Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday greetings




Wishing you all a very Merry....







Saturday, December 3, 2011

1903 Stevens-Duryea

The following appeared on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on National Public Radio for November 28:

“The first American automobile race took place on this date in 1895. It was put on by the Chicago Times-Herald, and it was open to cars with at least three wheels that could carry two or more people (the driver and a judge). The race, 54 miles in all, ran from Chicago's Jackson Park out to Evanston, Illinois, and back.

It was Thanksgiving Day, and it had snowed the night before. None of the automobiles had roofs, and none of the roads were paved, so conditions for a race weren't optimal. Out of the original 89 entrants, only six were at the starting line on race day. Two of them were American-made electric cars; the other four -- one of them American and three built by German manufacturer Karl Benz -- were gasoline-powered. Four of the cars eventually dropped out due to the poor conditions, and it came down to American Frank Duryea and one of the Benz machines. Duryea prevailed, reaching a top speed of 7.5 miles per hour, and crossing the finish line after several breakdowns and a little over 10 hours. The German car limped home two hours later, driven by the referee; its driver had collapsed, exhausted. Duryea used his $2,000 winnings to start the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.”

Here’s a photo of my father's 1903 Stevens-Duryea in residence at the Autorama. Stevens-Duryea was an American car manufacturer between 1901 and 1915 and from 1919 to 1927. The company was founded after a falling-out between J. Frank Duryea and his brother Charles in 1898. Stevens-Duryea's first product was a 2-cylinder, 5-horsepower runabout that sold for $1,200 in 1901. Pretty pricey for the time!




1903 Stevens-Duryea in James Melton Autorama





Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Garry Simpson - TV Director Par Excellence

I have just learned of the death of Garry Simpson at age 97 in Middlebury, Vermont. Garry had an extremely distinguished career as a television director, a small part of which was directing my father’s TV show, “Ford Festival,” in 1951-52. He became a very good friend to both my parents for the rest of their lives. He helped my mother through my father’s death, storing great quantities of Melton memorabilia from my father’s office in his Greenwich, Connecticut barn. When he moved to Vermont to help start Vermont Public Television, in the late 1960s, and my mother had to clear out the barn, she had a great big bonfire. On it went all the records, correspondence, photographs (mostly duplicates of what she saved). My father’s history literally went up in smoke. Her choice. Who knew that decades later I would wish for all that material when researching my book? Oh well. Garry personally helped me with my research, talked to me at length, commented on my manuscript, and gave me things from his own archives that were relevant to my father's career. Garry helped my mother find a home for the kinescopes of "Ford Festival" at Dartmouth (long, long before I was married to a Dartmouth alum and went to work at the College). Some years ago I rescued the kinescopes from Dartmouth's attic, and donated them to the Museum of Television and Radio in NYC.


Here’s a link to a multi-part interview with Garry on the Archive of American Television:

http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/garry-simpson

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Palm Beach Post story on the Autorama



















And here is what appears on the reverse of the photo, in my father's own hand:

Recently, Eliot Kleinberg at the Palm Beach Post did a multi-part story on the Autorama, at the 50th anniversary of it's closing. Here's the link:

As a result, I was able to contact Peggy Patterson McClellan, daughter of Gladys Patterson, who ran the gift shop at the Autorama. "Mrs. Pat" was very patient with this seven-year-old who constantly wanted to "help" in the shop. Peggy has sent me a wonderful collection of Melton memorabilia, including scrapbook, photo album and my father's spats, linen driving cap and goggles!

The photo above (early 1950s) is one that Peggy sent. I'll post more later.

(In case you can't read my father's handwriting, the reverse of the photo says: "James Melton & Leonard Stokes, both from Moultrie, Georgia, at a recent rehearsal of the CBS TV show "Toast of the Town" -- JM rehearsing a production number "Ghost Riders in the Sky"-- Stokes was one of the cowboys in the scene. But the costumers sent him the wrong costume. Instead of a cowboy suit he was sent the uniform of a Union Soldier! When he showed up on the stage, Melton drew a gun on him. (Note: the proper cowboy costume arrived shortly thereafter.) Shades of Chickamauga!




