  It was tough on the dogs and horses at first, but now that the James Meltons have thoroughly ‘electrified’ the countryside around Ridgefield, Fairfield, Westport, etc., the dogs have become less distrait and the horses more nonchalant when they see one of Melton’s mechanical marvels swishing along minus the racket we all have become accustomed to since the advent of the motorcar.  When gasoline shortages threatened to isolate the good people of these communities, civic-minded James Melton, noted radio artist, whose antique auto collection is famous throughout the country, sold most of his priceless cars to his neighbors to tide them over ‘for the duration’—with the understanding, however, that after the war the purchasers must sell them back to him so that he can again cherish his precious ‘collection.’



 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More about the Peugeot

I did a little research of the “skiff” because I fell in love with its boat-like design. Actually I don’t remember the car from my childhood (the way I remember cars we drove frequently, like the 1907 Rolls Royce and the 1913 mercer Raceabout). Evidently the construction of skiff bodies on automobile chassis was primarily a French innovation, courtesy of Henri Labourdette Coachworks; such cars had appeared in auto races as early as 1897. The Peugeot skiff won at Indianapolis in 1913, 1916 and 1919, according to my father in his book Bright Wheels Rolling. In the book he says the car was a gift (!) from William Leeds of New York City, and “was one of the finest cars in our collection.” At some point, my father sold the car (and a number of others) to his good friend Dr. Sam Scher of Mamaroneck, New York. It was from Scher's collection that Richard Paine purchased it for the Seal Cove Museum.

I can’t help but think that this car may have been the inspiration (vision) my father had for a 13-foot mahogany-hulled, teak-decked launch for our yacht “Serenata.” The launch was christened “Irregardless,” because it took my father several tries before he found a boat builder who would construct it, saying “Irregardless of what others have told you, such a boat can be built and I will build it for you.” And he did!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Seal Cove Auto Museum






Last weekend I had the privilege and delight of giving a talk about The Melton Collection to a group at the Seal Cove Auto Museum on Mount Desert Island, Maine. I talked about my father’s passion for cars, how it began with his Uncle Charles’s White Touring Car, how his collection expanded, the founding of the Melton Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, and its subsequent move to Florida, and finally the sale of the collection to Winthrop Rockefeller. (Much of this I have covered here in earlier postings...or will cover later.)

Billed as Opera Night, the event at Seal Cove also featured the playing of my father’s music, and the showing of the La Traviata segment of “Ziegfeld Follies.” It was a terrific evening, and my talk seemed to be well received by the 40 people in attendance.

The Seal Cove Museum itself is a fascinating collection of brass era cars. Among many highlights of the collection is the 1913 Peugeot Labourdette “Skiff” (so called because of its boat-tail design crafted of tulip wood) that once belonged to my father. What a gorgeous vehicle! It stuns me that even fifty years after my father’s death, the provenance of having been in the James Melton Collection provides value to antique cars.

Other high points of the weekend were being wined and dined by the charming Roberto Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Museum, and meeting Tina Paine Weeks, daughter of the museum’s founder, Richard Paine. Check out the museum at www.sealcoveautomuseum.org. The story behind the museum’s founding is as interesting as the cars its collection.


Margo and the 1913 Peugeot

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A visit to San Simeon


William Randolph Hearst and Mrs. James Melton

Recently on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” program there was a segment devoted to William Randolph Hearst‘s Castle at San Simeon. My parents were guests at San Simeon in 1935, when my father was in Hollywood under contract to Warner Brothers. Marion Davies, Hearst’s constant companion, was also on the Warner lot. And so the Meltons were invited for the weekend.

