A recent visit to the Brooklyn flea market unearthed a quite remarkable treasure; a lovingly compiled 1939 scrap book once belonging to a young lady called Lotta June Miller. The scrap book records her journey across America to become a theatre director. Photographs, old signed playbills, tickets for sleeper cars on trains and Valentine’s cards tell her story.
Inside the scrap book was a portrait of the owner. From researching on the internet, Lotta June Miller was born in 1911, making her 28 when she traveled across the US to take up a position as a theatre director.
At first, I thought that she was heading for the state of California, but her train ticket tells a different story.
She started out her journey in Spokane, Washington, boarding the Empire Builder train heading east for Chicago, then New York, Pittsburgh and ending up in California. Amtrak still runs the grand Empire Builder trainline, that follows parts of the original Lewis & Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest. The young aspiring theatre director left on a September Friday morning for a journey that would take her four days. Who knows what she brought with her, or how long she planned to stay. We do know that she came armed with a letter of introduction from the Member of Congress for Washington state.
When she arrived in New York, there was only one place to visit in 1939, the spectacular World’s Fair being held in Flushing, Queens.
The World’s Fair theme was ‘Dawn of a New Day’, which despite the backdrop of war in Europe, showcased a gleaming vision of the future, introducing the world to the television, air conditioning, the fax machine and even an 8 foot robot that could walk, talk and smoke!
But Miss Miller’s stay in New York appeared to be all to brief, as a position to take up at the State Teachers College, in California, Pennsylvania.
Miss Miller’s had only been in California just over six weeks when she directed her first play, You Can’t Take It With You. Written just three years before by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the film version directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart would win Best Picture and Best Director.
There may not have been a Jimmy Stewart, but Lotta’s stage version did star a delightful cat called Harpo.
When not busy directing plays, Miss Miller appears to have enjoyed the occasional masked ball at the White Swan Hotel.
For her next production, Miss Miller staged a version of High Tor. Another contemporary play, written by Maxwell Anderson, (Joan of Arc, Anne of the Thousand Days, Key Largo), Miss Miller was again sure to have her cast and crew autograph the programme.
It appears that High Tor was a great success, especially according to Hector! Quite what was attached to the card is unknown, but ‘Hector’ would crop up again and again in the scrap book.
Come Valentine’s Day, and Miss Miller is a popular girl! Most charmingly, the ‘asprin’ card came complete with actual pills, wrapped in cellophane in the card. Alas, Hector isn’t able to be there in person, but has taken to calling Lotta ‘Betty Boop’.
One charming aspect of the scrapbook is in how invitations to social gatherings were conducted in 1939-40. Here we see an invitation from a Mr & Mrs Robert Steele for an evening of bridge. All that needs saying is that they ‘will be at home’.
Some of Miss Miller’s acquaintances; exquisite 1930s style.
At one point during the term, Miss Miller heads to New York, by the long gone Trans World Airlines. When Lotta traveled, TWA had just been acquired by Howard Hughes. Her ticket cost $37.80 and would have landed at the newly opened LaGuardia airport.
According to an online obituary, Miss Lotta June Miller at some point married a scientist called Dr. Harrison Merrill, who worked at the highly secretive Evans Signal Laboratory, in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. The laboratory was at the forefront of highly classified radar technology, satellite research, and according to the Washington Post, experiments in bouncing radar signals off the moon in the 1950s.
Quite how such a lovingly compiled scrapbook ended up in a Brooklyn flea market is unknown. But it remains an enchanting glimpse into a journey an elegantly dressed 28 year old woman made back in 1939 across the country to pursue her dream as a director in the theatre.