Remembering Mitch Miller and a grade-school singalong

Looking back on a long-ago school visit by a kind and generous music legend.
Looking back on a long-ago school visit by a kind and generous music legend.

I have a tale to tell about Mitch Miller, who died last Saturday at age 99.

He was best known for hosting 'ꀜSing Along with Mitch,'ꀝ his successful TV show of the early 1960s, but he also had earlier careers as a classical musician and a highly successful record executive. In the 1940s, he handled a small label in New York City called Mercury Records. One of his projects was a children'ꀙs album about racial equality called 'ꀜHerman Ermine in Rabbit Town,'ꀝ a great favorite of mine as a youngster.

When I taught elementary school for a few years in my early 20s, my fourth-grade class put on a live production of my version of "Herman Ermine." I noticed Mr. Miller'ꀙs name on the record'ꀙs credits, and with the chutzpah of a young New Yorker, and the year being 1968, I talked my way into an interview with him in his Manhattan office.

My dream was to have him come to the school, PS 161 in Brooklyn, and speak to the kids about the album, narrated by actor John Garfield, whose movie career was later cut short when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Mr. Miller did me one better. He came to my school, whose students were a mix of American-born and Caribbean blacks, and a smattering of working class whites and Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans. He brought with him a film of one of his TV shows that had been off the air for only a few seasons, and led the whole school in a singalong. Parents poured into the auditorium (news moves fast in a Brooklyn neighborhood); the kids sang their hearts out, and the teachers were ecstatic. A great time was had by all.

When all was done I walked with him out of the building. On my instructions, Mr. Miller had parked his car in the schoolyard. To our surprise, when we got there, at least a thousand people of all ages were awaiting us holding pencils, pens, and crayons, and books, paper bags, parking tickets, shopping receipts, or whatever else an autograph could be written upon. I am sure more than a few arms and faces were also signed that day.

I asked Mr. Miller if he wanted me to walk him to his car for safety and he demurred. The last I saw of him, he was being engulfed by the star-struck crowd, a short white man generously greeting the overwhelmingly black fans. (Remember, this was over 40 years ago.) He seemed to be loving it.

Twenty-five years or so years later, when I was an arts consultant in Washington, D.C., a friend who was running a theater in St. Petersburg, Fla., told me she was bringing Mitch Miller in as guest conductor for the local orchestra, something he was doing across the country as a late-life career. He was in his early 80s at the time. I was delighted to hear he was still alive. I had always feared that he had suffocated that day in 1968, overwhelmed by the crowd waylaying him outside PS 161.

I asked her to say hello for me, hoping he remembered who I was, and to let him know that I was doing well in my career in the arts world. I was so happy when she called me after his performance to say that he certainly did remember me and sent his own best regards in return. He also inquired of her how I was enjoying my retirement years in St. Petersburg. She didn't have the heart to tell him that I wasn't that old yet. For his part, Mitch Miller certainly earned an eternal vacation on a beautiful sunny celestial beach, hopefully with not too many autograph seekers around.


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