As I watched another rerun of a previously played college football game, a familiar tune filtered its way through the crowd noise and grabbed my attention.
The rebroadcast was a holiday-themed bowl game, and that provided my first hint as to what the song could be. It was a catchy tune, but not one that evoked immediate familiarity ... but I knew I’d heard that song somewhere before.
“It’s Melvin Dummar. It’s Melvin Dummar!” I shouted in the direction of my children. They replied with a look to which I’ve grown accustomed, that glare of puzzlement that clearly delineates a line between generations — and basically means, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The band was playing “Santa’s Souped Up Sleigh”, a holiday tune that never gained the same attention as let’s say “White Christmas”, but still evokes memories for a few of us who still remember the story of its author, Melvin Dummar.
It’s a story that was almost too fantastic to be real, and, in the end, several courts at various levels ruled that it wasn’t. Even with the lack of verification, the story was too good for Hollywood to pass on, and, in 1980, the movie Melvin and Howard was released.
It’s based on the accounts of an everyday run of the mill working man named Melvin Dummar, whose life up to an eventful night in the Nevada desert in 1967, was less than Academy Award material.
He worked every job imaginable from gas station attendant to milkman, suffered through one unfaithful marriage, and seemed like the guy who always gets the shaft.
He buried his sorrow in song, and viewed himself as somewhat of an entertainer, and in the movie displayed those talents at a Dairy Christmas Party by singing Santa’s Souped Up Sleigh.
Outside of a small Nevada town located about 150 miles south of Las Vegas in 1967, Dummar pulled his Caprice to the side of the road to relieve himself. As he walked away from his car seeking what privacy the barren desert could provide, he noticed what appeared at first glance to be a bum laying injured in the scrub hidden from the main road.
Dummar assisted the man, assuming he was a misguided drunk or homeless man who had become lost in the desert. The man asked Dummar for a ride to Las Vegas, and he obliged.
As the two drove through the desert, the early morning sunrise providing the backdrop for two men; one an example of the highest echelons of human achievement, the other a struggling schmuck trying to figure out where next month’s rent was coming from.
In the movie, Hughes opens up to Dummar about his family history, a devotion to flying, and — like his unlikely sidekick for the evening — an affection for the musical note.
They traveled along a two-lane highway as the skies seemed to distribute each element of the spectrum in a heavenly-divined collage of colors not yet named singing and sharing stories.
When Dummar dropped the stranger off at the Sands Hotel, Hughes reportedly asked him if he had any spare change. Dummar dug in his pocket and tossed his last coins to Hughes as the walked into the kitchen area of the hotel.
As he sped away in the old Chevrolet, the whole encounter seemed odd to Dummar, but, in the continuation of his mundane life, memories of the encounter were soon erased.
After Hughes’ death in 1976, Dummar was running a gas station in Salt Lake, Utah, when a will was delivered to the Headquarters of the Mormon Church, a document claiming to be the Last Will and Testament of Howard Hughes.
Among others named in the will was Melvin Dummar who was listed as one of the beneficiaries and entitled to about $156 million of Hughes’ $9 billion fortune.
A probate court examined the document and discovered a fingerprint on the edge of the paper that belonged to Melvin Dummar.
The unassuming attendant explained he had handled the will, but had not altered or created the last wishes of one of the most eccentric entrepreneurs in history.
While working at his gas station days earlier, Dummar claimed a limousine pulled in for gas, and a man had quizzed Dummar for clues regarding his identify. When the car left, the will was sitting on the desk in the office, and Dummar became scared and delivered the will to the Mormon headquarters.
The changing story extinguished any chance that Dummar would share in the wealth, and Hughes’ fortunes were eventually distributed to more than two dozen relatives.
Dummar never abandoned his claim to the money, and — swore to his death — the will was authentic. A retired FBI agent investigated his claims in the early 2000s and did discover some of Hughes’ closest aides who confirmed Dummar’s story.
But a judge didn’t buy it, and, again, Dummar’s case was dismissed, still believing until he took his final breath in 2018 that Hughes was compensating him for his act of kindness on that darkened night in the Nevada desert.
In the movie, as the pair ride along with windows rolled down enjoying the aroma of a recent desert downpour, Dummar insists that Hughes sing his song.
Now, who knows if Howard Hughes ever sang Melvin Dummar’s Santa’s Souped up Sleigh. It’s anybody’s guess, but I’d like to believe it happened.
It’s a story that is so engaging, enticing and fanciful, a few facts from a less romantic world of reality should not tarnish its authenticity.
Now, I relayed a much more abbreviated version of this story to my children, and they actually looked like they got it, right up the point when one looked at me and said: “Who is Howard Hughes?”