Madeline Millman was just 17 when she took centerstage at the Adams Theatre in downtown Newark, stepping into the same spotlight where the Andrews Sisters, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and many of her other heroes had performed for sold-out houses.
“I closed my eyes, focused in, and said to myself, ‘5,000 people or one person, it doesn’t matter — I’m singing,’” Madeline recalled. “And I felt really good about it.”
And why not? She had skipped school with friends to take part in a talent contest — and she won. The emcee, the Borscht Belt comic Joey Adams, stopped her on the way out to tell her she had a great voice and a real future. “After that, a couple people had their eye on me and wanted to help me with my career, and wanted me to make some records,” she said. In 1946, she recorded several popular songs onto 78s at a local studio: “Nobody’s Baby,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine,” and a few others.
If the name “Madeline Forman,” as she is known today, doesn’t ring a bell, that is because life got in the way.
The records went in a box, and Ms. Forman, now 95, “started doing whatever I had to do.” That meant working as a secretary to help support her Russian immigrant parents — her father, Simon Millman, sold bananas from a pushcart — and four siblings. The family lived in one of Newark’s first tenements — notable, she remembers, because it meant that they had heat. But still, they had very little money, and sometimes they didn’t have enough food either.
Close to 80 years later, her voice is being heard again, this time by an audience that eluded her in her youth.
In the middle of the covid-19 pandemic, Ms. Millman and her husband, Joseph, discovered a dusty box in the home they had shared for more than 60 years in West Long Branch. It contained acetate records of jazz and pop standards, plus a couple of Yiddish melodies, that Ms. Forman had recorded more than seven decades ago, when she had the hope — and possibly the talent — to become the next Judy Garland.
“I looked at the label and flashed back to the day in the recording studio,” Ms. Forman said. “It was a marvelous feeling. Wonderful! If we hadn’t moved, I might never have seen them again.”
The recordings, now remastered and digitized, have been lauded by industry experts and downloaded thousands of times around the world. And a story of an American dream deferred has begun a brilliant new chapter, offering a window back into the American Jewish experience in the process.
Ms. Forman was born a singer. “If someone was listening, I sang to them,” she said. “It was something that filled the time. We didn’t have that many toys, but we made our own good time. I loved it. I sang wherever I could. If there was a microphone, I got up and sang” — for family, for friends, for strangers at parties.
In 1953, at her own wedding reception, Ms. Forman took to the stage to belt out Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” and then two Yiddish standards, “Oy! Mama” and “Sheyn Vi Di Devone.”
“If a group of people were Jewish, I sang those songs,” Ms. Forman said. “My mother spoke Yiddish and she made sure that — hopefully — I pronounced everything correctly.”
An audiographer hired to log well wishes from guests got it all on record. Those discs were also among the rediscovered stack. Even with the chatter and clinking of dishes, Forman’s joy is obvious — and so is her talent.
On her honeymoon, at the popular Nevele resort in Ellenville, in the Catskills, showbiz almost hooked her one more time. At the hotel’s open-mic night, she wowed the crowd. “The orchestra leader offered me the [full-time] job,” she said. “I turned to the people — there were a couple thousand there — and I said, ‘You’re all witnesses!’ But I told him, ‘you’re too late — I just got married.’”
Ms. Forman has “zero regrets” about the path her life has taken since, although it’s a more understated version of the American dream. She and Joe settled in the suburbs to raise Glenn and Adrienne. Instead of show business, she found herself running a shoe business, and eventually opened her own health-food restaurant, Madeline’s Slim Cuisine. (She blushed at being called an entrepreneur — “you said it,” she demurred.)
She hired a guitarist and bass player to back her at the restaurant on Saturday nights, and she would kick off each set with a rendition of Henry Nemo’s 1941 standard “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.” She did that just about every week for 10 years.
“I got a kick out of it,” she said. “It was a little extension of my career.”
But she never talked about what might have been. Until his mother called him excitedly in August 2020, Glenn, who became a physician, had no idea that she had ever recorded a song, let alone aspired to more. Once he made the short drive to her new apartment, he and his parents borrowed a friend’s old turntable and played the delicate discs.
“I knew she liked to sing, but I had never heard her like this,” Dr. Forman said. “I think she just tucked it away in her memory, and moved on with life. She has said to me that she was used to not getting what she dreamed about because times were difficult. So to her, [not pursuing a singing career] was just another example. But then, when she found the records, she started to tell the story.”
Dr. Forman called a cousin, Howard Forman, a Montreal-based musician and producer who has worked with such artists as Celine Dion and been nominated for two Canadian Academy Awards.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Don’t ever play them again,’” Howard Forman said, noting that the needle could deteriorate or possibly destroy the acetate. Instead, he found an engineer in San Diego who specializes in digitizing obsolete media, and created a CD. It was Madeline’s first album, 75 years in the making. (The songs are now available on SoundCloud and MadelineForman.com.)
“The thing with Madeline’s stuff is that it was really good,” Howard Forman said. “It wasn’t a joke. I could hear the licks she was stealing from popular singers of the day, and she was really pulling them off.
In particular, he admired her rendition of “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” — “it was kinda perfect,” he said. For fun, he played a ’40s-style guitar track and edited it into her original in his home studio. He only intended to send it back to Madeline and Glenn as a special treat, “a little collaboration across the generations,” but then he also posted it on social media.
The “avalanche” of comments — from other singers, songwriters, producers, and engineers, including several Grammy and Oscar winners — “was astounding,” Mr. Forman said. Most commentators were struck not just on Madeline’s precise technique, but also by her natural affect.
Madeline Forman was delighted.
“I smiled all day long,” she said. “There are a lot of nice people in this world.” She is pleased, too, that the Yiddish songs are getting attention by young Jewish people who never knew them.
“That’s your background,” she said. “That’s everything.”
In March 2021, Howard Forman arranged a session for her at nearby Shorefire Recording Studios, whose client list includes Bruce Springsteen and Blondie’s Debbie Harry. Because of covid protocols, Ms. Forman sang “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” alone, with musicians playing remotely. That made her possibly the first artist to re-record the same song she’d first recorded 75 years earlier — a feat not even Tony Bennett can match.
Her feel-good story spread. The New York Times profiled her; in the two days following, her version of “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” was downloaded almost 200,000 times. “The Today Show” came calling next.
With director Richard Mortimer, Howard Forman produced a seven-minute film that includes Madeline’s recent re-recording. He has since entered it in about 50 film festivals, from Sundance to Moscow, where it’s starting to get some notice.
Meanwhile, Madeline still sings every day, beginning by waking her husband to Irving Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” And she is learning to play piano on a new keyboard her son bought for her. Yet she waves off any notion of a professional return.
“I’m fortunate that I did what I did and am doing what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m still here, and I’m still singing. And I’m smiling all the time.”
Jewish Telegraphic Agency