What’s the magic word? If your answer is “Twin Pines” you’ve probably spent countless Saturday afternoons in front of the family TV enjoying the mystifying magic of Milky the Clown. Milky is one of the legends of Detroit TV. Clare Cummings was the man behind the legend.
Clarence R. Cummings Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 4, 1912. In 1917 Clarence Sr. moved the family to Birmingham, Michigan. At an early age Clare became fascinated with performing, often entertaining the neighborhood children with Punch and Judy shows. At age 12 he received a $1.25 magic set for Christmas. Cummings soon mastered all of the tricks, performing for friends and classmates. Looking to expand his repertoire he devoured every magic volume in the local library. Noting his son’s fascination with magic, Clare’s father would take him to see Houdini, Thurston and other popular magicians of the day. In a 1960 Detroit News article Cummings said, “When Thurston found I was neglecting my studies for my magic, he slapped my face and told me to get busy with my books and forget my magic.”
Cummings’ first professional show was in 1929 at Birmingham’s Baldwin Library. While still in high school Cummings performed at school assemblies, birthday parties and banquets in and around town. 1933 found Cummings working with Danny Thomas, then known as Amos Jacobs, on Chuck Stanley’s “Happy Hour Club” radio show. They received no pay for their radio appearances, but were paid three dollars each for outside jobs. In 1941 Cummings was hired by the E.I. DuPont company as an automotive paint salesman. He would sell paint during the week, and perform his magic on weekends. During World War II, he served as Sergeant in the U.S. Army’s Finance Division in Florida, while entertaining the troops in the Army’s Special Services Division. While in Florida, he sent for and married his hometown sweetheart, Peg Haldane. In 1944 their daughter Peggy was born. After the war, Cummings returned to his DuPont job in Detroit and resumed his magic career. He was now performing in places like the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club and Detroit Athletic Club as "Clare Cummings, Delineator of Deceptive Dexterity."
In 1950, while working a part time job at the Hall Magic Company in Detroit, a WJBK television producer spotted Cummings. Charmed by his magic skills, gap-toothed smile and gentle manner, the producer thought that Cummings would be the perfect host for a new children’s show he had planned. The show was Peter, Clare and Oscar, a program much like the popular Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Peter was a live rabbit, Clare was the straight man who could understand Peter, and Oscar was a marionette, operated by Detroit policeman Herb German. The fifteen-minute show lasted for thirteen weeks. Later that year, the Twin Pines Dairy wanted to sponsor a children’s show, with cartoons, movies and a magic clown. The advertising agency handling the Twin Pines account contacted WJBK, who contacted Cummings. Milky the Clown was born. Cummings himself created the distinctive Milky makeup. His wife Margaret created the costume, which was patterned after the clown in the opera Pagliacci.
Milky’s Movie Party premiered on December 16; 1950.The two-hour show featured cartoons, Westerns and Milky’s magic tricks. In the beginning there was no live audience, only Milky, the Twin Pines Milkman and the weekly winner of the “Sunshine Smile” photo contest. Peggy Tibbits, Cummings’ daughter and an occasional visitor to her father’s set, recalls, “One time the child who was chosen got sick and I was his replacement. I got to help with the tricks, say the magic words, drink lots of milk and juice during the commercials, pet the kittens and puppies that were up for adoption, and generally feel pretty important.” Milky was also assisted by Creamy the white rabbit, a hand puppet who taught the boys and girls traffic safety.
In 1952, a marionette show created by Ed Johnson called Willy Dooit became a part of the Movie Party. Willy was a mischievous boy who had amazing adventures with his pal Gee Whizzer, a bizarre looking creature with a whizzer on his tail so he could fly. Applesauce the dragon was also a part of the gang. Sonny Eliot, another Detroit TV legend, was the voice of Willy.
In 1955, Milky’s Movie Party moved to WXYZ, home of Soupy Sales, Ricky the Clown and Wixie's Wonderland. The show stayed the same, except for the addition of Little Rascals shorts. The show moved to WWJ in February 1958 with a new format and a new name.
Milky’s Party Time featured a live studio audience, the serial The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Bozo and Felix the Cat cartoons, magic, games, prizes and the Stars of the Future contest, hosted by perky Mary Lou. Pierre the Frenchman assisted with the games. The games were a team effort, usually the boys vs. the girls. In the early days at WWJ, the winning team would get to grab two fistfuls of pennies from the big goldfish bowl. The losing team would get one. Peggy Tibbits recalls that the first goldfish bowl had a larger opening in the top. The studio bigwigs thought that the kids were grabbing too many pennies, so they found a goldfish bowl with a smaller opening. That way the kids would scrape their knuckles and drop most of their treasure. In later years, when the show’s budget was bigger, kids would get to pick prizes from the “Twin Pines Toy House.”
Early in the show’s history Cummings suggested that an announcer, dressed as a Twin Pines milkman, should pitch the commercials. The dairy’s famous phone number, Texas-four-one-one-oh-oh, was repeated by four different spokesmen.
Earl Hayes, the first milkman, died of lung cancer in 1953. Dale Young, a staff photographer at WJBK, replaced Hayes. The third milkman, Bob Leslie, was also Santa Claus in the J.L. Hudson's Thanksgiving Parade. Leslie was killed in a tragic home furnace explosion. Bob Allison, a staff announcer at WWJ, was the last person to don the uniform. Allison's popular Ask Your Neighbor program has been a staple of Detroit radio for more than four decades.
Milky’s Party Time was so popular that there was a two-year wait for tickets. Twin Pines executives loved the show too. The delivery routes and milk orders had more than tripled as Detroit kids persuaded their moms to get “worry-free home delivery.” At the show's peak Cummings performed an exausting 130 school assemblies a year. Detroit mayor Louis C. Miriani declared December 16, 1960 “Milky the Clown Day” and presented Cummings with a key to the city.
Party Time ended for Cummings in 1964, when he needed to devote more time to his full-time paint salesman job at DuPont. Cummings close friend, talented magician and emcee Karrell Fox, donned the familiar pointed hat and white makeup until the show's demise in 1967. Cummings retired from DuPont in 1971, though he still made occasional personal appearances. In 1969 Milky appeared on the same bill with Joe Cocker, Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad and the MC-5 at the "Cosmic Circus" rock festival in Richmond, MI. Cummings farewell performance as Milky was in 1992 at the Oakland Mall in Troy, MI.
Clare Cummings died on October 31, 1994 of congestive heart failure, on the anniversary of Houdini’s death. He donated most of his magic tricks and one of his costumes to the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, where they are on permanent display.
Milky may be gone, but his memory lives on. Milky collectibles sell for amazing prices at flea markets and antique shops. A promotional Milky the Clown clock recently brought over five hundred dollars on an Internet auction. 8x10 photographs usually sell in the forty-dollar range. Even old Twin Pines milk bottles bring hefty prices. Perhaps people are trying to buy back a small piece of their childhood, a time when “Twin Pines” was the magic word and Milky the Clown’s face was on the side of the milk carton, rather than the face of a missing child.