Saturday, October 29, 2011

Happy Halloween


Every father seems a big man to his daughter, and mine was no exception. Big, as in hero. Big, as in physical size. Big, as in larger-than-life persona who dominated any space he entered.

Later, after he died, and when I was grown up, I discovered that my childhood perception of his physical size was not a matter of perception but of actual fact. A friend and I were going to a Halloween costume party. My mother kindly loaned Joe my father's white dress naval uniform—the one he wore at the Metropolitan Opera—so that we could go as Lieutenant Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San from "Madama Butterfly." Joe was a big man, but even so, we had to stuff the front of the jacket with a small pillow to keep it from hanging off him like a limp rag. My father was a big man.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

An appreciation

Margo and her dad c. 1955
Greenwich, Connecticut

Every little girl thinks her father can move mountains. Mine could move rivers and roads—literally. When we lived in Weston, Connecticut, the quiet country lane we lived on ran too near our house, he thought, so he had it moved. This involved, in addition to rerouting the road, dismantling the ancient dry stone wall that ran the length of our property, and moving that too.

Later, when we moved to Greenwich, a brook bisected the backyard, shrinking my play area beyond what he deemed acceptable. So he had the brook moved thirty feet further from the house to allow more space for my outdoor activities.

Here was a man who could move roads and rivers—what couldn't he do? He couldn't stop the march of time, the change in musical tastes, the decline of his career—all of which severely diminished his stature in his daughter's eyes. He died broke and broken when I was fifteen years old. I never forgave him. I forgot him. It wasn't until many years later, in the course of researching a biographical memoir about him, that I rediscovered my father. The rediscovery of what made him such a "big man" gave me a more sympathetic perspective on the pressures that caused his decline. Here was a man who felt that the impossible was possible—it just might take a little longer or cost a little more. Here was a man who created most of the 'lucky breaks' in his career. Later, as the music business changed, and his career was on the wane, in his desperation he created enemies not opportunities. Here was a man who gave all he had to the world but had nothing left to sustain himself when the upward path began its downward course.

James Melton is still a big man to his daughter—only now the picture is a truer, more fully formed one.

Monday, August 22, 2011

1939 New York World's Fair

James Melton's Stanley Steamer at the World's Fair

The James Melton collection at the American Jubilee Pageant

Last week my e-friend Tim Martin forwarded me several photos from the 1939 World's Fair, so without further ado, that's my topic for today.

In April of 1939 the New York World's Fair opened. A much-needed antidote to the Depression, it touted technology as the means to economic prosperity, not only for Americans, but as a ray of hope in the midst of Europe's troubling times. Among corporate sponsored exhibits at the New York World's Fair, American automobile companies figured hugely. The General Motors “Futurama” was a 36,000 square-foot scale model of what America would be like in the 1960s, a good deal of which vision was based on the supremacy of the automobile. The Ford Motor Company “Road of Tomorrow” showed how the automobile industry spread employment, from raw materials through manufacturing to sales.

While the theme of the Fair was progress and modernity, the American Jubilee Pageant, largely sponsored by Studebaker, celebrated what we’d come from, America’s past glories. My father was asked to provide ten antique cars to be driven in the Pageant four times a day. In order to assure ten in constant working order, he had to have many more than that. By opening day he owned thirty. What a convenient excuse to expand his collection. The cars on display ranged from an 1896 Ofeldt Steamer to a 1914 Packard twin-six seven passenger automobile.

The American Jubilee Pageant was an extravaganza with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II—a kaleidoscope of American social and political history from George Washington to “the next president” who would be elected in November 1940. The revolving stage on which the pageant unfolded was 270 feet in diameter, large enough to accommodate horses, buggies, cars, it was complete with details like real flowers growing in real earth in real gardens. There were 350 performers in various vignettes about George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and “the next President.” Cars from the collection of James Melton were featured in a section called “The Struggle Buggy Days,” which included twenty-four long-legged “American Beauties,” and tableaux about financier and gourmand “Diamond” Jim Brady and turn-of-the-century singer Lillian Russell. The venue for this exhibit alone held 7,000 people. Admission was 40 cents.

