DULUTH — As University of Minnesota Duluth students walked through their snowy campus this month, many were likely listening to one of the countless recordings of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” None, most likely, realized that one of their neighbors was once on a first-name basis with the composer.
Well, sort of. Berlin would greet Max Morath by his first name when the two got on the phone, remembered Morath, but “I don’t know if I ever called him Irving.”
When visited by a reporter in his room at the Aftenro care facility earlier this month, the 96-year-old Morath was wearing a buffalo-plaid shirt and a New York Mets cap.
“We had a studio in New York, so I was there when the Mets were founded,” he said by way of explaining his ongoing loyalty to the team established in 1962.
Morath has been a lot of places. His 60-year career as a performer included over 5,000 shows, most spotlighting the ragtime era in story and song. He was born in Colorado; was seen on stages and screens across the United States; and has now retired to Duluth.
The walls of Morath’s room were adorned with framed pictures, including a caricature of the dapper pianist drawn by Al Hirschfeld. There was a picture of President Lyndon Johnson greeting Morath at the White House.
There was also a photo of Morath performing at UMD. That brought him around to the person he thought this story should really be about.
“You should write about Ed Siggelkow,” Morath insisted. “There’s your Duluth story.”
“Ragtime is the very first music in America that America can say it actually created,” said composer and musicologist Aaron Robinson. “It was a huge dance craze … and it was also the foundation for everything else.”
By the time Max Morath was born in Colorado Springs in 1926, the ragtime era had ended. It was the Jazz Age, and the twilight of silent film. Morath’s mother played piano to accompany silent movies, and introduced her son to turn-of-the-century music.
“I took piano lessons when I was a kid, and didn’t like it,” said Morath. Though he would become an expert performer and arranger, he’s downplayed his musical training. Morath once quipped: “I never studied seriously, and some music critics have agreed.”
By high school, Morath was learning composition and theory, but also had interests in science, and in broadcasting. “I had the job of the 17-year-old radio announcer,” Morath said. “(It was a) big deal!”
“He went from radio to television, because he was always fascinated with the way technology drove the entertainment industry,” said ragtime archivist and impresario Larry Melton. “He went to the Stanford University-NBC television academy, which in 1950 was brand-new, and learned a great deal about television. Film first, and then he was around when television went to magnetic tape.”
Once he set himself to it, Morath proved a nimble pianist and able vocalist with a knack for entertainment. In 1953, he made his first recording — issued simultaneously in 33 RPM, 45 RPM and 78 RPM pressings.
Over the course of the 1950s, Morath kept busy
“His real breakthrough came after years of working in those tourist places,” said Melton.
Morath had continued working in media. His afternoon radio show in Colorado Springs was advertised as “the BRIGHTEST SPOT in any housewife’s afternoon … Max gives the ladies an informal program of music and wit … lighthearted piano and vocal stylings interspersed with late recordings and comments in the friendly manner of Max Morath.”
In 1959, Morath “went to work at the Denver television station and linked up with a friend,” said Melton. “Together, they decided that they would produce an educational series for Denver Public Schools on what was then NET (National Educational Television). That series became ‘The Ragtime Era.'”
The series, scripted and performed by Morath, was a breakthrough for public television. Morath and his cast, outfitted in 1890s costumes, brought the ragtime era to life in sets portraying a saloon, a dance hall, a military camp and even a bordello.
The musical program was a refreshing change from previous public television fare, which leaned heavily on people sitting in front of the camera and simply lecturing.
“It seems almost quaint to report that there was a time when public TV was uncertain whether it should seek to entertain or enlarge its audience,” wrote David Stewart in a 1999 history of public television. “The problem in the late 1950s was how to take the first decisive step, to produce a popular series without compromising quality, to retain an educational message in an entertaining context.”
“The Ragtime Era” definitively proved that educational TV could — even should — be fun to watch. Every educational station in America, and more than a few commercial stations, picked up the program, making it the most-watched non-commercial TV series up to that time.
Reviewing the show in 1961, the New York Times noted how much the program looked and felt like commercial TV. Critic Jack Gould praised Morath’s “infectiously gay spirit, hilarious but in good taste” and his “uncommon mixture of earthiness … and erudition.”
Jim Case, then program manager at Denver’s public television station, said in 1996 that “Max could go through the camera. It was his presence that gave the programs their authority.”
