Remembering Millman's on Meeker Avenue: Home of the Famous Foot-Long Hot Dog

by Nat Bodian

To many of today's youngsters, the name "Millman's" is an unknown. But to three generations of Newarkers, spanning more than half of the early 20th century, the name "Millman" meant great hot dogs in a pleasant park-like environment, as well as a place to hang out, take a date, or meet friends.

I'm talking about Millman's Drive-In at 170-183 Meeker Avenue, just across from the entrance to Weequahic Park. It's a place that played a role in my own life from the late 1930s, when it first opened at that address, and I was a young reporter covering sports events across the street in Weequahic Park, to the early 1960s, when, as a married family man, I took my two small sons down on Saturday mornings for hot dog treats and a romp in the park nearby.

Millman's as a Hang-Out

But Millman's was a very special place to thousands, and in particular to the Weequahic High students who used the premises as an evening hang-out before World War II. Then, during the War, it was a retreat for members of the armed forces housed in barracks in Weequahic Park, and after the War as a place to escape to for veterans and their families who where housed in the drafty low-rent barracks buildings in the Park until they could get back on their feet.

Story and History of Millman's

The story of Millman's is the story of one man -- Oscar Millman -- and his lifelong efforts to erect a popular refreshment spot at the Weequahic Park entrance at the time that the City of Newark was preparing to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding with a pageant that featured festivities in the Park.

In this Memory, I will try to tell the story and history of Millman's not just from personal experience, but from facts assembled from the Millman family, and recollections of more than a dozen former Millman patrons.

Introducing Oscar Millman

Oscar Millman, remembered as the mustached cigar-smoking owner/operator of Millman's during its 52-year run, was born October 26, 1901 to Harry and Katie Millman, Russian-Jewish immigrants.

The Millman family settled in Newark in 1910 and Harry eked out a bare living as a street vendor selling snow cones and cotton candy.

In 1916, when plans were announced for an upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of Newark's founding, to include a four-day-long pageant in Weequahic Park, the Newark newspapers predicted that hundreds of thousands of visitors would be expected.

Oscar convinced his dad that this would be a good business opportunity and together they rented an 8 x 10 foot space from the Lehigh Valley railroad opposite the Weequahic Park entrance. Here they erected a shack, where during the festivities they dispensed frankfurters, bottled drinks, candy and cracker jacks.

Flushed with success from the Newark anniversary celebration, Oscar with his father negotiated a lease at the Lehigh offices in New York City for slightly more land and expanded the size of the refreshment stand to 22 feet x 22 feet.

As the business prospered, Oscar realized that the street -- Meeker Avenue -- was a main street that led not only to Newark Airport, but also to Elizabeth. He saw that his future was here.

He took a long shot and renegotiated a lease with the railroad for a nearby large parcel of vacant land at 179-183 Meeker Avenue. The lot had a fifty foot sidewalk frontage, but widened to 200 feet farther in, and ran 400 feet deep.

Erects Permanent Building

On this 400-foot-deep plot, Oscar engaged the architectural firm of Arthur Wolfe and Glucksman to build the first permanent Millman fast-food establishment. The building also had living quarters in an upstairs apartment that was home to Oscar's parents, Harry and Katie, and to Oscar while he was still single.

The building was completed at the beginning of 1937 and included complete restaurant facilities, as well as a black-topped spacious parking lot.

Building's First Year of Operations.

In that first year, 1937, business flourished during the spring and summer. But Oscar was determined to make Millman's Drive-In a year-round business, and, as business began to taper off with the end of the summer Park season and the onset of cold weather he quickly transformed the outdoor dining area into an enclosed heated restaurant.

With the enclosure added, Millman's continued as an around-the-clock business, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With a later purchase of a liquor license, a 27-stool bar and package goods department was installed in the restaurant area at the rear of the building. A jukebox was also added, as were car hops on roller skates to serve the cars.

The dining area, and later the bar area, both had oblong wooden tables with laminated tops, each table with four wooden chairs.

The Famous Millman's Hot Dog

While Millman's boasted a large but unpretentious menu, its big attraction was its ten-cent foot-long all beef hot dog. It was made to Oscar's specifications by Reinfeld and not sold anywhere else. It was served on a 10-inch long toasted roll with mustard, sauerkraut, and your choice of either sweet or hot relish, or both. The rolls were made by Sabrett.

As I made many visits to Millman's Drive-In from its starting year into the 1940s, I recall Oscar as a constant presence behind the hot dog counter, a handsome slight man 5'9" tall wearing rimless glasses and with black hair combed straight back, trimmed this mustache, and a cigar clenched between his teeth. I later learned that he typically spent 15 hours a day at the hot dog spot.

Millman's Opening Year Restaurant Menu

From its first year of operation in the Drive-In building, Millman's boasted a varied but unpretentious low-cost menu, led off by its leading item -- the ten-cent hot dog.

Soda fountain drinks were 5 cents for plain drinks, 10 cents for a plate of ice cream, and 15 cents for either ice cream soda, a malted, or a frosted drink. Beverages were 5 cents for coffee or tea, and 10 cents for hot chocolate, milk, iced coffee, or iced tea.