They were flown up from Burbank in Hearst’s private plane, then driven up the miles-long driveway, past all manner of wild animal (zebra, antelope, giraffe). The next day my mother went horseback riding (with size six boots and perfectly-fitting riding habit provided by Hearst). Afterwards, they swam in the indoor pool, whose ceiling, walls and floors were a mosaic of cobalt blue tiles set in gold. It was like an Italian grotto, small bridges curved over it, shadowed corners drew swimmers into blue twilight depths. Lunch was at a long refectory table, punctuated by pedestaled silver dishes, alongside which were unadorned condiment bottles—French's mustard, Heinz ketchup. Next to the exquisite blue willow pattern china lay paper napkins. (Quirky guy, that Hearst!) The dining room was a 14th century monastery hall, transported from England piece by piece and reassembled. Rich oak panels rose to the vaulted ceiling from which hung brilliant flags of the early Crusaders. The table could seat fifty people.

My mother’s descriptions of their several days of lavish living seemed unbelievable until I visited San Simeon myself about ten years ago. It was everything she said, and more, and I tried to visualize my young parents in this fabulous fairyland.

By the way, the few photos from this adventure were taken with a little old Brownie camera (such as the one my mother is holding behind her back in the photo), and are tiny 1”x 2”. Not the usual celebrity 8” x 10” glossies, that’s for sure.


The outdoor pool at San Simeon





Monday, August 23, 2010

Pierce-Arrows


1918 Pierce Arrow 7-Passenger Touring Car

Last Saturday night I was privileged to speak about the James Melton Antique Car Collection at the 25th anniversary dinner of the Pierce-Arrow Society (New England Region). One of the highlights of the evening—and there were many— was meeting John Walsh, the current owner of a 1918 7-passenger Touring Car that once belonged to my father. They gave me a framed photograph of the car and a summary of its history. Some highlights of that history: Although we don’t know exactly when James Melton bought the car from Sam Adelman’s salvage yard in the Bronx, we do know that the it was used as the Press Car for the 1946 Revival of the Glidden Tour, which my father orchestrated. The car was driven on the Tour by his friend, Arthur K. Watson, of the IBM family. In 1951, the car was sold to George French in Pennsylvania, and the Walshes purchased it from him in 1996. In 2001, at the Pierce-Arrow 100th Anniversary gathering it won a First in Class Award.

As I said in my talk last weekend, I’m amazed that fifty years after my father’s death, the provenance of having been in the James Melton collection provides value to those cars.

Below is another Pierce-Arrow from my father’s collection, a 1912 Vestibuled Sedan. Wonder where it is now.





Monday, August 16, 2010

Lillian Murphy



Another young singer whose career my father helped launch was 18-year old Lillian Murphy of Kansas City. Remembering his influence on her life and career sixty years later she said, “That ‘Harvest of Stars’ broadcast on March 7, 1948 was the first day of the rest of my life. Jim sent me to New York, put me in touch with friends and professional colleagues, and got me a contract for guest appearances with him on ‘Harvest of Stars’ the following summer.” Lillian went on to sing in opera, concerts and on radio, including “The Chicago Theater of the Air,” whose auditions were handled by my father’s former Revelers colleague, Lewis James. Later, she married singer Earl Sauvain, and they are still living happily ever after in New Jersey.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dorothy Warenskjold

Dorothy Warenskjold and James Melton on "Ford Festival" (with conductor Frank Black)


As I mentioned in the previous post, one feature of the varied “Harvest of Stars” radio broadcast venues was my father’s use of local talent. As he traveled about on concert tours, my father got to know local music critics in various cities, and he would consult them about the best soprano or mezzo in the area. One of those lucky ladies who was featured as his singing partner on the show was Dorothy Warenskjold from San Francisco. She had recently made her debut with the San Francisco Opera Company, and came highly recommended. After her broadcast on “Harvest of Stars,” my father wired his agent in New York, “I’ve discovered gold in California!” In addition to advancing in her own career, Dorothy not only continued to make radio and concert appearances with my father, but was a regular on his television show in the early 1950s, and remains a dear and valued friend to this day.

