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.