In September 1939, the Bell Telephone Company (for which my father later starred on radio in the weekly “Telephone Hour”) in cooperation with the Veteran Automobile Club of America, sponsored a “Veteran Automobile Day” at the World’s Fair. It included prizes for the most picturesque costumed driver, the car driven from the greatest distance, and events such as a race in reverse gear, and a cranking contest, all of which was followed by participation of the cars in the American Jubilee program itself.

It seems amazing to me that during the Depression four cities managed to mount major expositions—Chicago’s Century of Progress (1933), the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas (1936), San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition and the New York World’s Fair (1939). They were all celebrating hope and progress. The New York World’s Fair opened in April of 1939, the following September, Hitler invaded Poland.



1939 World

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Richard Hankinson

Remember that 1960s Nat King Cole song with lyrics about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”? They sure got the lazy part wrong, at least as far as my life is concerned. Crazy? Yes, happily busily crazy. Wanting to be outside in the garden, rather than inside in front of my computer (no, I don’t have a laptop). Hence my inattention to blogging. Apologies. I'm back from vacation and back on track now.

Last week I was in Maine, and had the opportunity to visit Dick Hankinson, who was my father’s accompanist in the 1950s.

Dick Hankinson c. 1952



As a very recent Julliard graduate, Richard Hankinson, a charming and talented young man from South Carolina, was hired as my father’s newest accompanist in September 1952. He came so highly recommended that my father hired him without an audition. However, he insisted that Dick sign a five-year contract, which was unheard of in those days. Forty years later Dick candidly told me he would have left sooner if he could have, because he was on call 24 hours a day. Their first year together involved a grueling 250 days on the road. This was particularly difficult for the recently married Hankinson, although his new wife did whatever she could by way of making herself useful to the operation in order to accompany him on tour.

When I interviewed Dick for my book in 1991, he told me: “Musically, Mr. Melton was difficult to play for. He sang classical music in almost a pop style. One didn’t accompany him, rather, he sang on top of the accompaniment.” (Did this come from having sung with a dance band in his youth, I wonder?) “He insisted that all accompaniments be memorized. I objected to this, because it left no room for pianistic interpretation; I felt it made things sound mechanical.” But, of necessity, Dick ended up complying. It did look very impressive not to have any sheet music on stage.

Dick moved on to other pursuits in 1957, and retired to Maine in 1985.




Thursday, June 30, 2011

Happy 82nd Anniversary

Mr. & Mrs. James Melton in their NYC apartment c. 1929


My parents’ wedding on June 29th was a lavish affair at the Portage Country Club. It was 1929, that glorious summer before the stock market crash. The long gift tables shone with silver, crystal, china and every lovely thing a bride could wish for. The church was a bower of roses. My mother’s six bridesmaids were dressed in rose-colored gowns, in gradations ranging from American Beauty red to palest pink. Four hundred attended the wedding in the First Presbyterian Church in Akron, and two hundred were welcomed to dinner afterwards. Groomsmen were Craig McCullough (my father’s Vanderbilt University roommate), orchestra leader Francis Craig, old friends Spurgeon Roberts, Lloyd Thomas and William Powell, John Harkrider (Florenz Ziegfeld’s production designer), Elliott Shaw (of The Revelers Quartet, with whom my father sang) and Karnaghan “Karnie” Seiberling (my mother’s Akron pal). Elliott Shaw sang “All for You” and Wilfred Glenn (both of The Revelers) sang “Oh Promise Me.” The Revelers were major participants in the wedding—and as part of the honeymoon trip to Europe in August.

With typical lavish efficiency, my father had arranged their schedule from the moment my mother tossed her bouquet and they dashed from the Club amid showers of tiny tissue rose petals to their new Cadillac for the drive to Cleveland. As they approached the entrance to the Cleveland Hotel my father said, “Let’s be real dignified, like old married folks.” With solemn mien and silent dignity they entered the hotel lobby. As my father leaned forward to sign the register, a shower of pink rose petals fell from behind his coat collar.

