When Harry Miller moved into his RiverWalk apartment at Hebrew Home at Riverdale, his walls virtually looked just like everyone else’s at the Palisade Avenue community. Well, all except for two unusual decorations.
His two Emmy awards as part of the set design team for the CBS soap opera “Guiding Light” stand on an end table in his living room, a reminder of the work he’s done throughout his life.
“For ‘Captain Kangaroo,’ I did a lot of painting,” Miller said. “That was my favorite one because I could use a lot of bright color. With soap operas like ‘Guiding Light,’ you’re either in a living room, or a jail, or a courtroom, or a restaurant. Sometimes the restaurants might just be a corner of one, or it might be the full set.”
Miller, known professionally as Harry B. Miller, grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he learned to tap dance and was a member of the Brush and Paint Club at his local high school.
“I had a marionette theater,” he said. “I made the stage and everything. They were marionettes, not hand puppets — they were on strings. I used to make them out of cloth. I got a book out of the library on how to make them out of cloth.”
He moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, but his education was interrupted when he was conscripted into the U.S. Army during World War II. Even there, Miller was entertaining his fellow soldiers — Captain America-style.
“I remember I was tap-dancing on the back of a flatbed truck in the evenings, and the guys in the Jeeps would turn their headlights on to light me up,” Miller said.
He ran small shows in the camps, designing sets and props to keep morale up among his fellow soldiers.
“I fought the Battle of Mississippi against the mosquitoes,” Miller joked. “I had basic training over and over about eight times until I started producing the shows.”
Miller’s largest production was at the end of the war when officers and their wives gathered for a dance and a dinner.
“The show was called ‘Going Home,’ because the war was over by then, but people were still in the services,” Miller said.
When he returned from the war, Miller finished his education when he received a special teaching fellowship at the all-women Smith College in Massachusetts.
The school, Miller said, accepted nearly a dozen male veterans for a special post-war program.
“Six of the veterans were in the theatre department,” Miller said. “That’s where I was.”
After Smith, Miller worked in local theaters around New Jersey, including Lambertville and Asbury Park.
“I came to New York,” he said, “and I got lucky.”
NBC was the first to hire Miller, allowing him the chance to spend 13 years working as a scenic designer before moving on to CBS for the rest of his career — a span of 28 years.
“They were both very good,” Miller said, “but CBS lasted longer.”
Alongside his television career, Miller was an assistant designer on Broadway, working on shows like “Funny Girl,” “The Sign in Sidney Brunstein’s Window,” and “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker.”
“Theatre, you have months, maybe a year to prepare,” Miller said. “Television, it’s just a few days, a week. It’s very quick.”
Miller saw a lot behind the scenes at the network. While he loved painting and designing on “Captain Kangaroo,” the captain himself — Bob Keeshan — was less lovable.
“The dear, kindly old captain could be very nasty to the director,” Miller said of the actor, who died in 2004. “If the studio was too hot, he would leave. If it was too cold, he would leave. And they would have to do the show without him. I don’t know how they ever managed.”
The two Emmys sitting beside Miller are practically afterthoughts to everything else he’s done in his 95 years. He wasn’t in California to receive the first one, and by the time he picked up his second award, the broadcast had moved to New York, but his particular award wasn’t handed out on television.
“I was there, and saw it,” Miller said. “I don’t think they even called us up on stage. They just announced.”
One of the projects he was most proud of came much later — just two years ago.
After his official retirement from television at 75, Miller had decided to step around the curtain and take up acting, picking up classes at Hunter College. That would lead him to star in a mini-reboot of Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall.”
Two filmmakers, Matt Starr and Ellie Sachs, approached the senior center Miller frequented at Lenox Hill looking for actors for their reboot, and Miller excitedly accepted.
They worked on the film on weekends during the summer of 2017, using equipment borrowed from two students at the New York Film Academy.
“We got the essence of the story in 28 minutes, and somebody at The New York Times, a guy named John Leland, got wind of it, and he devoted three-quarters of the front page of that section and all of page six, the entire page, to that movie,” Miller said. “And there was a lot about me.”