In 1951-52, when she was a regular on TVs “Ford Festival” with my father, she was also a regular on “The Railroad Hour,” a Sunday night radio program of abridged musicals and operettas. She would appear on the “Railroad Hour” radio show on Sunday nights in Los Angeles, and Ford Festival in New York on Thursday nights, shuttling back and forth each week. Today it wouldn’t be considered so unusual, but in the early 1950s, before jet aircraft, when transcontinental flights took eight hours, it was a grueling pace. Although the critics were often grudging in their praise of my father’s television persona, Dorothy always got rave reviews, as in this August 1951 review from the Chester, Pennsylvania Times: “Jimmy has overcome his early stiffness and is steadily developing into a top TV personality. The good visibility is enhanced by lovely Dorothy Warenskjold, a welcome fugitive from the opera and concert circuits. Her duets with Melton are a high spot in every show.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

International Harvester

In 1945, my father began a five-year contract to host the weekly radio show “Harvest of Stars” for farm equipment manufacturer, International Harvester. The program was to be broadcast from wherever he was concertizing, which benefited not only his schedule, but enhanced International Harvester dealers’ advertising efforts with the local publicity. He had a good-natured joke about his sponsor: “International Harvester stands behind every product they make—except their manure spreader.”

One feature of these varied “Harvest of Stars” broadcast venues was his use of local talent. In each city he was scheduled to visit, local music critics and cognoscenti would be consulted about the best soprano or mezzo in the area, and my father would feature her as his singing partner on the show. One of those lucky ladies was Dorothy Warenskjold from San Francisco. Another one was the 18-year-old Lillian Murphy in 1948. More about these two lovely ladies in a later post.

After four years International Harvester canceled the contract, due to its own financial difficulties, and the realization that the majority of radio listeners to the “Harvest of Stars” program were not the farmers who bought their tractors. My father sued for the remainder of his contract and won.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Mighty Music Box




I recently learned of the death of Tom Delong  at age 75, on July 12th.  He wrote numerous books on old time radio (The Mighty Music Box), singers (Frank Munn) and  reference works (Radio Stars: An Illustrated Biographical Dictionary of 953 Performers, 1920 Through 1960).  When he was in the midst of writing Music Box, he interviewed my mother for details about my father’s career.  Later, after her death, he invited me to attend a celebration of the book’s publication in 1980 at the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut.  I loaned the library a portrait of my father for the occasion.  At the event, I also met some of my father’s radio colleagues—Maria Gambarelli (who performed with Roxy’s Gang), baritone Douglas Stanbury, and Arthur Tracy (also known as The Street Singer on radio).  All of this was long before I got the idea to write a book about my father, so I was less interested in these early radio legends than I should have been!  Nevertheless, Tom’s book The Mighty Music Box is well worth reading for anyone interested in old time radio, and I am sorry to hear of his passing.


 

Monday, July 19, 2010

More on "Half" and the boat...
















My father had several boats (in succession, not all at once!) beginning with “Melody” in 1933, and ending with “Serenata.”

She's the only one I remember, since we had her in the 1950s. A 54-foot Annapolis, she was a great bargain, according to my father. The previous owner's steward, coming aboard one night when the boat was unoccupied, thought he smelled gas. He lit a match. He was right. It was gas. The entire bow was blown out. My father customized this “bargain” to the tune of $90,000. He put radio speakers in every cabin, there was a television and phonograph in the lounge, plus all the latest electronic equipment, ship-to-shore telephone, radar. On the afterdeck, we carried a 15-foot inboard mahogany-decked dinghy named “Irregardless.” (“Irregardless of what you've heard, I can build you an inboard that small,” he was told by the boat builder who finally undertook this challenging task.) There was also an automobile on the afterdeck: a custom-built, half-sized antique curved dash Oldsmobile weighing 400 lbs., whose license plate read “HALF,” in answer to the inevitable question. It could be swung over the side on davits, so that the family could putt-putt around various ports of call. The boat was moored at millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham’s private dock near the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, Connecticut. During the winter, “Serenata” would be docked in Palm Beach. Summers we'd cruise Long Island Sound and up the East Coast shoreline to Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Maine. Our captain kept the boat stocked and ready to go, so there was never a delay in departing. My little Boston Terrier usually went along too; Captain Huggins having assured me that he was “a seagoin’ dog” and wouldn’t fall overboard. It was a heavenly getaway for all concerned.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Curved-dash Olds


This is a curious bit of ephemera from 1952 sent to me by a car-collecting colleague of my father’s some years ago.

