At 5 years old, Milton Maltz faced hate for the first time – an experience that has been indelibly etched in his mind, even 85 years later.
That incident, along with his ability to think outside the box and his capacity for taking chances helped him skyrocket a single small radio station into the formation of Malrite Communications Group, Inc., one of the largest owners of radio and television stations in the country. Such experiences have also been the impetus for him and his wife, Tamar, to become generous philanthropists to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, including his temple, the arts, research, mental illness and more.
For their efforts to make the world a better place, the Maltzes will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in the 2019 Class of the Cleveland Jewish News’ 18 Difference Makers on Nov. 24.
A hateful experience
At 90, Milton Maltz still arrives for work weekdays and puts in six or seven hours, including business trips to Washington, D.C., New York City and Jupiter, Fla. Sitting in his Beachwood office, which is adorned with mementos from his career, Maltz recounted in crystal clear detail his first encounter with hate as if it happened yesterday, while Tamar, also 90, looked on.
“My dad (Louis Maltz) had a little store with a home attached to it in an all Polish-Catholic neighborhood,” he said. “We were the only Jewish family in that entire part of South Bend (Ind.). When it was time for me to go to kindergarten. Benjamin Harrison was the closest school, about 10 blocks away from us. There were no school buses so my mother took me and walked with me before classes began to show me the way to school and how to come back.
“One day at recess, I was surrounded by a group of Catholic boys. And they started calling me names – kike, that kind of thing – and they started to pull on me and take off my clothes. I wound up having no shirt, no pants. I wrenched myself away and ran like crazy in shoes, socks and underwear. They called me ‘Christ killer.’ I remember telling my mother, who was horrified. I never killed anybody. They claimed that I’m a Christ killer! That was my first experience with hate and intolerance. It’s something you never forget having lived through that.”
That incident was enough for Anna Maltz. The family moved to Chicago, where the Maltzes kept an Orthodox Jewish home. Milton entered the first grade, never having finished kindergarten.
When he was 10 years old, some boys made fun of him because he played the violin.
“For several weeks, four or five of the guys would gather around, laughing, ‘Play the fiddle for us, Miltie, play the fiddle.’ And I wouldn’t do it because they were all crazy kids, making fun and mocking the violin,” he said.
“One day in November, it was getting dark and they started pushing me around as I was walking home. ‘Play the fiddle, Miltie, play the fiddle for us.’ OK, I said, ‘I’ll play the fiddle. I put the violin case down on the sidewalk, opened it up. I took the violin like a baseball bat and I smashed Lenny Osborn right in the face. His glasses flew off his nose. They thought I was crazy, and they all left and ran away, and left me there with my broken violin in pieces.”
Afraid to go home, he was sitting on a bench, when a police car rolled up.
“Are you Milton Maltz?” the officer asked. “Your mother has been calling the station every 15 minutes. Get in the car, we’re taking you home.”
When he got home, he said, “My mother didn’t know if she should kiss me or smack me. My mother could not afford to buy me another violin – so I took up the harmonica, instead.”
Career path change
Maltz grew up thinking he wanted to be an architect, but in high school, those ambitions took a detour.
A teacher asked him to read aloud a paragraph from “Moby Dick.” He did, and when the teacher asked him to stay after class, he thought he was in trouble. Instead, she told him a new radio station was looking for talent to participate in dramas on air – before television existed.
“I told her, ‘I don’t think I want to do that,’” Maltz recalled.
“You like being a hall monitor?” she asked him.
“No, it’s boring,” he replied.
“I’ll get you out of that,” she said. “And I’ll pay your car fare.”
He auditioned, got the job and was offered more and more parts. When he was in college, his father thought that being a radio actor was not a solid career and was opposed to him being an on-air personality.
However, that changed when Maltz wrote and directed, “The Fight for Freedom,” a series of radio programs that chronicled the struggle to create the nation of Israel.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad career after all,” his father told him.
“I would stay up at night until about 2 in the morning to write, sleep until about six or seven, and then I would finish the script I was working on and go to class,” Maltz said.
He spent two years at Roosevelt College in Chicago, where he met Tamar. He eventually received a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill.
Tamar reminisced about how they met.
“He was holding auditions for parts in a show that he had written,” she said. “I was one of the ones that went downtown to try out. I did not get the part.”
