October 2005 Issue
Media mogul Milton Maltz's dream comes true this month, when the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage debuts, paying tribute not only to the Jewish community, but to all those who made America what it is today.
Never mind that his dream of building a monument to espionage, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., is now mission accomplished. Never mind that Cleveland-area baby boomers fondly remember his radio station, WMMS-FM: the 1970s powerhouse that helped launch the careers of music icons David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. Never mind that he was instrumental in bringing The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to the Buckeye state.
What really makes Milton Maltz smile, what really makes his eyes shine with pride is his newest project, the one that's been on the drawing board for a decade and finally becomes a reality this month: The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. The moving tribute, opening October 11 in Beachwood, serves as a living testament to the triumphs and tragedies of the Jewish community in Ohio and around the globe.
"Whether they are Jewish or not, people - particularly young people - need to understand how we all got here, what made America work," says the 76-year-old and chairman and CEO of The Malrite Company in Cleveland. "Kids today don't read the way they used to, and I'm responsible for some of that," he adds, noting that the songs emanating from the many radio stations he's owned over the years haven't exactly inspired kids to ponder the history of Jewish culture. "I'm hoping this museum will reach them."
The edifice of the museum is a perfect blend of elegance and simplicity. More than 126 tons of Golden Jerusalem limestone, hand-chiseled and exported from Israel, comprise the outside, while inside, corridors filled with natural light radiate through massive windows. Exhibits chronicle generations of Jewish immigrants arriving in America, the horrors of the Holocaust and the modern state of Israel. A nickelodeon-style theater showcases the talents of Jewish actors ranging from Joel Grey to Jerry Seinfeld, and homage is paid to the immigrant groups that have served our country in the Armed Forces through the years. Features also include selections from the exquisite art collection amassed by the Temple-Tifereth Israel, including 18th-century textiles and sculptures, paintings and lithographs by renowned artists Jacques Lipchitz, Isidor Kaufmann and Marc Chagall. A Wall of Remembrance will be erected next year to memorialize Holocaust survivors as well as Jewish war veterans from all conflicts.
"This is a real work of love for Milt and his wife Tamar," says Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, the central fund-raising, social-planning and community-relations arm of the city's Jewish community. "I can't imagine this museum would be here today if they hadn't had the vivid imagination that they did."
Why did the entrepreneur who made his fame and fortune by owning a slew of radio and TV stations from coast to coast switch to the museum-making business?
"It's not that difficult," he says simply. "I look at a modern museum as programming. You're just not doing it over the air. Here, it will be interactive exhibits, films and sets that will immerse visitors in the culture."
The spark that generated the idea for such a structure ignited during a trip he and Tamar, his wife of 55 years, took to the Netherlands 10 years ago. They visited a Portuguese synagogue and nearby Jewish museum, which told the story of how 17th-century Dutch entrepreneurs built the city into a key port of call. The Shaker Heights resident decided the concept could be applied in Cleveland.
Maltz speculates that his sense of showmanship and penchant for programming began in his childhood bedroom in South Bend, Indiana. His parents, Anna and Louis, were immigrants to the Hoosier state, where his father, who was from the Ukraine, owned a variety store.
"There was a little theater called The Lyric next door to where we lived," he remembers. "The sounds leaked through. Although I couldn't see them, I could hear the MGM lion roar and the beep-beep-beep that introduced an RKO Radio Picture. I often wonder if this didn't leave some sort of conscious impact on me."
By the time Maltz was a toddler, the Depression was being felt in every corner of the country. When Louis Maltz's business failed, the couple and their only child relocated to Chicago. "Young people today have no concept of what a nightmare the Depression was," Maltz says. "What it's like not to be able to write a check. What happens when the banks close and suddenly everything is gone." Money was tight. The family moved around frequently during Maltz's formative years; he would attend 13 different grade schools. He still recalls the family's first home in Chicago: a one-room apartment where a hot plate served as a stove and the window ledge doubled as a refrigerator.