While Daddy and I are featured on the cover of Auto Sport Review, there’s nothing about him, the car, or his collection inside the magazine, with the exception of a description of the cover shot. In fact, the entire magazine is about racing and sped records—hardly what our little Curved-Dash Olds was noted for.

Here’s what the cover explanation says: “James Melton and his six-year-old daughter, Margo, pictured in a half-size model of a Curved-dash Oldsmobile built by Dick Francis of Philadelphia, who is shown with them. The car was designed by Mr. Melton and Mr. Francis and built by Mr. Francis in his bicycle shop. It has a power unit Cushman motor—two speeds forward, one reverse, transmission with automatic clutch. Body built dos-a-dos with top-grain red leather—leather fenders—speed 35 miles per hour with two adults and two children. Weight 400 lbs. Mr. Melton had the car built to car on the lounge deck of his cruiser ‘Serenata.’”

Next blog, I’ll post a photo of the car on the deck of our yacht.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

1933 Chrysler Imperial

















Back in May, I got a phone call from Dave Lachance, associate editor at Hemmings Classic Car magazine, asking about my father's 1933 Chrysler Imperial, now owned by Dale Fowler of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was able to supply a photo of the car in front of the James Melton Autorama in Florida, circa 1953, and some information from my father's book Bright Wheels Rolling.


That was the car my father drove when we were in Palm Beach for extended periods of time while he was getting the museum up and running. I think it was one of his favorite classic (as opposed to brass-era) cars. From it's gazelle hood ornament to its curved trunk, the car was eighteen feet long. That's only slightly shorter than the 1951 20-foot Daimler Green Goddess. (See my January 14th post for a photo of the Daimler.)


Dave's story on the car is in the August issue of Classic Car.




Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Happy 81st Anniversary


On their twentieth wedding anniversary, July 29, 1949, my parents went all out to celebrate the occasion. As columnist Virginia Safford wrote in the Minneapolis Star, "In this day when we're constantly hearing of unsuccessful marriages in the drama, movie and music world, it is pleasant to think about the Meltons. They really believe in romance, and are sentimental about birthdays, anniversaries and trips together."

The party guests included friends from 1929 through 1949.

The invitation was made up of song titles as follows:



Song Hits

1929-1949


Words by Marjorie Melton Music by James Melton


BECAUSE

MARGIE

CAPTURED

A WANDERING MINSTREL

AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING

(in) BEAUTIFUL OHIO

LONG, LONG AGO

THERE'S GONNA BE A GREAT DAY

MEET THE MISSUS

DADDY

BABY FACE

IN THE GLOAMING

DOWN ON THE FARM


The party had a Polynesian theme, and was held on the lawn of our rose garden in Weston. There was a Hawaiian band to entertain during the sit-down dinner for fifty. Pink tablecloths and dark blue candles carried the dramatic color scheme set by masses of pink roses and blue delphinium decorating the terrace. Lowell Thomas arrived a bit late, having broadcast his 6:45 radio program that evening from the Melton Museum. After all the guests had arrived, my father quietly left the assemblage in the garden and went up to the balcony outside his bedroom overlooking the garden. From there he sang my mother's favorite song, "Because," and then tossed a Tiffany box down to her, commenting that it was her "service stripes." Inside was a gold bracelet with a large round pendant. On one side was her monogram, on the other side was engraved "Property of James Melton."


