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).