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HomeNewsChristmas with the Melody Makers: Winter Wonderland

Christmas with the Melody Makers: Winter Wonderland

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This is the fifth in our series of Christmas songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.

THERE is a tragic story behind this one. Both the lyricist Richard B Smith and the composer Felix Bernard died young, before the song they wrote together became a major success.

Dick Smith was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania in 1901, to an Episcopalian family. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, where he led an orchestra, wrote songs for the glee club and edited the newspaper, he went to New York where he entered theatre management and wrote advertising jingles. He tried hard to get songs published but the business was competitive and he had little success. He married a nurse when he was 29, and a year later he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium 30 miles from his home town. There he spent his time writing advertising jingles and entering contests. He won first prize in a Maybelline Eye Shadow competition with the slogan ‘The Eyes Have It’. After watching children playing in the snow he wrote a poem called Winter Wonderland.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight.
walking in a winter wonderland!

Gone away is the bluebird,
here to stay is a new bird.
He sings a love song as we go along,
walking in a winter wonderland!

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say ‘Are you married?’
we’ll say ‘No man!
But you can do the job
When you’re in town’.

Later on, we’ll conspire
as we dream by the fire,
to face unafraid,
the plans that we’ve made,
walking in a winter wonderland!

In the meadow we can build a snowman

And pretend that he’s a circus clown

We’ll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman

Until the other kiddies knock him down

When it snows

Ain’t it thrilling

Though your nose gets a chilling

We’ll frolic and play

The Eskimo way

Walking in a winter wonderland.

When it seemed that he was cured, Smith returned to New York where he showed his poem to his friend Felix Bernard.

Bernard was born Felix Bernhardt to a Jewish family in New York City in 1897. His father was a professional violinist and Felix learned the piano. Later he was a tap dancer in vaudeville, and wrote one-act musical comedies for performers on the circuit. He also worked as a pianist for dance orchestras and music publishers before forming his own band, and produced his own radio show. His first success as a songwriter was Dardanella, which is thought to have been the first record to sell a million copies.

Here it is performed by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.

Bernard set Smith’s poem to music and after many rejections it was accepted for the 1934 Broadway revue Ziegfeld Follies, a revival of the successful annual show which ran from 1907 to 1931.

Winter Wonderland was recorded by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and reached No 2 on the Hit Parade. Lombardo also played the song at his Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. (The revue was a flop.)

After Christmas the song faded from view. By this time Smith was once again in the grip of TB and entered a sanatorium in New York City. He accepted a contract to write music in Hollywood, but died on September 28, 1935, the day before his 34th birthday and a month before he was to make the trip.

Bernard went on to write songs for a succession of films dating from the mid-30s to the early 40s. He died in 1944 at the age of 47 but I cannot find out the cause of death.

Two years later two competing versions of Winter Wonderland were released. One was by Perry Como and the other by the Andrews sisters, backed by Guy Lombardo.

Both were big hits and cemented Winter Wonderland’s place in the Christmas standards repertoire.

The Eurythmics recorded it for the 1987 charity album A Very Special Christmas. This is one of the very few versions which included the full introduction written by Smith for the song:

Over the ground lies a mantle of white
A heaven of diamonds shine down through the night
Two hearts are thrillin’ in spite of the chill in
The weather

Love knows no seasons, love knows no climb
Romance can blossom, any old time
Here in the open, we’re walkin’ and hopin’
Together

Here is a completely different rendition by Steve Overland from the 1994 album Metal Christmas (slogan: ‘Annoy Your Parents at Christmas’) I think it is rather good.

Finally, regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that my favourite version is from the 1963 Phil Spector Christmas Album. It is credited to Darlene Love, but Spector deployed his singers interchangeably so I don’t know who it really is.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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