My parents’ honeymoon in Europe, in August 1929, a month after their wedding, was shared with The Revelers’ scheduled concert tour to Paris, Amsterdam, Scheveningen, Cologne, Basel, Geneva, Vienna and Salzburg—all in two weeks. A relaxed five-day crossing aboard the Olympic prepared them for a hectic schedule abroad. Not your typical honeymoon, but then my father was not your typical twenty-five year old newlywed. It seemed you could take the country boy out of the country.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Sing Me a Love Song"



ZaSu Pitts and James Melton in 1936 film "Sing Me a Love Song"

There's a recently uploaded trailer of this film on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XkIczANdnQ

Check it out! And as long as you're there, have a look at the trailer for "Stars Over Broadway," my father's first film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9fsD8uzbOU

What a hoot! It's really weird for me to see my father "live" at age thirty two. But I can see why my mother fell in love with him.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

D-Day

Sunday, June 4th, 1944 a program "sponsored by the the Red Cross and dedicated to Divine Providence for the welfare and protection of our invasion forces, soon to cross the English Channel for the liberation of Europe" was held at the Hollywood Bowl, with appearances by James Melton, Artur Rubenstein, Joe E. Brown, Horace Heidt and his Orchestra, high-ranking members of the military, and clergy of protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths. Melton sang "There is No Death" and "The Lord's Prayer." Seven thousand people attended.

A month later my father was again at the Hollywood Bowl, to sing for twenty-thousand people on July 4th, as a featured entertainer, along with Bing Crosby and Ginny Simms, at a war bond rally.


(P.S. My apologies for the long break in between blog posts. I've been consumed with planning a memorial tribute to my late husband. It took place yesterday.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

1913 Peugeot Travels to Europe


This past February The Seal Cove Auto Museum’s fabulous 1913 Peugeot (previously owned by my father) traveled to Retromobile, Europe’s most prestigious classic car show, held at Porte de Versailles in Paris. The car was on a European tour thanks to an invitation from Bonham’s auction house. In addition to Paris, the Peugeot was displayed at the The Louwman Collection – The Dutch National Motor Museum. The car returned to Maine in March, in plenty of time for the May 1st opening of the Seal Cove Museum. (See my blog entries for September 15 and September 29, 2010 for more info on the Peugeot.)

Roberto Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Seal Cove Museum says "The last time the car was really run through it's paces was a few years ago, when it was taken to Pebble Beach, California and it competed in the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance."

 It is the only car of its kind left in the world, and he estimates is worth about $4.5 million today.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

50 years ago today...


It was a cold and gray late April day in 1961, with a chill wind blowing off the Hudson River.  Every one of the 3,500 seats in Riverside Church was taken, with hundreds of mourners waiting outside.  Dr. Robert McCracken officiated.  Virgil Thompson played the organ.  Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert Merrill sang, filling the giant cathedral with the ringing tones of Alfred Hay Malott’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer.

Despite the fact that at fifteen, I knew I’d not led the life of an ordinary child, it was the funeral, with all those people—all those famous people—paying tribute to my father that brought home to me just how far reaching was his fame. People like radio commentator Lowell Thomas, Connecticut neighbor Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM, actor Lee Bowman, Metropolitan opera colleague Francis Robinson, TV personality Bud Collyer, radio pals and television co-workers, as well as hundreds of fans, who came to pay their respects. 

 For the memorial service at Riverside Church in New York, my mother chose the music they’d loved—music that was a part of him, a part of their life.  The tenor aria from Tosca was one of them, “E Lucevan le Stelle.”  In the last act, Mario, the painter, patriot and lover of Tosca, waits in the yard of the prison for the dawn that will bring his execution.  By the light of the stars, he, who has so much to live for, awaits the rays of the sun for the last time... 

She took my father to Ocala, Florida for the burial.  There, on his headstone are the words of another song he sang and she loved: Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song.”

 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Autorama


While the Melton Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, had been something of a bare-bones affair, the Autorama was opulent. Norwalk, as I recall it, was a warehouse size space (actually a former bowling alley!) with cars displayed matter of factly, left to stand on their own merits, with few accouterments of the era to lend atmosphere. But in the Autorama, visitors walked on plush carpets, had their eyes boggled by brass, and were reminded of the nation's great history in a stirring cycloramic mural.

 

The oldest cars were displayed in and around Gay   Nineties settings - a courting couple, a picnic-basket laden family, interspersed with mannequins depicting home life of the era — a gowned, bejeweled woman seated at a spinet, a child playing with toy cars, settings that incorporated antique furniture, toys and bicycles from the Melton collection. 