It must have seemed to him that the world was "Property of James Melton" too. He'd achieved the musical goals he'd set for himself, he had a family who loved him, he had the money to pursue an expensive hobby, he had the material possessions for an extremely comfortable lifestyle. Once, early in his career, he said in an interview that even if he had the financial wherewithal not to have to work, he would choose to work anyway, because he loved what he did. I wonder if that still held true as he passed middle age. The responsibilities that accompanied all he possessed were enormous. In his own mind, it would seem, he felt that his energy, enthusiasm and talent were equally enormous, and certainly up to the task of maintaining those responsibilities.



Friday, June 11, 2010

The James Melton Fan Club



To fill her long days alone in Hollywood while my father was making movies, my mother had a secret life of her own as President, Secretary and Treasurer of the James Melton Fan Club under the pseudonym Louise Mitchell. This may come as a shock to the loyal fans who corresponded with Louise for many years. But somebody had to do it. My father's fans were clamoring for a club to keep them up to date on the life of their hero. She was his number one fan, and obviously had a strategic post for news. She rented a box at the Hollywood Post Office and got the club under way, keeping busy with thousands of photos to send, letters to be acknowledged, and a monthly newsletter to be published.  My mother really enjoyed her alter ego, and carried on with it for several years until some friendly fans who were visiting New York insisted on meeting Louise Mitchell. My mother decided it was time to rub Mitchell out, so she married her off to an Englishman, and sent her to New Zealand to live. (She's still there.) The sole surviving issue of "Melton Melody News," from February 1938, contains an article about how the Meltons spent Christmas in their new house in Connecticut, playing with the young singer's electric train set. There were notices of upcoming concerts and broadcasts, and a Q&A with pretty prosaic questions. This issue also notes the "retirement" of Louise Mitchell, the club's founder. (The new president was Eloise DuBois, a real person using her own name.)  The cost to mail the 8-page newsletter first class was 1 1/2 cents!


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Indianapolis 500




This Memorial Day just past I was reminded of a story about my father and the Indianapolis 500 race.

In 1946, he supplied several antique cars from his collection for a pre-race lap. He also was the first to sing “Back Home in Indiana” before the start of the race that year and in several subsequent years. There's also the story that for one race, with the cars revving furiously behind him, he got flustered, and started to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” instead of “Back Home in Indiana.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just one more thing about the "Follies"

In Esther Williams' autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid (Simon & Schuster, 1999), she recounts a story about filming a segment for "Ziegfeld Follies" in which my father, dressed in naval whites sings "I'll See You Again in Honolulu" while she does an underwater ballet. After shooting the sequence, she found a note from him in her dressing room that said, "We will meet again, but not in Honolulu. I am in dressing room 10." Based on her past experience of being chased by nearly every man she met, she interpreted this as a seduction ploy. I'm not so sure it was.  Especially since my father didn't wait around very long for her to show up.


Like many men at whom women fling themselves (or at least flirt with), my father was not unmoved by displays of affection. Although I don't believe he was truly unfaithful to my mother—until near the end of his life—he may have had (or hoped for) the odd fling here and there.


Thursday, May 20, 2010


Ziegfeld Follies


My father was once again called to the silver screen in the Spring of 1944, so that he could film several segments in "Ziegfeld Follies," Metro Goldwyn Mayer's extravaganza in celebration of its 20th anniversary.


The "Follies" was a massive production, directed by Vincent Minelli, with a $3 million dollar budget (huge for the time).  The film opens with Florenz Ziegfeld (played by William Powell) in heaven, recalling the spectacular shows he staged in the 1920s and 30s, and imagining what they would be like with MGM's current stable of stars.  In it with my father were stars such as Esther Williams, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and Lena Horne, among others.  Filming went on all summer.  In spite of a fat weekly salary from Metro, my father was not very happy about his part.  He foresaw, correctly, that much would have to be cut from the lengthy film before it was released, and his contract didn't stipulate that his  should not be "the face on the cutting room floor." 