"As I look back on this experience, I realize that everything that happens in life will either make you or break you," he says. "Every time you go to a new school, make new friends, meet new teachers and face a changing curriculum, you either collapse or face the challenge. I think I came out stronger because my mother was always there to work with me on arithmetic and language and anything else I needed help with."
It was an encounter with Moby Dick during his freshman year of high school that served as Maltz's springboard to success. After hearing him read a passage from the Herman Melville novel aloud, his English teacher told him he had talent. He joined the school's radio club and auditioned for plays; his first role was the lead in "Jack and the Beanstalk." By the time he turned 16, Maltz was on CBS radio.
"Chicago was a great city of broadcasting," he recalls. "Radio dramas were where your imagination went to work. It was a thrill, it was the big time and I was literally drawn into it."
Maltz abandoned his initial plan of becoming an architect; the future was broadcasting. His parents, however, weren't quite as enthusiastic about their son's chosen vocation. "My father warned me not to make a career out of [radio]," Maltz remembers with a chuckle. "He was worried I was going to either be a bum or a roustabout."
Maltz spent two years at Roosevelt College, then transferred to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he could take journalism classes. There, he began working at local radio station WKID. The station was struggling financially and, for $125 per week, Maltz offered to staff the station with students. After serving in the United States Navy during the Korean War declassifying documents for the National Security Agency, the nation's main code-breaking organization - which would ultimately inspire his creation of the International Spy Museum - he returned to radio. But being on the air had lost its luster.
"I was playing a record by a guy named Nervous Norvus - the song was something about a car crash. It was horrible," he says, recalling his distaste for the tune's lyrics. "It dawned on me that I didn't get a college degree and work this hard to sit here and listen to this. So I left."
With the aid of money from his wife's teaching salary, Maltz and a partner, Bob Wright, created Malrite Communications and purchased 17 radio stations and 11 television stations in a variety of markets, including Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Los Angeles - and Cleveland.
When he purchased WMMS in the early 1970s, it was an underground rock 'n' roll station that he describes as "sort of rag tag." A fan of Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday and Mel TormÃ©, Maltz toyed with the idea of changing the format. The staff, many of them Cleveland State University students, convinced him that the future was in album rock. "We met at some bar and I said, â€˜You guys make a lot of sense. I like it because what you're proposing is unconventional and unique.'" Within a year, Maltz had turned the station around financially.
As the debate about where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum would be located heated up, Maltz formatted a plan to bring it to Cleveland. "Because rock music [was born] here, I knew it would be great for the city. Not to mention the fact that Cleveland needed to regain some spark back then."
Maltz contacted a friend at USA Today, suggesting the newspaper run a poll querying readers about where the hall should be located. It did.
Now, 10 years after opening the Rock Hall, Maltz prepares to invite the public into The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. The structure represents a collaborative effort of the Maltz Family Foundation, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, the Temple-Tifereth Israel, one of the oldest Reform congregations in the country, and the Western Reserve Historical Society. Maltz is eager to share his vision of what he hopes it will become: a tribute not just to the Jewish community, but to those who made America what it is today.
"The museum will be a safe and inviting space for all faiths to come and explore. It will be a place for dialogue among people," promises Carole Zawatsky, the museum's executive director, who left her position as director of education at The Jewish Museum in New York to come to the Maltz Museum.
Maltz cites one of the most powerful exhibits as an example. Titled "Hate," it shows how, as with the Holocaust, prejudice can devastate other cultures: A recording of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" accompanies an image of a victim of lynching.
"[It] speaks to the current vibrancy of the Jewish community, but it's also an American story that's not unique to Jews," Zawatsky adds. "What does it mean to be â€˜the other' in a small town? What was it that our ancestors hoped for when they left a foreign land to come here? This speaks to all people."
"I can't imagine [anyone]," says Zawatsky, "who will not be changed by the experience."