 

There's a funny story associated with the mannequins: They were perhaps the one item in the new museum that had been a bargain. Some would-be midwestern Madame Tussaud's had failed to pay for their order, and a group of poorly rendered historical figures were on the auction block. The manufacturer had made some subtle changes so that they looked less like the characters they were meant to portray. Nevertheless, my father grimaced every time he walked by the dummy in the curved-dash Olds, muttering "I don't know why, but I just don't like the looks of that one." It was, or had been, a representation of Franklin D. Roosevelt (a major player in my father's pantheon of disreputable characters).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This week in history…On March 11th, 1927 the Roxy Theater opened near Times Square.

 

A few weeks after arriving in New York City from Florida in May 1927, my father strode confidently over to the Roxy Theater to see S.L. Rothafel, whose big new theater and lavish productions were the talk of the town. Mr. Rothafel, “Roxy,” was the titan of show business at the time. A mild, laconic man, he was immensely astute. His elaborate stage shows presaged Radio City Music Hall's extravaganzas. The Roxy’s architecture was a mix of Renaissance, Moorish and Gothic styles, housing three pipe organs, using a hundred and ten-piece orchestra for its stage shows, and having 6,200 seats. It was a glamorized movie house, the first of its kind. The cover of The Roxy program touted “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” The building also boasted a cavernous rotunda, a radio broadcasting  studio, dozens of dressing and rehearsal rooms, a laundry, a hair salon, a  dispensary, a cafeteria, a gym, a nap room, a library, and a menagerie for show animals. The Roxy employed 300 people. The Roxy closed in 1960. It was demolished so the hotel next door could build a parking garage.

 

A cartoon published shortly after the Roxy's opening shows an awestruck child standing in the lobby with her mother. The child asks,  'Does God live here?'

 

Their showing of new movies (silent, of course, for talkies were several years away) was tastefully laced with a stage show, featuring a soloist, and dance routines by the uniformly shapely, skilled “Roxyettes,” (who became the Rockettes in 1934 when the new Radio City Music Hall was built.) The Roxy was the weekly destination of tourist and native New Yorker alike. This mecca for the masses was, my father decided, where he belonged. Furthermore, Roxy put on a weekly radio show, offering him an even wider audience. 

 

This is how my mother related  James Melton’s assault on the the airwaves:

 

The young hopeful made his way through the church-like arched corridors to Roxy's office. “I want to see Mr. Rothafel, please,” he politely petitioned the secretary in the outer reception room.

 “Have you an appointment?” She scrutinized a long, crimson fingernail, and tossed her bottled blonde curls.

  Jim turned on his Southern charm full blast. “Not yet, but I hope you'll give me one.”

 “Ummm.  Just be seated.” She turned to the intercom on her desk and murmured something incomprehensible.

 Jim waited.  And waited. An hour later, he strode to the desk with his most winning smile lighting the way. 

 “Please ma’am, when is my appointment?”

 “Listen, Mr. Rothafel’s busy just now. He'll send word when he's free to see you.”

 People came and went. Some vanished behind the big oak door, never to reappear.  Another hour. Jim went to the desk again, this time without the smile.

 “I’ve been here two hours. I don’t think you've been very nice to me.”

 “Listen, country boy, Roxy’s a big man. A big, busy man. What makes you think he’d want to see you?”

 “Because he needs me. That singer he’s got on stage has got a voice that’s only good for cooling soup. When Roxy hears me sing, he’ll hire me.  You’ll see.”

 “Who told you so, your mama?”

 “Yeah.  And some day you’ll tell me so, too. You’ll see”

 “Well, look, you’d better come back another time.  ‘Maybe he won't be so busy tomorrow.  ‘Maybe he can see you then.”

 “I  don’t care about being seen —I want to be heard!”

 The next day Roxy was just as busy. And the next day, and the next. On the fifth day, Jim told the overwhelmed receptionist, “Now look!  I’m going to sing for Roxy.  I told you that a week ago.  I know he’s right behind that door, and I’m just going to start singing.  Here.  Now.  And I won’t stop until he comes out.”

