Mark J. Price
When you look at a U.S. map, Route 66 doesn’t go anywhere near Akron.
That didn’t stop two young men in an open convertible from cruising into town one summer in search of adventure.
Hollywood actors George Maharis and Martin Milner, the stars of the popular CBS drama Route 66, rolled to a stop in 1961 as celebrity guests of the 24th All-American Soap Box Derby.
On Friday nights in the early 1960s, television viewers tuned in to see where those roving companions would journey next in their Chevrolet Corvette. The black-and-white program was shot on location across the country, a rarity when most TV shows were confined to a studio.
Dark-haired, brown-eyed Maharis portrayed moody Buz Murdock while fair-haired, blue-eyed Milner played clean-cut Tod Stiles. After Stiles inherited a Corvette, the buddies decided to hit the road to see the country.
As the sponsor of the Soap Box Derby, Chevrolet had no trouble coaxing Maharis, 32, and Milner, 29, into visiting Akron while they were shooting scenes in Pittsburgh. Northeast Ohio was familiar terrain since they had just wrapped up the first season of Route 66 with three episodes filmed in Youngstown, Kinsman and Cleveland.
As an extra incentive, celebrities received free use of a Chevy for a year after they made derby appearances.
In a way, the sleek sports car had come full circle. Ohio native Myron Scott, who organized the first Soap Box Derby in 1933, is the one who named the Corvette in the early 1950s while working for Chevrolet’s advertising department.
Akron’s raucous reception in 1961 was bigger than a Hollywood premiere. Banners streamed and confetti flew as a cheering crowd and blaring band greeted the celebrities’ arrival Aug. 19.
Maharis and Milner rode separately in Corvettes that slowly made their way from Union Depot to the Sheraton-Mayflower Hotel. More than 10,000 people swarmed Main Street that Saturday to catch a glimpse.
“Times Square on New Year’s Eve never was like this,” Maharis told an emcee after climbing onto a platform at the hotel.
Milner agreed: “We’ve had crowds before, but this beats all.”
Teen girls shrieked at the sight of the heartthrobs. Surrounded by fans, the actors signed as many autographs as possible before going inside to check into their rooms.
Milner brought his wife, Judith Bess Jones, and daughters Amy, 3, and Molly, 6 months. Maharis, who was single, arrived alone.
When visiting male celebrities stayed at the Mayflower, star-struck young women often called and asked to be connected to the guests’ rooms. Occasionally, an unsuspecting operator patched the callers through. No one knows how many times Maharis and Milner picked up their phones that weekend and heard girlish giggling or shocked silence on the line.
More than 150 champions from 39 states and six countries attended the All-American that year. At least 75,000 people converged at Derby Downs on Sunday for the All-American. The Parade of Champions began at 1 p.m. with 2,300 marchers stepping off from Topside before the first heat.
Naturally, Maharis and Milner rode in Corvettes during the parade.
Other celebrities that weekend were country singer Eddy Arnold, 43, who crooned for the crowd, and actor Peter Brown, 27, the star of ABC-TV’s western The Lawman. Dressed in cowboy attire, Brown pulled a revolver and fired blanks at the audience — a stunt that probably wouldn’t fly today.
Arnold served as the flagman while Maharis, Milner and Brown competed in the celebrity Oil Can Trophy Race. Seated in cartoonish, oversized cars, the actors waited at the top of the hill for the race. When the gates fell, Maharis and Brown zoomed down the track, but Milner just sat there.
The bewildered actor looked around and saw that a distracted volunteer was still holding the car with a hook. Now that’s something that never happened on Route 66 to Buz and Tod! Finally disengaged, Milner eventually got rolling but finished a distant third. Maharis raised the Oil Can Trophy in triumph.
The actors spent the rest of the afternoon cheering for All-American racers, patting kids on the back, posing for photographs and signing autographs for fans. Heat after heat, racers fell by the wayside.
When it was all said and done, a joyful Richard Dawson, 13, of Wichita, Kan., raced away with the championship, winning a $5,000 college scholarship, trophies and a championship ring.
The weekend’s activities concluded that Sunday evening with the Banquet of Champions at Goodyear Hall. Politicians, executives, celebrities and volunteers toasted the 153 champions at a formal dinner.
“Continue to persevere in everything you do just as you did in the Soap Box Derby, and someday you will be the executives, just like the many that surround you tonight,” Akron Mayor Leo Berg told the kids.
Jack Izard, advertising manager for Chevrolet and general manager of the All-American, was similarly optimistic.
“We hear an awful lot about juvenile delinquency, but all this trouble is caused by only 3 percent of our teenage population,” he said. “These champions and all derby boys are representative of 97 percent of American youth.”
The stars of Route 66 also took the microphone.
“I feel sad that when I was a kid I never got to participate in a Soap Box Derby,” Maharis told the young racers.
Milner described his All-American visit as “a heartwarming experience.”
“I certainly hope we can do it again,” he said.
Maharis and Milner hit the highway as soon as the Akron assembly ended. They were due back in Pittsburgh at 6 a.m. the next day to start filming a new episode.
The Corvette was waiting. More adventures were just down the road.
To see footage of the 1961 derby on YouTube, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WH0gL1gDqw . Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of the book Lost Akron from the History Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.