May 17, 2020
“When the world should all be sleeping
And the melody comes creeping
‘till you want to sway, it’s the Milkman’s Matinee.”
Pop loved that radio theme song. It came on WNEW every morning just after the midnight news. It was the theme for the original all-night radio show. I guess I first heard it on one of those long drives home to Ridgewood from Jersey City after one of the rowdy McClear parties. When it came on pop would turn up the radio and we all sang along with the Modernaires and Les Brown. It was his “work song.”
Milkman’s Matinee was born when columnist Walter Winchell wrote, in 1935, that at least one radio station should be on overnight for the 400,000 graveyard shift workers in the New York area. WNEW took up the challenge and hired Stan Shaw to spin record overnight. The show originally ran from 2 to 7 in the morning. When I was a kid it ran from Midnight to 5:30 AM.
It was a request show but in 1935 most people didn’t have telephones. Requests came in by telegram. Folks stopped in at the Western Union office on their way to work the graveyard shift. You can fit 13 songs into an hour once you take out time for news, weather, commercials and patter. WNEW installed a teletype in the control room and Stan got around 135 requests a night, far more than he could handle.
Before the war Pop had been a milkman, and this was his show. He was known as ‘the milkman in a tuxedo’ because he would go out dancing with mom, drop her off at her parent’s Communipaw Avenue flat and take the truck to the dairy, no time to change cloths. People caught sight of him in his formal attire delivering milk and he gained a reputation that matched the radio fantasy of the “Milkman’s Matinee.” It didn’t hurt that mom’s landlady, Mrs. Torre approved of Pop in his tux, an elegant milkman and a fine beau for Mom.
“If you hear a band a swinging
And you hear somebody singing
It’s no cabaret, it’s the Milkman’s Matinee.”
Performers wanted to be on the show so they recorded songs that vied to become Stan’s theme song, a song guaranteed to play every morning just after 2 and just before 7. The first theme was Anson Weeks “My Very Good Friend the Milkman.” Then Charlie Barnett recorded “Milkman’s Matinee” with the Modernaires. After that came a slew of recordings including “Stay up Stan, the All-Night Record Man,” followed by a re-recording of “Milkman’s Matinee” by Les Brown when the Modernaires moved over to his band. But the “Matinee” theme song that best suits the purpose of this story was, “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet,” by Ella Mae Morse.
Mrs. Torre not only liked Pop because he dressed appropriately to deliver her milk and cottage cheese, she liked him because he was so quiet. She said “you’d never know he’d been here, except for the milk in the box.” (She knew, she’s the one who told everyone he was “The milkman in a tux.”) That silent image was shattered when one night. After being out dancing with mom, Pop tripped on the sill and sent the bottles flying. They not only clattered, they crashed and smashed, reverberating all around the tile vestibule and up and down the stairwell. Milk gushed all over the floor and Pop, in tux, had to get a mop, a broom and a dustpan to clean up Mrs. Torre’s vestibule. Mrs. Torre, forgave pop, it became one of her favorite stories. The wedding was on.
“That’s the time the sandman hasn’t got a chance.
Although, baby it’s late
Cupid wakes and looks around for new romance
While the milkmen syncopate.”
The war changed a lot. The FBI put a stop to Stan’s playing requests for fear that Nazi spies would use certain requests to trigger sabotage. Stan left the program and Art Ford took over. And Pop lost the milk business when he was drafted. His partner, Fred Decker, was old and didn’t have the energy to carry on. Mom tried her hand at being a milkman but ended up selling the business and took a job as a secretary for the Gold Bond Venetian Blind and Ideal storm door company in Bayonne, where pop worked for 44 years after he got out of the army.
And what about those car rides home after those Jersey City parties? As I got older, I became too heavy for Pop to carry into the house if I fell asleep in the car. So instead of playing the radio, we made radio. Pop was the DJ. He’d announce the song and mom and I had to sing it. It taught me a lot of songs although, at first there was a limited playlist, and our version of “Milkman’s Matinee” on W-R-I-D-G-E-W-O-O-D included “Jesus Loves Me” and “Three Little Fishes” on its playlist. But the singing kept me awake, and probably helped pop get home as well. Later Pop let me play DJ while he and Mom sang. He didn’t know what he started.
“Down the Milky Way Each Morning
Cast your cares away ‘till dawning
Everything’s Grade A
The Modernaires are singing and Less Brown’s swinging
On the Milkman’s Matinee.*
* “The Milkman’s Matinee” (music and lyrics by Andy Razaf, Paul Denniker, and Joe Davis) 1936.