In blending education with entertainment on what soon became known as “public television,” Morath was a key figure paving the way for future icons from Julia Child to Jim Henson.
“The Ragtime Era” and successor programs made Morath a national celebrity … which is where the Mets come in, and eventually Duluth. Morath moved to the East Coast, where he started playing New York clubs and established a base for a series of one-man shows that he toured across the country.
Making a Duluth connection
“He doesn’t remember me, but I remember him,” said Skomars about the first time she encountered the man she would marry. It was in 1964, and Morath brought his Original Rag Quartet to perform at UMD’s Kirby Student Center. Skomars, then a student at the university, watched from the front row.
A smitten Skomars would make a point of meeting Morath every time he came to Duluth, which was often — thanks to Morath’s personal friendship and professional association with the man Morath believes is underappreciated in local history.
“Edwin O. Siggelkow!” said Morath. “He was the director of the student union at UMD. Terrific guy. There used to be an association of student union directors, and at one time Ed was the head of it. … Siggelkow was one of the guys that said, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got to go national.'”
Thanks to Siggelkow, Morath was booked to play the student union circuit across the country. That was just part of his busy schedule, though. He was “touring up to 250 concerts a year,” said Melton, who still speaks to Morath on the phone every single day.
“At the same time, he was doing a great deal of public appearances on television,” Melton continued. “He would pop up on most of the variety shows … and he was also doing a great deal of advertising work.”
“I knew a guy in New York who had the Beech-Nut account,” Morath remembered. “He helped me to write a jingle. That got me to New York, where I worked for years.”
TV ads in the early ’60s featured Morath performing his own jingle, fingers flying across the piano keys in upbeat ragtime style. “Beech-Nut peppermint gum,” Morath sang. “The pep-pep-peppiest one!”
Through a combination of touring, recording, TV and ad work, Morath would spend the rest of the 20th century enjoying audiences’ admiration as the inimitable “Mr. Ragtime.”
In 1967, near the height of Morath’s fame, he could be seen sitting on Dinah Shore’s talk show couch alongside Marcel Marceau and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Even then, though, he wasn’t universally known.
When Morath visited the White House that same year for the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act, he remembered, “you went down a line and each person was introduced to the president. You’d go up to this Marine who was probably eight feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, so don’t mess with him.”
Each person, Morath said, would whisper their name to the Marine, who would bellow it out. “It was, ‘Mrs. Smith.’ ‘Mrs. Smith!’ ‘Mr. Johnson.’ ‘Mr. Johnson!’ ‘Mr. Morath.’ ‘Mr. Mor-ass!'”
“That’s a true story,” said Skomars, laughing.
“It happened,” agreed Morath. “You can’t make it up.”
Ragtime fans today regard Morath as being among the genre’s living legends, one of the last great names from the ragtime revival.
“Ragtime really fell out of favor with American popular music once jazz came in,” said Robinson. “The rags were obsolete … and they were totally in obscurity until the ragtime revival in the ’70s, where these great pianists who were direct links with the first ragtime era started to rediscover this music again.”
The signal moment of the ragtime revival came in 1973 with the release of “The Sting,” a throwback caper movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It was a box office smash and a Best Picture Oscar winner, and it turned Scott Joplin’s rag “The Entertainer” into an unlikely radio hit.
In 1975, E.L. Doctorow published “Ragtime,” a sweeping novel later adapted into a movie and a stage musical. A musical style once nearly forgotten had become synonymous, in the popular imagination, with America at the turn of the 20th century.
“Since the ragtime revival, it’s never gone away,” said Robinson. “When you look at old footage of movies, in documentaries, Ken Burns, anyone, they always use ragtime. … You hear it on commercials, you hear it everywhere. It’s just not going away. There’s something about it that’s ingrained in the American culture.”
Morath had the complete skill set required to be a “one-man ragtime army,” as music historian Rudi Blesh once called him. Over the course of his career, Morath would write dozens of songs and release over 40 albums.
“Max did everything,” said Robinson. “It was an entire world that he brought with him. … He would sing, he would perform, he would play, he would talk with the audience, educate.”
“He excelled at being his own business manager, his own agent and his own technical adviser as well,” said Melton. “He’s just a man of remarkable talents.”
