Milena Miller from Mansfield: Glamour & Stardom in 1940s America

The golden age of radio—from the 1920s through the 40s—had its own pantheon of gods and heroes, stars and luminaries who ruled the airwaves to move the hearts and shape the lives of everyone in America.

They are all long gone now and washed away in the streaming current of ever-new media, but if you could pick up the radio waves from back then—if you could point your antenna back into the past—you would hear lovely voices coming from those decades, and discover how in various ways our town gave voice to the soundtrack of the 40s.

Back before the middle of the 20th century Mansfield loaned some of its talented children to the USA to brighten the lives of an entire nation. One of these Mansfield girls was Milena Miller.


Tracking an Airwave

How does a historian track down a person whose claim to fame was so ephemeral as a voice riding sound waves that come and go like an evening breeze? Fortunately for us, this singer was also quite a beauty as well, so magazine writers loved to use her picture to make something interesting among the pages and lists of radio scheduling.

Radio programming guides, and fan magazines from the 40s provide all the documentation it takes to follow Milena Miller from Marion Avenue to New York. This clipping from a 1945 Radio Mirror column serves as an introduction:

There is a certain irony to her bold statement, but that will be more apparent at the end of this story.

It is interesting how much of her national persona included her hometown roots: nearly every article about her goes back again and again to Mansfield. In 1946, a different fan magazine story focused on her weekly phone calls to her family back home, and in almost every write-up about Milena, Mansfield is in print by the second paragraph.

The story of how she got to be in front of a national audience is found in the pages of Radio Romances. It says that she was still going to Mansfield Senior High School when she met author Louis Bromfield, whose tales of Paris clothiers inspired her to become a designer. After graduating in 1940 she went to New York to study fashion, and was soon working as a model; which led to the Atlantic City Beauty Contest of 1943 where she won the talent segment for her singing, and landed a nightclub gig at the Casablanca in New York City. From there it was a short taxi ride and a quick elevator up the ladder of fame to one radio show after another.

By 1946 Milena was an NBC star vocalist on the Kraft Music Hall, and Radio Mirror was not hesitant at all in predicting her imminent leap to Hollywood. She did make the trip to the West Coast in 1947, and by doing so she moved out of range from radio and radio magazines. As far as what a media historian can discover from traditional entertainment industry documentation, her career effectively came to an end when the radio clicked off.

Milena’s career as a famous radio singing star was launched when she won the talent competition for singing at the Miss America Pageant in 1943.

In several interviews she gave in later years, she confessed that before the pageant she had never sung anywhere other than in the shower to herself, and she didn’t think she had enough talent to sing in front of anyone else.  
They told her she needed a talent to compete in the Pageant, so she walked up on stage and did a schmaltzy rendition of her favorite song. 

“I was as surprised as anyone else.”
(Photo: News promotions from before & after the competition; Milena is on the far left and the far right.)

Tune your ears back to 1947 with the Kraft Music Hall starring Al Jolson as he turns the microphone over to Milena Miller:


From Airwaves to WiFi

Milena’s story didn’t end when she signed off the radio, however, it just became more difficult to track. Without the internet it would be nearly impossible to know whatever happened to her. It is easily established that in 1948 she married a radio executive and their wedding took place in the Hollywood home of Edgar Bergen, so we know she was rubbing elbows with lots of people whose lives were in the fan tabloids. She shows up in photos on someone’s arm, and was still famous enough to be mentioned by name, and there’s a picture years later of her sitting between Bob Hope and Cecil B. DeMille at a celebrity table when her husband was posthumously inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame.

If there is one word that all the fan magazines used to describe Milena’s show business rise to fame, it is ‘meteoric’: she was rubbing shoulders with America’s biggest radio stars by 1944 after graduating from Mansfield Senior in 1940.
There are various descriptors columnists used to describe Milena Miller, one of the most common of which was covergirl.  It’s not surprising she wound up on so many fan magazines, after an association of illustrators named her ‘the most beautiful girl in Radio.’
During her brief career as a radio star Milena was familiar with all the biggest names in New York including the popluar big band leader Eddie Duchin, as seen in this news photo from 1946.

Eddie Duchin’s romantic style as a pianist and bandleader took best advantage of vocalists who had sweet, soft voices, and he was always pleased to work with Milena.

There are radio program recordings of her singing with Duchin in the Library of Congress, but they are as yet unavailable.
Milena Miller’s rapid rise to fame took place in the final years of WWII, and no small part of it was her appeal to lonely GIs overseas on American Forces Network radio.  These portraits were made in 1944.

Making guest appearances on many hit radio shows, she finally landed a regular gig on the Kraft Music Hall where she performed on the stage with Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Jimmy Durante.

These few sporadic clues probably would be enough to cap the story except for an odd twist of Google. I happened onto the website of a curious man in Berks County PA whose odd internet hobby is going through abandoned houses and collecting remnants left behind of people’s lives to see what he can discover about them. He scans the evidence—photos, letters, documents, ticket stubs—and fills in what he can of the connecting background. One of his “digs” turned up photos of Milena Miller in the 1960s.

In 1947 Milena left New York for Los Angeles and a promising movie career.  Instead of a movie career, Milena married and moved to her husband’s home in Pennsylvania, where this photo was taken in the 1960s.Milena Mae Miller Reber  (1922-1964)

The Clues

She wasn’t really Milena Miller anymore in 1964, her neighbors knew her as Mrs. John Reber. She had two boys and a comfy small town life acting as den mother, beauty pageant judge, director of a PTA play, raising some chickens and singing in the shower. Sounds like a nice life, really, even though her husband died young she had plenty to occupy her. So why was her stuff found in an abandoned house?

The conclusion one would draw from the evidence is that she had a pretty good life, but you never know what its like on the inside of someone’s well-being. In 1964 Milena started up her car and stayed in the garage full of fumes until she was dead. Sadly the fumes filled the house and accidentally took her young son also. She was 40 years old.

Skyrockets

When you shoot off fireworks there are a few brilliant moments of glory and then somewhere far off in the distance a cinder lands that was once a cheering light. What stays in our memory is a moment of awe.

When Milena Miller was 23 years old this is what Radio Mirror said of her future:



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