Sandwiches ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents. The 10-centers included boiled ham, cream cheese, tuna fish, or salami. The 15-centers included Virginia ham, ham and cheese; lettuce, bacon, and tomato; sardine sandwich, and imported Swiss cheese. The 20-centers were ham and egg, and Western egg. The top-of-the-menu steak sandwich was 25 cents.

French fries with sandwich orders were 5 cents extra. A separate order of French fries was 10 cents.

Juice drinks were all 10 cents: lemonade, orangeade, limeade, or orange juice.

Oscar Gains "Partner" at Age 39

Oscar had been so immersed in the operations of his business, that he was still a bachelor in April 1941 at age 39. In that month, he cast eyes on a pretty 27-year old Newark secretary from 136 Hawthorne Avenue, Ethel Ducker, and fell hard.

As Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Nusbaum reported in his "Evenings Out" column in the Newark Star-Ledger on May 19, 1941, "Oscar Millman doesn't' believe in losing time 'when Miss Right' comes along. It was just three weeks ago that, for the first time, Oscar cast eyes on Ether Ducker and pronto, she's wearing an engagement sparkler."

Nusbaum continued; "Oscar of the Millman clan who have glorified the hot dog."

Their Wedding

On Wednesday, June 11, 1941, during Ethel's lunch hour from her Downtown Newark secretarial job, Oscar and Ethel were married in a civil ceremony by a Newark City Magistrate at 20 Branford Place in Newark.

Four months after their civil marriage, on Sunday, November 23, 1941, they were remarried in a religious ceremony by Rabbi Julius Silberfeld at the Temple B'nai Abraham on Clinton Avenue and South 10th Street.

In the years that followed, Ethel became a true partner and worked with Oscar at "The Stand" for many years. She oversaw the help, served hot dogs, did the ordering of the food supplies, and otherwise put in the same 15-hour workdays as her husband.

Millman's During World War II

With the outset of World War II, so much of Millman's youthful clientele had gone off to join the war, that as business tapered off, car-hop service was discontinued.

However, as Newark's young men, especially Millman regulars from the nearby Weequahic Section, left for the war, the Government built barracks for troops based in Weequahic and for an AAF field hospital there.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1944, a day the business would have closed, Oscar opened the business and held an " Open House" for the service men and women that were stationed in the Weequahic Park barracks, and all the food and drink was free.

Millman Postwar

At the War's end, Millman's made up for the loss of their business from the military personnel based in the Park by the patronage from the 578 veterans and their families who lived there. The Government had hastily built barrack-type apartments late in the Pacific War to house evacuate casualties from an anticipated invasion of Japan.

Of course, with the atom bomb, the invasion never happened and at War's end, the premises were rented to veterans with families for $37.50 a month. Many became Millman patrons.

Famous-Name Patrons

Award-Winning Novelist Philip Roth, as a Weequahic High student before his 1950 graduation, had frequented Millman's regularly to hand out with school friends. His Millman impressions were later used by Roth as landmark locales in at least three of his best-selling novels: "I Married a Communist", "Portnoy's Complaint", and "Letting Go."

Jackie Gleason was a Millman's 'regular' while employed as M.C. and stand-up comic at the Club Miami on Clinton Avenue in the late 1930s before he hit the 'big time'.

And Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis had also visited Millmans, I was told by Oscar's daughter, Andrea.

Oscar and the Balloon-Seller

By the late 1950s, the owner of the then prosperous "Two Guys" appliance store chain, made one of his periodic visits to Millman's for a 'hot-dog fix'. On leaving the premises, he spotted proprietor Oscar Millman taking a sidewalk break in the midday sunshine.

He introduced himself to Oscar with "I bet you don't remember me. When I was a kid, you hired me to sell balloons outside. My name is Herb Hubschman, and today I own all the 'Two Guys' stores."

Without changing the expression on his face, Oscar replied matter-of-factly "Lots of boys used to work for me selling balloons. Today some of them are doctors and some of them are lawyers."

Millman's Sell 52-Year Old Business

In 1968, fifty two years after the start of a business intended to capitalize on Newark's "Quarter Millennium" Anniversary Celebration, Oscar sold the business on Meeker Avenue.

The Millmans, Oscar and Ethel, had been used to an active business life, and over the ten years after the sale, Oscar dabbled in real estate and Ethel took a job at the Newark courthouse.

In 1979, they sold their home in Maplewood and retired to Tamarac, Florida, where they lived out a full and active life into the late 1990s. Ethel died in June 1996, three months short of her 83rd birthday, and Oscar died in February 1997 at age 95.

The Millman Children

The Millmans had two children, daughters Bryna and Andrea1. Both had helped out in the family business in their formative years. Andrea had waited on tables. Bryna was a helper during her summer vacations.

Today, Bryna earns her living as a free-lance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.

Andrea Millman Gentry lives in Coconut Creek, Florida. She has lived in Florida since 1975 and has been a teacher and geriatric case worker there.

Oscar's Parents

Oscar's parents, Harry and Katie, lived out their lives in the apartment over "The Stand" and remained active in the business while still alive. Oscar's father, Harry, died in 1943. Katie Millman continued to reside in the upstairs apartment until her death in 1963.

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