Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 27, 2013

All I want for Christmas ...

Husband Art and I don’t usually go out for breakfast. But we knew last Saturday would be a busy day, what with still-to-get-done Christmas items on our plate. So we headed off to the local IHOP.

The conversations of people nearby and the attendant noise of tables being bussed had made me unaware of the background music. But Art suddenly stopped and said, “Listen. It’s George Rock.”

I had no idea what or whom he was talking about, but then he began to sing, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth, my two front teeth ...”

I could just barely hear it, but I knew it was the song - lisps and all - that I remember from my childhood. Art, always a storehouse of trivia, went on to explain that Rock was a trumpet player in the Spike Jones band and the song had been a big hit when Art was young. He added that part of what made it so funny was that Rock was a huge guy who could create a convincing version of a child’s voice by singing in falsetto.

Out came Art’s smart phone and soon he had checked out the details. Yes, indeed, the song had hit number 1 two years in a row in the late 1940s.

But there was more to the story. In 1944, a man named Donald Gardner was substituting for his wife Doris, a second-grade teacher. Since it was near Christmas and he was a song writer, Gardner decided to pass the time with the kids composing a Christmas song. He asked them to complete the sentence, “All I want for Christmas is ....” What they answered didn’t make it into the song, but how they answered did. He noticed that most of the students had lisps from one or more missing front teeth.

Nothing much happened with the song until an employee of a publishing company heard Gardner perform it at a teacher’s convention. The rest is history.

Rock’s Christmas wish was followed by the classic version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I wouldn’t have been able to identify the singer if Art hadn’t asked me two days earlier when we heard it in a similar setting at a different restaurant. The vocalist was Gene Autry, who, for those old enough to recall, was billed as “the singing cowboy.”

Unlike “front teeth,” it didn’t start out as a song. In 1939, department store giant Montgomery Ward asked Robert May to create a children’s coloring book. The story was originally rejected because having a red nose was then associated with drunkenness. Company officials didn’t think that was the Christmas message they wanted to send.

While Rudolph eventually made it out of the stable, his continuing fame really depended more on one of May’s relatives. Johnny Marks was a writer of Christmas songs, such as “Holly Jolly Christmas.” But while “front teeth” was a song shortly after the idea hit Gardner, Marks’ song was 10 years in the making. It was 1949 when Autry released “Rudolph.” It not only reached number one, but for many years, was the largest selling song of all time. So Rudy lives on, while the company that fostered his birth is long gone.

However, it isn’t just Christmas novelty songs or children’s songs that have interesting stories. “White Christmas” is a song closely associated with the season and was written by Irving Berlin, one of America’s best song writers. As war clouds loomed in 1940, Berlin agreed to write all the songs for a planned movie that became “Holiday Inn.” The movie starred two big names of the era - Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The plot involves a farm in Connecticut that is being converted into a resort open only on holidays.

One story connected with “White Christmas” is that when Berlin wrote the song, he declared it to be not just his best, but the best anyone had written. A completely contrary version is that Berlin was unsure the song was even worthy of being included in the film, and it took Crosby to assure him that he had nothing to worry about. Art said he had heard Crosby relate the second version and was inclined to believe it.

While the movie was very successful and even inspired the Holiday Inn chain of motels, the song did not receive much initial success. But as the war came on, its melancholy tone mixed with images that almost all Americans associated with better times propelled the song to the top of the charts.

By the 1950s, the song was so firmly entrenched as a holiday staple that a reworked version of “Holiday Inn” was released, but this time was titled “White Christmas.”

Unlike most popular music that enjoys a brief period of popularity and then fades from view, songs associated with Christmas keep returning. And that is, in part, due to the fact that the holiday is a time when we not only look to the future and present - and presents - but to the past as well. And music has a powerful ability to reconnect us with the past.

“Front Teeth,” “Rudolph,” and “White Christmas” all evoke special memories for us. We certainly recall when our girls lost their teeth. And Rudy causes both of us to fondly recall a time in Wendy’s when a couple paid daughter Mariya a quarter to sing “Rudolph.”

For me, “White Christmas” reminds me of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, eating lobster and exotic fruits and surrounded by friends, but still longing to be home in Kansas with family. For Art, it is getting Christmas trees with his uncle for his grandfather’s lot.

As with many songs, these three have interesting stories associated with their beginnings. But it is their ability to transport us back in time that causes them to be welcomed anew into our hearts each year.

Left: Mariya, sans one upper front tooth, holding Katie; right: Katie with both upper front teeth gone, but a replacement on the way. Looking at the pictures recently, Katie remarked, "Gee, people always say we look alike and I guess I can see some similarity when we were younger."

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