After the audition, Milton Maltz said he could help her if she would stay longer. She did. He then asked her to dinner, and that was the beginning of what has turned into a 68-year marriage.
Along the way, Tamar Maltz taught school in Michigan and Maryland, and was a Hebrew school teacher at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.
The beginning of an empire
Maltz served in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was called to active duty at the National Security Agency. He was based in Washington, D.C. and dealt with documents, including those that were top secret. The pay was not great, so he was a “GI daytime and DJ nighttime” in Washington, D.C. He moonlighted for John Kluge, a grocery store owner who had started his own broadcast company. His biggest radio advertiser was Arthur Murray Dance Studios and due to poor advertising results, he was afraid he would lose this client.
Maltz saved the day. He did ad-lib spots, aimed toward women who worked for the government.
“You work all day long for a federal government agency,” he recalled of the spot. “You come home at night. It’s dark, it’s quiet, you’re lonely. Here’s how to change that and find the guy of your dreams. Here’s the phone number. It’s Arthur Murray … dance lessons.”
As the phone began to ring, Maltz asked Kluge to give him $1 for every time someone called in to sign up for dance lessons. The ad spot was a success and they sold hundreds of dance lessons. Because of this, Kluge wanted Maltz to go to work for him once he left the Navy, but Maltz had other ideas – he wanted to own his own stations.
Kluge went on to create media giant Metromedia, which owned radio and TV stations and other properties, eventually selling the company for $7 billion, Maltz said.
Maltz then took a job as a program director at a station in Michigan, serving Jackson and Lansing, the state capital. Tamar Maltz was a schoolteacher at the time.
There, Maltz had another experience with hate, this time directed not at himself but toward another minority group. Maltz had played on air, recordings by three black artists in a row – “Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.” The general manager of the station called him and told him to get them off the air, using a racial slur.
Maltz, who was the top-rated disc jockey, took the record that was playing and smashed it – and thought he would be fired. After his show, the director summoned him to his office and asked why he played those records.
“I said to myself, I can’t live like this,” Maltz recalled. “I’ve got to buy a station and run it myself.”
Maltz then asked Robert G. Wright, the No. 1 salesman at the station, to join him in purchasing a small radio station in 1956 – the start of Malrite. The partners were together for about eight years until they went their separate ways. Maltz served as Malrite’s chairman and CEO until he sold the company in 1998.
Tales of an entrepreneur
A few stories of brilliance define the success and the drive of Maltz and Malrite Communications.
First, he predicted early on that FM was going to supplant AM as the radio powerhouse.
Maltz and Wright – the namesakes of Malrite – bought a small station in Plymouth, Wis., about 15 miles from Sheboygan, Wis., for about $40,000, with $15,000 as a down payment. The money came from Tamar’s teaching job.
“Why were the owners willing to sell?” Maltz asked. “They were all businessmen and didn’t have any idea how to run a radio station. So, we took the risk and bought it to see what we could do with it.”
“I put a record on and offered a U.S. Savings Bond for anybody who came up with the name of the song. Not one phone call. I wound up putting on ‘G-d Bless America’ and not one phone call. Now I thought, I know why we own this radio station. Nobody listens to it.”
That didn’t deter Maltz. He analyzed the market and realized that the station was in dairy country and that he needed to attract those listeners who had money. His came up with the idea to have a dairy farmer broadcast live on the air every morning from his kitchen to provide agricultural reports that came from the government. In exchange, every time a major advertiser bought a radio spot, that farmer would receive merchandise from the advertiser. The idea was an instant success.
The second station Maltz bought was in Macomb County in Michigan, about 35 miles from Detroit. He changed the format to a then-relatively unknown talk-radio format. When a controversial statewide tax issue came up, his station was the only one broadcasting the debate live from the state capital for two days. That led the station to become the local news leader in the market.
Maltz’s first TV station was an ABC affiliate in New Bern., N.C., which was the third-rated station in a three-station market. Some businessmen owned it and they were selling it for $2 million, which in those days was considered very cheap.
“The station was a disaster,” Maltz said. “The news was bad, everything was bad.”
The station’s tower was only 500 feet, half the size of the rival networks’ towers and when he asked to rent space on their towers, they laughed.
So Maltz had a tower built that was 2,000 feet, but he still needed to do something else to attract viewers.