 The receptionist looked up at angry eyes and a set jaw. “So sing—you wouldn't dare,” she challenged.

 Jim threw back his shoulders, set his feet apart, and let loose, in full voice.

 No one in the office was prepared for a sudden, unrequested burst of music. The receptionist went rigid with shock, all office noises stopped.  Jim continued to sing.

 Almost immediately the great wooden door was opened by a slender man, who said to Jim, “Come on, my boy, let’s find a piano and let you warm up a bit.”

 Maximillian Pilzer, Roxy’s assistant director of programs, led Jim to a small room across the hall.  “What are you going to sing for The Boss?”

 “ ‘I Hear You Calling Me.’ Key of E, please”

 The man played a few bars softly, and then said, “All right. Ready? Let it go.”

 Jim let it go.  When he’d finished, Pilzer rose with a smile. “Come with me.”

 Past the receptionist, through the oak door, and suddenly Jim was before a great desk, facing a short, quiet man whose eyes appraised him blandly.

 “Are you Mr. Rothafel?” asked Jim.

 “I am.  I understand you’re going to sing for me.”

 “Yes. I’ve been trying to for a week, and I’m going to sing now.”

 “All right,” said Roxy amiably. He turned to the man standing at his side. “This is Leo Russato, our musical director. Will you play for the young man, Leo?”

 The pianist seated himself at a grand piano in the corner.  He nodded to Jim, who turned his voice on full force in “I Hear You Calling Me.”

 “Good,” said Roxy.  “I understand you think you’re what I need here.”

 “Yes, sir,” said Jim.

 “What salary have you in mind?”

 “Two hundred fifty a week,” Jim shot back.

 “ Sit down, fella.  Now I don’t need to tell you that you have a great voice, because you know it already.  I’ll pay you one thousand dollars a month.  You’ll sing every other week because we’re not going to push your voice. Don’t want to grind off the fine edge.  That will give you time to study, too. All right?”

 “Yes, sir!”

 “You’ll start next week. We’re running the first showing of ‘What Price Glory,’ a great new picture, starring Victor McLaglen and Dolores DelRio. The theme song is ‘Charmaine.’ Beautiful song. You’ll introduce it in the stage production.  Leo, take him now and teach him the song.”

 “Thank you. Thank you, sir,” said Jim.

 Roxy looked at him, a smile of amusement playing across his mouth. “Listen kid, you’ve got a million dollar voice—and two million dollars worth of nerve. You’ll get along.”

 A week later, following the first showing of “What Price Glory,” the curtains opened to show one tall young man and a piano in a spotlight against a dark drop.  Jim blinked at the lights, gazed at the thousands of white round spots of peoples’ faces like rows of cupcakes.  He began to back up, his hand behind him reaching for the solid comfort of the piano.

 “Biggest stage I ever saw,” he recalled later.  “I backed all over the darn thing, trying to find the piano to lean against, my knees were kinda’ weak.”

 Volume one, page one of the seventeen scrapbooks bulging with clippings of my father’s career, has a picture of his teacher and mentor Gaetano deLuca.  Page two has the canceled check for his first week at the Roxy. “For services, week ending July 15, 1927....$250.00.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Steam Cars


Look what I found!  Poking around in the dusty recesses of Pleasant Street Books in Woodstock, Vermont this weekend, my eye was caught by this book cover.  My father, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Daddy's Stanley Steamer.  The cover is his only appearance in the book.  The contents contain everything you might want to know about all makes of steam cars.

According the research done by Jim Merrick, Archivist at the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine, a few years ago, the James Melton collection included about thirty steam cars, ranging from a 1893 Custom Steam Stage Coach to a couple of Locomobiles, as well as numerous Stanleys and Whites.

More about which in a later post...I promise.




Sunday, February 20, 2011

James Melton Debut at the Metropolitan Opera

James Melton as Tamino in "The Magic Flute" at the Met

Like so many of my father's accomplishments, performing at the Met did not come without hard work and determination. But there was also a certain synchronicity involved. Opera in the United States began to suffer from the conflict in Europe in the autumn of 1939, with a number of European singers failing to show up. This provided the opportunity for local talent.  Also on the plus side, a number of European conductors, in America at the time, decided to stay. The great Bruno Walter was one of them.

