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.)