The agreement did promise to film four numbers by Melton, one from opera, a new song, a medley of cowboy songs, and a standard ballad.  But it didn't say in the fine print that these sequences had to be left in the finished picture.   All except the aria "Libiamo"  from La Traviata, which he sang with Marion Bell, were axed. (Marion Bell was later to become one of lyricist Alan J. Lerner's eight wives.) Nevertheless, his appearance in the picture increased his national popularity.  The film that previewed in November 1944 was three hours long.  Massive editing was needed.  When it was finally released in April 1946, the number of elaborate sequences had been cut from nineteen to thirteen.  The film ended up winning the Best Musical award at the Cannes Film Festival, and was one of the top grossing pictures of 1946, at over $5 million.


By the way, one can purchase a CD of music from the movie that includes "We Will Meet Again in Honolulu" and "There's Beauty Everywhere," both of which were cut from the movie at its final release, as well as "Libiamo."

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Melody for Two

Sing Me a Love Song was followed by a slightly more dramatic role in Melody for Two.  In it, my father plays a band leader who has career ups and downs due to professional and personal jealousies. Predictably, it all comes out right in the end, he gets the girl and the conniving music arranger gets his comuppance. He sings the forgettable "Melody for Two," the memorable "September in the Rain," and the song most identified with the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, "Macushla." Whose idea was it to use that song?  Was it a dig at McCormack by my father, the heir presumptive? That particular song is not a critical part of the story; he could have sung anything. There's a brief appearance by a black janitor who supplies the success-producing hot swing arrangements--the latest thing from the Harlem clubs. It sure looks and sounds like Eddie Anderson, Jack Benny's sidekick "Rochester," but he's not named in the credits. Patricia Ellis is the love interest, with comic relief provided by Marie Wilson.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sing Me a Love Song


Warner Brothers kept postponing "The Desert Song," but in the meantime offered him "Sing Me a Love Song."  He plays a department store heir who goes incognito as a music clerk to discover how to save the store from financial ruin.  Plot was not usually the strong point of early Warner Brothers musicals. Co-stars were Patricia Ellis, Zasu Pitts (pictured), Allen Jenkins and Ann Sheridan. The music was by Warren and Dubin, the same duo who had composed the score for "Stars Over Broadway."

Thursday, April 29, 2010





So, my father never made "The Desert Song" but he made three other movies.


The first was Stars Over Broadway (1935), a prototypical Hollywood musical of the era, 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. There's a charmingly risqué, quintessentially 1930's number with Jane Froman, choreographed by the crown prince of over-the-top production numbers, Busby Berkeley, called "At Your Service, Madame." Even world heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey makes an appearance, as himself at his New York restaurant, in the scene that opens the movie. Pat O'Brien gets top billing, and the movie also features Frank McHugh, Jean Muir and Frank Fay.


The plot was not unusual for its 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 by investing his last dime in the new protégé. 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. 




Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Today is the 49th anniversary of my father's death


Here's the obituary that ran in Opera News in September 1961.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched The Desert Song (the 1953 version). My father had a history with that movie. With the advent of talkies in the late 1920s, Hollywood was looking for people with good voices. In 1935, Warner Brothers wanted James Melton to star in The Desert Song. He had been hoping for this plum. The Desert Song, an extremely popular Sigmund Romberg operetta, would have been the perfect screen vehicle for my father, who had recently been signed to a 108-week contract by Palmolive to star their weekly operetta series on radio. He was quoted in the New York Sun saying, “They tell me that operetta [The Desert Song] has made a star of every tenor who's sung it. My wife has started to call me Red now—the hero is the Red Shadow.” Movies would broaden his audience considerably. Most of his fans were radio listeners, and they would soon see what their idol looked like. They were not disappointed; even if he wasn’t much of an actor, he did have matinee-idol good looks.

Contrary to Warner Brothers' original plan for him, after weeks of idling in Hollywood (albeit on salary) it turned out that my father was not going to make The Desert Song—at least not right away. The studio thought for his first film he should get some camera experience in a less dramatic role—in Stars Over Broadway. (More about which in a later post.) . The Desert Song eventually got made, but without my father. Eight years later, in 1943, Warner Brothers finally filmed it with Dennis Morgan starring in the tenor role. And then it was re-made in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Opera is an acquired taste?