“I released the people doing the so-called news,” he said. “There wasn’t one woman on the air doing news so I hired an African-American woman on top of it. Half the TV market was black and there had never been a black person on the air doing news, let alone a woman.
“I started getting phone calls. ‘Fire those people, or we’re going to burn your tower, or we’re going to tear it down.’ And you can imagine, I told them to go screw themselves. And I’ll never forget the day they said they’re going to tear it down.”
Maltz called the police, but “they didn’t show up.”
ABC had an idea to have people surround the tower to keep it from being damaged. It worked, and ABC became the No. 1 network in the market.
Kluge was responsible for the Maltzes coming to Cleveland, as Maltz had hoped to buy stations and settle in San Diego.
In the early 1970s, Maltz ran into Kluge at a broadcasters’ convention and Kluge needed to sell a radio station due to Federal Communications Commission regulations. The station was WHK in Cleveland. Maltz bought that one and WMMS-FM, and turned the struggling stations into juggernauts. That’s when the Maltzes moved to Cleveland, the new home of Malrite Communications.
Tamar Maltz was surprised at the time, but now calls the city, “my beloved Cleveland.”
The Maltzes have been generous donors, mostly through the Maltz Family Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and The Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation. In the Cleveland area, beneficiaries of their generosity include The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Montefiore, The Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Play House.
They have also given generously outside of Northeast Ohio to the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation in New York, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Israel Philharmonic and American Friends of The Israel Museum, to name a few.
The Maltzes spearheaded the drive to renovate what was called “Silver’s Temple” in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland, transforming it into the sparkling new Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center, which is now part of Case Western Reserve University.
“I cannot imagine a more impactful set of difference makers than Milton and Tamar Maltz,” CWRU President Barbara Snyder said. “When we first went to them and I went in partnership with the then-senior rabbi of The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Rick Block, when we first approached them with the idea of turning the synagogue – which was only being used a few times a year at that point – into a performing arts center for our campus, they immediately embraced it.”
With phase one, an extensive renovation, completed, the project is on to phase two.
“We have a number of other donors who have stepped up to help with that, but it started with Milton and Tamar,” Snyder said. “We are so excited about phase two because it includes something that both Milton and Tamar deeply committed to: a proscenium theater – the first real proscenium theater that has been on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.”
In her praise, Snyder said “getting to know them has been one of the privileges of being president of Case Western Reserve.”
Love for the arts
The Maltzes also created the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, Fla., where the Maltzes have a home nearby.
The Maltzes have left their mark on the arts and entertainment world.
When the Cleveland Orchestra came looking for a donation, the Maltzes couldn’t resist.
“People at The Cleveland Orchestra were having trouble getting young people to enjoy and like classical music,” Milton Maltz said. “They came to see me and asked for funds to help reduce their debt. They sat around the table and I asked, ‘How much do you want?’ They told me they were going to hit me for $10 million.
“I told them, ‘I can’t do it. But I will tell you what I can do – $20 million, on one condition: When I sit in that box seat and look down at the audience, what do I see? Gray hair and no hair. Here’s what we’re going to do – we’re going to take that money and let young people come in for half the price and no price at Blossom (Music Center). And we’re going to wind up getting young people enjoying classical music and buying tickets eventually, as they get older.’ I will never forget it. They were stunned. For your information, today The Cleveland Orchestra is considered the No. 1 orchestra in America to bring in young people.”
He also played an instrumental role in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame coming to Cleveland, instead of New York City.
“The New York board members didn’t want it here,” he said. “We owned a station that was a rock station in New York and many of those guys on the board would come to me to have their talent played on our air. And I would say, ‘Look I can’t force you, but how are you going to vote for the home of the rock hall?’ That’s all it took.”
Stopping hate, loving Israel
Recalling the hate and anti-Semitism he encountered, Maltz realized something had to be done. So, 12 years ago, he and Tamar and the Maltz Museum launched the Stop the Hate essay contest for students in Northeast Ohio. It’s a way for students to express their feelings about hate and tolerance, and an opportunity to win money for college.
The Maltzes have visited Israel several times and the country has a special place in their hearts.
“It’s the last place Jews can stand up and be counted as equal to any other nation at the United Nations,” he said. “And it’s the opportunity for Jews to exercise their skills, their research, their caring, their loving.”