New York newspapers were unanimous in praise of Melton's debut. 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, on December 7, 1942, 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. Bruno Walter conducted.  Good company, to say the least.

More about that debut in a later post.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Melton Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut


Although I have talked some in previous posts about the James Melton Autorama in Florida, I haven't said much about its precursor, the Melton Museum in Norwalk Connecticut (1948-53).  So here goes:

Back in the summer of 1941, the State of Connecticut had appropriated funds to build a museum for my father's cars.  But the onset of World War II put the project on hold.  After the war the agreement still did not come to fruition.  As he put it in a letter to fellow Veteran Motor Car Club members in 1947:

 

"As you may have seen by the papers, I have withdrawn my offer of a museum collection to the State of Connecticut.  The first appropriation was made in 1941, the enlarged appropriation in 1945, and the thing is still only on paper...The combination of dilly-dallying techniques, small brother groups crying over locations, appointment of an antique auto curator—repeat curator!—and the shifting sands of politics—of which I want no part—finally made me decide that it would be in the best interests of my collection and the antique automobile movement as a whole, to cut out of all that complicated and unpleasant situation...I shall create a museum of which we can all be proud—and where we won't wake up some morning to find some Politico's Aunt Tillie's 1928 Model A Ford where a Mercer Raceabout ought to be."

 

Rather than donating his collection to the State in return for the building, he continued to own the cars—and to add to their number until he had close to a hundred.   He formed a corporation, The Melton Museum, Inc., and acquired a 10,000 square foot building on an eight-acre site on Route 7 in Norwalk, Connecticut, half a mile from the Merritt Parkway.  To that he added another 10,000 square foot building, incorporating an existing well-known restaurant, called the Stirrup Cup.  On top of the building with the sign saying The Melton Museum, he put brightly painted cutouts of some of the cars represented in the collection; out front he placed a 1902 trolley car.  He sincerely believed that everyone was as interested in the history of the automobile as he was.  He felt that preserving the cars was only half the story, they should be shown to the public as examples of man's ingenuity and as the beautiful antiques they were.

 

On July 24, 1948, the 20,000 square foot Melton Museum of Antique Automobiles opened in Norwalk, Connecticut, with fifty-five cars, antique bicycles, auto accessories, toy trains and music boxes.  Opening day began with a parade of antique autos, driven by his confreres from the Veteran Motor Car Club, and was attended by celebrities such as Clare Booth Luce, Lawrence Tibbett and Connecticut Governor Grover Whelan. Twelve hundred paying customers came the first day, sixteen hundred the second.  Little did many of the visitors know what a huge, last-minute effort had gone into readying the exhibition for opening day.  Firestone, for instance, had agreed to equip all the cars with their new "non-skid" tires—the words formed the tread design. The tires had been flown in by air freight from Akron, Ohio the day before the museum opened, and Firestone men had worked until 2 A.M. to mount them all. For months my mother had been a willing helper in preparing the museum, haunting local antiques stores in search of the right accouterments to accompany the displays, and raiding friends' and relatives' attics for old-fashioned costumes for the mannequins to wear.  She also oversaw many museum-related details on the home front while her husband was on tour with the Metropolitan Opera that spring.

 

Their old friend, former Ziegfeld designer, John Harkrider, designed the exhibits.  The entrance hall was decorated with large photos of my father's various old car exploits with other celebrities:  the 1937 Easter Parade of antique autos down Fifth Avenue with fellow singers Lanny Ross and Jessica Dragonette as passengers; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy riding in one of the cars my father took to Hollywood in 1944; and a meeting with Henry Ford Sr. in Dearborn, Michigan.  The cashier's office was in a 1912 Renault Hansom Cab, the car's radiator having been converted to a counter for selling tickets. (Admission to the museum was 60 cents.) One exhibit room had a parade of vehicles filled with cap-and-duster clad mannequins intended to look as if they were driving down a country road.  Another room had eight racing cars displayed in an octagonal pattern; one of the cars was a 1911 Mercedes which was accompanied by a huge photographic blowup of Ralph DePalma driving that very car in the 1911 Vanderbilt Cup Race.  In yet another room, the sign in front of the 1910 White Touring Car explained the origins of the collection, "The ambition of a small boy to own a car like this is what started the whole thing."

