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.
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.
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.
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.
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: