Let’s say it’s Thursday evening, on the fifth of January, 1961, and you stretch out in your easy chair to watch a new television show listed in TV Guide, a mid-season replacement. You watch the whole thing, including the commercials by the programme’s sponsor, Studebaker, and the closing credits.
Even after that dedicated viewing, odds are you didn’t catch on to the connexion between this show and a 1951 comedy film about a New York swindler who gets in dutch with the mob.
And, yes, it has something to do with Christmas. But you’ve guessed that, because I wouldn’t be writing about it here, otherwise.
Let’s take the movie first. The Lemon Drop Kid, produced by Paramount Pictures, was a Bob Hope vehicle in which he plays small-time confidence man Sidney Melbourne. Melbourne poses as a race-track tout, providing phoney tips to unsuspecting bettors for a small fee. It works out pretty well for him, too---until he gives the wrong tip on the wrong horse to the wrong person, a mobster named Moose Moran. Moran loses ten thousand dollars on Melbourne’s “tip”.
Moran holds Melbourne responsible for his losses and gives the con man an ultimatum: repay the ten thousand dollars by Christmas Eve, or he won’t be around to see Christmas morning.
Melbourne gets an idea when he sees how generous people are to the street-corner Santa Clauses, collecting for charity. He rounds up several of his confederates and, donning Santa outfits, they post themselves throughout the city, ringing bells and gathering donations. There are some bumps along the way, but Melbourne manages to raise the ten thousand dollars he needs.
Being a Bob Hope comedy, though, the money winds up going to a real charity and things work out in the end for Melbourne.
But Hope had something to say about the film’s production.
He saw the movie as a Christmas story and he felt that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the holiday aspect of the film. It needed something to really drive that point home. How about a new Christmas song, suggested Hope, something that he and co-star Marilyn Maxwell could perform as the centerpiece of the movie. And since it was Bob Hope doing the asking, producer Robert L. Welch said O.K.
Enter Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans had been a songwriting team since 1937; Livingston composed the music and Evans wrote the lyrics. They were good at it too, with two Oscars as the credentials to prove it---one in 1948, for “Buttons and Bows” and the other in 1950, for “Mona Lisa”.
At the time, they were under contract with Paramount, and they were tapped by Welch to provide the holiday song that Bob Hope wanted. Neither Livingston, nor Evans, had any enthusiasm for writing a Christmas song. There were too many Christmas songs already, they thought. They realised that if a new holiday song was to have any chance of breaking out, they would have to find a fresh angle, some aspect of Christmas that hadn’t already been tapped by the standard tunes.
For inspiration, the songwriting pair decided to go right to the source. They viewed the footage of The Lemon Drop Kid that was already in the can. The scenes involving the fake street-corner Santas made Livingston and Evans sit up and take notice. It was the background business in those scenes that got their attention. The pedestrians bustling along the snow-covered sidewalks, peering in the windows of the stores. Shops all decked out with holiday decorations. The way people on the street exchanged cheerful greetings of the season.
They rushed back to their office and worked the magic that truly talented songwriters work. The final flash of fancy came from a small bell on Ray Evans’ desk. It reminded them of the Salvation Army workers, tirelessly ringing their bells for the poor. This provided the title of their new song, as well as the main lyric of its refrain. “Tinkle Bells” is what they named it.
Maybe you see the problem with that title, but it didn’t occur to either of them. Not until Jay Livingston got home that evening and told his wife about their new composition. “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle means?” she pointed out.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a disaster. After a little thought, Livingston and Evans were able to salvage their song. All it took was changing one word to remove the bathroom connotation. One word. It even had the same number of letters. And the next morning, they delivered it to director Sidney Lanford.
A scene was quickly cranked out, an interlude set off by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell singing what would become the signature piece of the film.
The Lemon Drop Kid was released in March of 1951, to tepid reviews and less than impressive box office earnings. It certainly never became the Christmas classic that Bob Hope desired.
The film may have been forgettable, but the song it inspired sure wasn’t.
“Silver Bells” shot to the top of the charts, after getting a substantial boost when Bing Crosby and Carol Richards recorded it in October of that year. It received a “Best Song” Oscar nomination and would go on to earn an ASCAP award for the duo. In the almost sixty years since its release, “Silver Bells” has been performed by over 180 different artists and has sold over 200 million records.
It certainly broke through the pack of Christmas songs, to become a holiday standard of its own. It is immediately recognisable, evoking the festivity of the season that transforms the city streets and fills the air with a feeling of good will toward men.
You’d certainly think that nothing else that the songwriting pair ever produced would ever be as memorable or so ingrained in the minds of the public, wouldn’t you?
Well, listen to this.
By the end of the 1950’s, Livingston and Evans had turned their talents to the fledgling medium of television, cranking out scores and themes. It didn’t bring the fame of writing a hit song, but there was good money in it.
In 1958, Filmways, Incorporated, a successful New York-based producer of commercials established a television division in Hollywood. For its entry into prime time, Filmways bought a failed pilot from a production company, confident that, with some honing and tweaking, it could be turned into a series strong enough to sell in syndication. The basic premise, of course, would remain, but new actors were hired and some background details changed.
Once the new version was filmed, all that was needed with a theme song. For that, Filmways approached Livingston and Evans. Once again, their instincts were on the money. They composed a light, jaunty tune that captured the attitude of the series. The Filmways execs found that, once they’d heard it, the song stuck in their brains, and they knew they had a winner.
The problem, though, was finding someone to sing it. For various reasons, none of the voice talent connected with the show could match the lilt of the music. At one point, the company even hired an opera singer to sing the theme. That didn’t work, either.
As the search for a vocalist got desperate, Jay Livingston prepared a demo track in which he sang Evans’ lyrics himself, as a model for just how it should be done. By then, six airdates had come and gone, and the producers were forced to use an instrumental version for those episodes. With no other prospects in sight, Filmways finally opted to use the demo with Livingston’s vocals as the show’s permanent theme.
And an enduring piece of Americana was born.
You see, even the incomparable "Silver Bells" was nowhere near as infectious as the theme that Livingston and Evans wrote for Filmways. Most people can sing the refrain to “Silver Bells”, and maybe the first verse, but everybody---and I mean everybody---knows the words to that theme sung by Jay Livingston. You’ve probably sung it in the shower yourself a hundred times.
The show proved successful enough to run for six seasons and was the first syndicated programme to be purchased by a network. And much to Livingston and Evans' everlasting surprise, their little ditty of a theme song outstripped "Silver Bells" as their most well-known work. A theme song for a situation comedy about a man . . . and his horse.
Of course . . .
The famous Mister Ed.
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From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!