The Miami Herald Spelling Bee always brings back a rush of memories for me, memories of a spelling bee 75 years ago, when, in 1942, at age 15, I soared to the finals representing the Gesu School in downtown Miami, only to miss the word “metamorphosis,” resulting in a third-place finish. I’ve never misspelled it since then!
In fact, “metamorphosis” is entirely appropriate when describing the many careers I’ve had since then. These experiences have included Broadway, television and the cinema, production of an all-night radio show for WOR radio, a powerhouse station in New York City, a position as radio/television director for a large New York City public relations firm, inventor, and author of over 1,000 wisdom word adages found in my book, “James Yoham’s Wisdom Words.”
But let’s look at my world before all of the above. I am the oldest of nine children. In 1938, as the Great Depression was ebbing, all 11 of us piled into our car, along with all of our belongings, and headed from Tell City, Indiana, to Miami with the hope that opportunities for a better life awaited us there. I and my brothers and sister attended the Gesu School (and later the Sts. Peter & Paul School), a large Catholic school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in downtown Miami, when that quarter was seemingly the center of everything, both good and bad. The school, which stretched from grades one through 12, drew Catholic students from many parts of the county. Throughout the 1940s, I and my siblings engaged in a full range of activities there, including sports. In fact, my late brother Skippy Yoham was a champion boxer, winning many of his matches in the boxing ring standing atop the five-story Gesu school building. Later, he died in a tragic roller coaster accident in Palisades Park, New Jersey.
We were a large happy family, though somewhat challenged financially, which made it a necessity for each of us, as we reached our teenage years, to find employment as newsboys, stock boys in grocery stores, and in other positions, while continuing to attend school. We lived in a few different places in the old, cozy Riverside neighborhood, known today as East Little Havana, north of West Flagler Street and across the Miami River from downtown Miami. It was a neighborhood filled with coconut palm trees and tall Australian pine trees. One of our residences was a large two-story house we built on Northwest Eighth Avenue.
We would often walk to the nearby Miami River and watch the busy boating activity there. We enjoyed playing sports at Riverside Park, which was a few blocks south of us on Southwest Eighth Avenue. We got to know a lot of the kids who attended Ada Merritt Junior High School, which was located just east of the park.
In the last phases of World War II, while still a teenager, I left the warm ambiance of Miami and joined the Navy. However, I was in Miami for the glorious V-J Day celebration, Aug. 15, 1945, in downtown Miami. A photo in the Miami Daily News captured several sailors, bedecked in uniforms, celebrating the end of the war, a celebration that continued into the wee hours of the morning. I was included in that joyous photograph.
After leaving the military service in the late 1940s, I went to Hollywood to study acting at the Geller Theater Workshop under the GI Bill. By the early 1950s, my creative and entrepreneurial interests were on display as I invented a pair of shoes that lit up on the toes. At the same time, I authored a song, “It’s Enough to Make a Preacher Cuss,” which was recorded on Mercury Records by Tiny Hill, an orchestra leader from that era.
In 1953, I moved to New York City and demonstrated my shoes to Russell Markert, choreographer of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Soon after, I was off to Cleveland working with actor Dom DeLuise as an assistant stage manager; I also had a part in the musical “Carousel.” I really got a hankering for the live stage through this experience, leading me, in 1956, to the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway and the Theater Guild production of “Affair of Honor” with Dennis King, Betsy Palmer and William Prince.
I also worked with actor James Cagney in the 1950s, and on television’s Robert Montgomery show, as well as with Jerry Lewis on his NBC television show. What I enjoyed over all else were my sketches with another comedian, Ernie Kovacs, on his television show in 1956, as well as the piano-playing member of Kovacs’ famous Nairobi Trio.
My career went in a new direction in the early 1960s, as I became a talent coordinator and scheduled guests for Dr. Joyce Brothers’ NBC radio show. Brothers was a psychologist who gained fame from her success on the 1950s television blockbuster, “The $64,000 question.” I was connected by 1964 with another television personality, Dave Garroway, the original host of the “Today” show on NBC.
The 1960s remained a very fruitful time for me. In 1965, I produced “The Amazing Randi Show,” an all-night program for WOR radio. My guests included Garroway; Guy Lombardo, the famed band leader; a young comedian, Dick Cavett; Pearl Buck, who wrote “The GoodEarth;” and Broadway producer Alexander Cohen. In that busy year, I created 250 subjects for discussion and booked 1,500 guests.
In the following year, looking for a change of pace, I became radio/television director of Howard Rubenstein, one of New York City’s premier public relations firms. In my new role, I helped launched the Weight Watchers program, which became wildly successful. As part of our promotion of the program, I was able to plant one story about it with The New York Times and two others in the New York Daily News, as well as bring it to both the “Today” and “Tonight” shows as a topic of discussion. I also did numerous sketches between 1962 and 1968 with Johnny Carson on his popular “Tonight” show.
My career continued into the 1970s and 1980s, and, again, it veered in different directions. In 1979, for instance, I helped begin the field of dental implants with pioneering Dr. Leonard Linkow, arranging for him to appear on national television shows, in newspaper stories, including one appearing in the Miami Herald, and in radio interviews. In the following decade, I worked with Jack Nicholson in the acclaimed film, “Ironweed.” Since then, I have devoted myself to writing and have produced since the mid-1990s more than 1,000 wisdom word adages for upcoming books.
Even with my many peregrinations, I never forgot Miami. Every winter I spend a few months in the Magic City with my large family and friends, many of whom go back to my youth. And even though Miami has changed 180 degrees since then, it still represents home to me. I especially love the large Christmas parties our extended family enjoys at one of my siblings’ homes in greater Miami each year. These parties now draw four generations of Yohams among the scores of family members who attend it. I thought a great deal about Miami and the lucky life I’ve had there and elsewhere when on April 11, 2017, I celebrated my 90th birthday.