Here’s the back story of how one of Irving Berlin’s most beloved tunes was turned into a Denver-bound holiday stage spectacular
Little-known item: The Irving Berlin song that comes closest to epitomizing Christmas, the song that evokes glistening tree-tops, children listening for sleigh bells in the snow — that song — was written by Irving Berlin in the late 1930s sitting by the pool at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa under a full, hot sun. The first verse was a tongue-in-cheek barb at a wealthy Los Angeleno pining for a traditional Christmas under palm trees in 80-degree heat.
Berlin smartly dropped the joke, the verse and the irony — a good thing or “White Christmas” might never have made it to the top of the nation’s emotional chart — as it did. But then this immigrant son of impoverished immigrant Jews from Siberia was nothing if not shrewd.
Talented, too. He may have acquired his love of music from his father — a cantor forced to work in a grocery store to keep his wife and six children alive. And yet the son played piano only by ear (lessons were not on the financial radar), living his entire life with an astonishing absence of musical skills.
“I heard Berlin play the piano back in vaudeville days and found his harmony notably inept,” wrote Alec Wilder in his 1972 book, “American Popular Song.” What Berlin had instead is what Wilder calls “some mastery of his inner ear” that enabled him to compose melodies “with his natural, intuitive harmonic sense at work in his head, but not in his hands.”
Other things he had were an innate doggedness and a nose for opportunity that rarely steered him wrong.
As an unsupervised kid on New York’s Lower East Side, this young scrapper hustled junk for pennies, sold newspapers, briefly joined gangs and eventually left home after his father’s death to try to make it as a singer on the streets of New York.
Berlin got himself hired at various cafés around the Bowery, including the Pelham, doing parodies of popular hits. A rivalry among establishments triggered the writing of his first hit: “Marie of Sunny Italy,” earning him the grand sum of 37 cents — and prompting a name change from Israel Baline, the name he was born with, to Irving Berlin. (Some say it was printer’s error that Berlin chose not to correct.)
But in 1911, he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and the country jumped. More than a million copies were sold in a matter of months. Irving Berlin was off and running, branching out, writing musicals that are still on Broadway lexicon (Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam), movies (the incomparable Top Hat among them) and a host of songs now forever woven into the American psyche: “Easter Parade,” “Supper Time,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
In the end, it was poverty that proved to be Berlin’s best teacher. He learned the value of money early and to the point of stinginess. In an article for the City Journal, Stefan Kanafer related that as Berlin hawked newspapers on a downtown pier in 1902, he was accidentally knocked into the East River by a loading crane, rescued “and packed off to Gouverneur Hospital for further ministrations. An hour later, as the young newsie slept, a nurse pried open his clenched hand. In it: five copper coins. He remained tightfisted for the rest of his 101 years.”
That judgment may be a bit harsh. As one of the most patriotic of American composers — which Berlin turned out to be — he refused to profit from his patriotism and gave away the proceeds of “God Bless America” (surely the most patriotic — and profitable — song of all time) to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America in perpetuity, while contributing royalties from other wartime compositions to the Navy Relief, Red Cross, March of Dimes and various bond drives.
The first public performance of the song “White Christmas” was reportedly by Bing Crosby, who sang it in the movie Holiday Inn. “White Christmas” spent 11 weeks at the top of the charts and the Guinness Book of Records lists Crosby’s recording as the biggest hit single of all time, with an estimated 100 million copies sold. The song re-emerged in 1954 in the immensely popular movie that bore its name again featuring Crosby, this time with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.
In adapting the movie into a large-scale musical, some adjustments had to be made. Enter David Ives and Paul Blake as the writers who expanded the storyline and incorporated big, large-scale musical dance numbers imbued with exciting tap and jazz.
Given that Berlin conceived of the song poolside, it might seem fitting that the stage world premiere took place at the St. Louis Muny — an outdoor summer theatre festival that regularly tops 100 degrees with comparable humidity. So when the snow fell on stage, the audience experienced a subliminal, if not literal, cool-down.
And that snow is a crowd-pleaser. The White Christmas team decided that pure stagecraft best served the scene, using an old-fashioned method for making snow — tissue paper cut into a mixture of half-inch and three-quarter-inch squares. The confetti is then packed into a long tube of fabric cut with slits and affixed with two ropes on either end, which are tugged back and forth by stagehands to create evenly falling snow.
The result is a Broadway musical that is mesmerizing and memorable, a perfect complement to every holiday season whether you’re at the Arizona Biltmore, a Vermont inn or The Buell Theatre.
Sylvie Drake was Director of Media Relations and Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts from 1994 to 2014. She is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to culturalweekly.com.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: Ticket information
At a glance: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas tells the story of a song-and-dance team putting on a show in a Vermont inn and falling for a stunning sister act in the process. Full of dancing, laughter and some of the greatest songs ever written.
- National touring production
- Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
- Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner
- December 5-15
- Buell Theatre
- Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Fun facts: More about ‘White Christmas,’ the song:
- Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” for the 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds. It won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Song of the Year. It was also sung by Crosby in Blue Skies (1946) and as the title song in White Christmas (1954).
- Bing Crosby’s definitive recording of “White Christmas” has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, according to Guiness World Records. It is the best-selling record in history.
- “White Christmas” is the most recorded Christmas song of all time with more than 500 different cover versions, among them versions by Tony Bennett, The Carpenters, Jose Carreras, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Placido Domingo, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Barry Manilow, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and the Supremes. More recently, “White Christmas” has been recorded by Kenny Rogers, Kenny Loggins, Babyface, Aaron Neville, Gloria Estefan, Vince Gill, Michael Bolton, Melissa Manchester, Garth Brooks, Hanson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Kenny G., Mandy Patinkin, Mannheim Steamroller, Destiny’s Child, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and The Flaming Lips.