 

He hired a retired Norwalk policeman—Officer Phillip O'Grady—as the security guard.  Dressed like a turn of the century Keystone Kop, O'Grady was straight out of central casting, and played his part to the hilt.  Among the summer help my father hired was Joe Ryan, still only in high school, to polish brass and run errands.  Over fifty years later, among the highlights Ryan recalled was a trip to Canada to pick up a 1924 Rolls Royce that Lady Eaton had donated to the museum. "Between being held up at the border for two days because Customs didn't accept the paperwork I carried, (they had to verify it with both Lady Eaton and your father), and the fact the headlights were so dim I could only drive in daylight, it took me five days to get the car back to Norwalk." His job at the Melton Museum started Ryan's lifelong love of automobiles that evolved into his career as sales manager of a Mercedes Benz agency.

 

The oldest car in the Melton Museum was 1893 custom steam stage coach, which looked rather like a horse-drawn carriage with engines added front and rear. The most modern car in the museum was a 1934 custom-built Detroit Electric.  Other unusual pieces in the collection were aforementioned 1911 Mercedes of Vanderbilt Cup Race fame, a 1900 Rockwell Hansom Cab—the first New York City taxi— and a 12-passenger Stanley Steamer Mountain Wagon circa 1915, formerly used in Yellowstone National Park for sightseeing tours.

 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dorothy Warenskjold

Dorothy Warenskjold 1921-2010

I learned just recently of the death of Dorothy Warenskjold on December 27th.  What a special person she was!  She was my father's singing companion on radio, television and concert, and a friend to my mother and me for the rest of her life.

She ended her illustrious singing career teaching at UCLA (for fifteen years) and holding master classes. In 2005 she moved from her native California to Kansas to be near relatives.  In an article from a Kansas newspaper in 2008, she is quoted as saying "I like my life the way it is. I've done everything I wanted to do."  Lucky lady.

She died at the age of eighty-nine, but to me she seemed ageless---and always elegant, so elegant.

In researching my book, I discovered just what a mainstay Dorothy was for my father on his 1950s TV show  “Ford Festival.” In a kinescope I have of one of the shows, his co-star,  Dorothy seems relatively at ease in front of the camera, but you can plainly see Daddy’s unease. His eyes dart from side to side constantly, except with he’s focusing on singing a song. Is he looking frantically for cue cards, or checking to make sure that everything is all right for the next scene? Live television must have been extremely nerve wracking for all involved! 

The responsibility on my father’s shoulders was tremendous—to produce the show as well as star on it. But he wanted it that way. He barely had time to rehearse, so he employed tenor Joe Gaudio to be his rehearsal stand-in for setting lights and marks. No wonder Daddy looked wooden and ill at ease on the showOften he was hitting those marks for the first time, rather than having become accustomed to the feel of things during multiple rehearsals. Dorothy told me that more than once she’d link her arm through his, and lead him around on stage during broadcasts because she sensed the uncertainty about his own choreographed stage movement. Thank goodness for Dorothy!

I saw a rather amusing, amazing gaffe while viewing one of the old kinescopes in which Daddy and Dorothy were singing a duet from Madama Butterfly. There comes a soprano solo section, and he steps away from her into the background. However, in this instance the camera does not move in for a close-up on her. Rather, he remains in the frame as she sings, while he takes a handkerchief out of the pocket of his Lt. Pinkerton naval uniform, blows his nose, and then returns to her side to complete the duet. Surely that can’t have been the staging he intended!  Live TV was so unforgiving!

See my blog entry for August 10, 2010 for more information on Dorothy.






 

Monday, January 17, 2011

A word of explanation...

A word of explanation as to why I have been so silent and out of the blogosphere for over a month.  

For the past couple of years my husband of thirty-two years has been in and out of chemotherapy for lung cancer. In November he basically ran out of treatment options, and his health declined precipitously.  He died on December 19th.

Needless to say, my focus has been elsewhere for the last couple of months.  But now things are getting back to normal, the "new normal," and so I'm getting back to my blog.

More to come very soon, I promise.