You never know what's going to pop up on line...

In a recent interview on Bloomberg News, playwright Terrence McNally said that he was hooked on opera when his fifth grade parochial school teacher played a record of Puccini love duets with James Melton and Licia Albanese. (Who knew!) He continues, "The other 29 kids in the class were sleeping, throwing spitballs, reading comic books and being tortured while I loved it instantly. So when people ask me how you learn to love opera, I don’t know how to answer."

He's the one who wrote "Master Class," the play about Maria Callas.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

1888 fire engine at the Autorama


April 1953
The Melton Museum Moves 

Never one to let the opportunity for publicity pass him by, my father made a big deal of moving the cars from Connecticut to Florida.  On April 3rd, 1953, five of the antique buggies were driven—under their own power—the 1,500 miles from Norwalk to Hypoluxo.  It took six days.  The vehicles included a 1906 Rainier limousine, a 1923 Rolls Royce, a 1911 Franklin and others.  "Jumbo" the 13-ton, 24-foot long 1888 fire engine, made the journey on a flatbed trailer.  All the cars had banners saying "I'm on my way to the James Melton Autorama in Hypoluxo, Florida.  Drive Safely."  The cavalcade stopped in New York, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Savannah and other cities en route.


In New York City, the cars parked briefly in front of the Plaza Hotel, where a Central Park coach horse decided to get acquainted with the 1906 limousine, nibbling at the brass and licking the hood, to the amusement of admiring bystanders.  In Washington, DC, President Eisenhower greeted the travelers.  In Savannah, a parade was staged around the arrival of the remaining three cars (the Rainier hade gone lame with tire trouble; it's not clear what happened to the fifth car).







Thursday, April 1, 2010

Paul Sorvino

Over the years I have seen periodic references to the fact that my father, James Melton, encouraged the singing career of actor Paul Sorvino, and in fact one newspaper even states that he paid for Sorvino’s singing lessons.  While going through some unfiled papers in my “archives,” I came across two newspaper articles from 1976 (shown here) and 1987.  Sorvino was born in 1939, so by my calculation he’d have been 19 years old in 1958.  

By that time, my father’s financial fortunes were taking a severe downturn—his museum in Florida wasn’t doing well, plus his singing career was on the downslide, partly the result of changing musical tastes.  It seems rather unusual that my father would be paying for someone else’s singing lessons at that particular time.  Though, I will say, he was always extremely generous! 

(I've tried several times to contact Mr. Sorvino to verify details, but he's never answered my letters.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The other side of the family: my grandfather

James's father, James Wilburn Melton, called J.W., was born in 1871, in the latter years of post-Civil War Reconstruction. At twenty-one, he married Rose Thornton, settled in Moultire, Georgia, and in 1893 their first son, Wilburn Pruitt Melton, was born. My father was born in 1904. Before James was a year old, J.W. moved his growing family (which would eventually number seven children) to Citra, Florida, to take advantage of an opportunity in the lumber business. Sometimes J.W.'s sawmill prospered, and sometimes it didn't—and as a result there was just enough hardship to insure that quality in my father that
made for success.

At some point in the early 1930s, J.W. and Rose chose to separate. They never divorced.

J.W. actually had a sentimental side. He was a smoker, but could only afford the cheaper kind of cigarettes you roll yourself. When young James got a job as a delivery boy, he spent his first earnings to buy his father two packs of ready-made cigarettes. When J.W. died of lung cancer in 1942, those two precious packs were found crumbling from age in his dresser drawer. He’d never smoked them because that would have destroyed the loving gift from his son.

In 1938 my father sent J.W. on a "grand tour" of Europe. Unfortunately, I know nothing about the motivation for this trip, nor about the ports of call. In fact, I know very little about J.W., because my father rarely talked about him, and he died three years before I was born.