Sometimes in life’s most difficult moments great things can happen. Sometimes in those difficult moments some seemingly small thing can happen that brings us joy and possibly even a new lease on life.
Such was the case for Richard B. “Dick” Smith. When Smith was 30 years old, just a year after he and his wife married, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was dying and he knew it. He was dying without having written a significant song. Three years later he found himself in a sanitarium in Scranton Pennsylvania. He was technically there for treatment, but he knew he had gone there to die.
The disease left him weak, in pain and at times overcome with coughing attacks that left him worn out. The idea of writing at all seemed impossible. Yet on a cold afternoon in 1934 Smith pulled himself out of bed and made his way to his room’s window which looked out over a city park. There he saw several children playing in the snow. It took him back to his own childhood and made him want to venture out to play in the snow himself. He saw them have a snowball fight and then watched them work together to build a snowman.
When the light of day faded away and the children left the park headed for home, Smith made his way to the table in his room’s table. Though it was extraordinarily difficult to do so, he forced himself to write down his thoughts. Within a few hours he had written a poem he thought was special by the title of, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”
The poem actually gave Smith new life. He recovered enough to leave the sanitarium and he made his way to visit a composer/pianist named Felix Bernard (a man of the Jewish faith). The two had been friends for a long time. When Bernard looked at Smith’s poem, he also recognized it as something special. Bernard knew if he could come up with the right kind of tune, it could be very special for his friend. Bernard began a mission to help his friend have a hit song.
Bernard’s tune was an upbeat number and when it was complete, Smith and Bernard started trying to shop it around. Not too many people paid attention but Joey Nash found a copy of the song. Nash was the lead singer for the Richard Himber Orchestra. He took the song to his boss and while the orchestra had an upcoming recording session, Himber thought they had enough music already. They ended up making a quick recording of “Winter Wonderland” in the summer of 1934. RCA released the song a few weeks later.
One person who heard to recording was Guy Lombardo, who recorded the song with his “Royal Canadians.” Because Lombardo was well known, it was his recording that shot up the charts. Smith had his hit record, with Lombard’s recording moving all the way up to number 2.
The song was a hit a second time in 1935 but Smith died in the fall, a few months before the winter songs started to gain airtime again. He would never know the great hit that was “Winter Wonderland.”
Since that time more than 200 different artists have recorded the song in a wide variety of styles. From Perry Como and the Andrew’s Sisters to Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley to the Eurythmics and Ozzy Osborne, the song has seen a huge variation in styles.
There are a couple of interesting things about the song. First of all, while we consider the song a Christmas song, Christmas is never actually mentioned in the lyrics. Like “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride,” we consider “Winter Wonderland” a Christmas song because it is a winter song. Christmas is not mentioned in any of the three songs.
Second, the lyrics mention the snowman being “Parson Brown.” At the time Smith wrote the lyrics the word “parson” was in common use and people knew its meaning. In the 1950s there was a fear that people would not understand the meaning so the whole marriage idea that plays an important role in the song was removed and a “circus clown” entered in its place. During the 1960s artists returned to “Parson Brown.” There have also been a few versions of the song that feature both “Parson Brown” and a “circus clown.”
There has also been a comedy parody of the song titled, “Walking in My Winter Underwear.” It was actually this song that had me looking at “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” I sing with a men’s chorus named “The Coastalaires.” One of our songs for our Christmas show was “Walking in My Winter Underwear,” written by Melinda Root and Fannie Zollicoffer. As I researched it I didn’t find anything about the story behind the song. What I did find was, the song was recorded by Stan Borenson. At the time there was a television show named, “Lunch with Casey,” staring Casey Jones. In one episode, Jones dresses in rather battered red long underwear with a huge mustache and lip synced to Borenson’s recording. Someone took offense to either the song or Jones’ attire (or possibly both) and called the station to complain. Jones made an on-air apology on the next episode. That caused the switchboards to light up and hundreds called talking about how funny it was and didn’t see anything offensive at all. The act became a regular performance for Jones each Christmas.
It was a beloved song that truly came close to never being written. I would like to think God had Dick Smith get out of his bed to see those children at play. Because he did and even through his pain, wrote it all down, we have a song so many of us love and enjoy each year.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
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Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.