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


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.