Today we woke up just hours after the winter solstice to the opaque air of newly fallen nighttime snow. All morning we watched approximately six inches of snow fall, piling into thin, surprisingly high stacks on tiny twigs from the dozens of trees around my parents’ yard. There’s a pristine beauty, barren forlornness, and inviting sense of fun to fresh snow. I like the combination, and I decided today’s song had to be “Winter Wonderland.” It’s classically romantic and hopeful, but originated from a difficult situation.
Richard B. Smith, a native of Honesdale, Pennsylvania got his inspiration for the idea of a “winter wonderland” from the central park across the street from his boyhood home. During his childhood–he was born in 1901–people still drove sleighs around town during the winter. The dammed-up Lackawaxen River next to 12th St., known as “Park Lake,” was a favorite ice skating spot for kids, and arching trees lined Church Street, where Richard’s family moved. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?/ In the lane snow is glistening.” You get the idea: when this place snowed, it was a winter wonderland.
Richard was described as popular and clever, writing poems for each member of his graduating class, and looking to make a career from radio jingles, rhymes, and lyrics. In 1930 he married Jean Connor from Scranton, and, having already gone to college, conducted his own orchestra, written songs, and managed theaters, he probably felt primed for a full and successful life.
In 1931, however, Richard was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He spent many days at home, continuing to write jingles, and also spent quite a bit of time at the West Mountain Sanitarium in Scranton where he wrote radio slogans for products including Maybelline eye shadow, Old Gold cigarettes, and Armour Ham. It was during this time that he also penned the lyrics to “Winter Wonderland.”
In 1934 Felix Bernard, Richard’s friend, set the lyrics to the tune we know now. A classically trained vaudeville musician from New York City, Felix Bernard brought a catchy and classy tune to the Americana hometown scene evoked in Richard’s lyrics. The song fuses both sentiments and was set up for success. It was recorded by Richard Himber that year who is since better remembered as a practical joker than a musician: he once breaded the soles of his shoes when his wife asked for veal cutlets.
Richard Smith, the lyricist, was also poised for success at the time. The next year in 1935 he signed a contract to write Hollywood musicals and planned to move to California in October, providing the connection to film in today’s post. There probably would not be a winter wonderland for him that year. Sadly, on September 28, 1935, just one day before his 34th birthday, Richard died of tuberculosis.
Consequently he missed seeing his song top the charts. In 2007, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers cited “Winter Wonderland” as the most-often recorded holiday song by a member of their organization (the composer, Felix Bernard). Even Felix missed the version linked to here. The Andrews Sisters recorded the song in 1946, just one year after Felix passed away at the age of 44. I think this version is one of the best of the hundreds out there. Hope you enjoy the beauty, brooding, and playfulness of a winter wonderland this season.