Morath’s performances spotlighted the original ragtime greats, and he became a close friend of piano legend Eubie Blake. Morath emceed Blake’s 100th birthday celebration in New York. (“We cheated a little bit,” Morath now admits. “He wasn’t 100. … We just kind of glossed over that.”)
In 2016, Morath told WDSE: “I’m a white kid from Colorado who lucked into an interesting line of work, and I wouldn’t be there with that music without a lot of forgotten African Americans who had it very tough. … I owe a debt more than I can articulate.”
In a 1977 album called “The Ragtime Women,” Morath sought to highlight women’s under-appreciated contributions to the ragtime era. Among Morath’s other projects, he said, one of “the most interesting, challenging” was a Master’s thesis and subsequent book about songwriter Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1962-1946).
“She should be looked back on,” said Morath, “as a major, major, major player in popular music.”
In 1996, the News Tribune checked in with an “unusual kind of entertainer,” a “part-time area resident” who had a show coming up in Solon Springs, Wisconsin.
“His wife, Diane Skomars, is the director of university relations and development at the University of Minnesota-Duluth; the couple has a cabin just south of Two Harbors,” wrote reporter Dominic P. Papatola.
“I have a place in northern New Jersey, but I’m here a good part of the time,” Morath told Papatola. “And I’m on a lot of airplanes.”
Morath and Skomars were married in 1993, a previous marriage of Morath’s having ended in divorce. “We were both on the road a lot,” said Skomars. “I was in fundraising at UMD for years, and Maxie was on the road. … We said every three weeks, we had to get together.”
A 1999 book by the couple, “Max Morath: The Road to Ragtime,” recounts the musician’s experiences on tour, including his “endless quest for The Perfect Malt.” That quest continues, but Morath’s Northland pick for chocolate malts is the Rustic Inn Cafe in Two Harbors.
“They know how to do it!” said Morath. “Most places, you order a chocolate malt and they give you vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.”
“He finally retired in about 2006 from performances,” said Melton. “The arthritis was just taking over, and he didn’t feel his playing was up to par. But he continued to lecture and was a very popular speaker and in the entertainment industry until he retired finally, completely, in 2017.”
Skomars said she’d been sure “the Max,” as she sometimes calls him, would want to return to Colorado when he finally retired. “I thought he’d say, ‘I’ve got to get back to the mountains.'” Instead, Morath said he wanted to stay in the Northland.
The couple shared a house, later downsizing to an apartment, in Duluth; Morath moved to Aftenro earlier this year. Skomars said the care the couple has been able to receive in Duluth “has saved our lives. There’s no other way to put it.”
Skomars particularly praised the staff at Aftenro, a nonprofit founded in 1908 by eight Norwegian American women who saw a need for elder care in Duluth. “It’s just been a miracle,” Skomars said about the care Aftenro has provided.
“We have ‘Team Max,'” said Skomars, mentioning Morath’s three children as well as a daughter of Skomars’ from another relationship. “His kids are great. They call him every day … and my daughter’s only two hours away, so she’s involved in all this.”
Morath constantly receives letters and phone calls from family, friends and fans, said Skomars. On Morath’s two most recent birthdays, a music colleague baked cakes that he sent to Duluth in the mail.
“Mr. Ragtime” is still entertaining. When a social worker saw Morath at Aftenro wearing one red sock and one blue sock, she commented on the fact. “Yes,” Morath replied. “And there’s a matching pair in my room!”
“He deserves contemporary credit,” said Melton. “Of the folks that have known him through the years, that he’s befriended, many think he’s gone. They think he passed away years ago, and he’s still very much with us, thank goodness.”
Earlier this year, the annual Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue, which Robinson directs, gave Morath its first-ever lifetime achievement award. “He’s a huge advocate for those who are up and coming,” Robinson said. “He’s the first great man of this era of the music to really promote young performers.”
One of the photos hanging in Morath’s room depicts him with a group of today’s ragtime artists. “We call them the ‘young Turks,'” Morath said.
“These are the pros now in ragtime,” said Skomars. “Every festival we’ve gone to, we get together with them. … Many, many ragtime colleagues and friends have stayed in touch with Max.”
Throughout a recent interview, Morath kept saying this article shouldn’t be about him. “You want to go into Max Morath’s checkered past?” he asked with a chuckle. “What can I say?”