Tag Archives: Meet Me in St Louis

About Us; About You

Writing History; Recreating and Creating History

My mother, God rest her saintly soul, took up writing the last decade or so of her life.  She made a serious study of it, even joining writing clubs and taking experienced mentors.  Over the next several years she crafted a series of essays about her life: from growing up on the plains of Alberta, to raising a flock of six wild kids; plus moving from Canada, to Chicago, to Milwaukee, to Arkansas and finally to Colorado.  Eventually she compiled a few dozen of those essays into an autobiography which she self-published just two years before she passed away.  I’m so very glad she did.

Many authors have written stories and essays by incorporating elements of their own life into their works, in semi- or even full-autobiographical form.  The characters of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” closely resemble herself, her family and acquaintances as a youth.  The fictional town of Maycomb, AL closely resembles her own girlhood hometown of Monroeville, AL.

Samuel Clemens’ novels – particularly those about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer – include many adventures and characters from his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri – although he places them in fictional St Petersburg, complete with a cave.

The list of authors who have created this way is near endless.  Hunter S Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Charles Dickens: David Copperfield.  And we recognize: Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; Roald Dahl; Ernest Hemingway; Charlotte Brontë  Theirs are timeless and often moving works.

Question: Will you write about your youth, your life, your experiences? Our literary works don’t have to be moving or timeless; but we should all write.  Why? To express ourselves.  To leave a legacy to our posterity about our lives and our thoughts.  Somewhere in the decades and generations hence, a child or young adult descendant will wonder what their ancestors were like.  What YOU were like. Send them a message.

But don’t just make it up.  As Harper Lee said: an author “should write about what they know, and write truthfully.”

“Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience — from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes living memory ….” – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

 

“Home is where your story begins” — Annie Danielson, Colorado CEO of the year, 2009

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My dear friend Kevin Shepardson is now in a rehab hospital in Phoenix. Reports I get are that he is doing well; in fact – miraculously well.  Although now safe from terminal danger, he still has “a very long row to hoe.”  He has great loving support from his family and many friends.  Still, he can use all the prayers, good wishes and thoughts you can send his way.

I’d written recently that – until his New Year’s Eve day cardiac arrest episode – Kevin published a daily news letter, often with musical tributes to some event or holiday.  Each year in December he includes a daily musical tribute. Every day’s inbox has a new Christmas or Winter Holiday Seasonal themed musical delight, right up to Christmas Eve Day.

This past December 23 his musical selection was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – which has to be one of the saddest Christmas carols ever.

Just the title conveys a lack of joy: Little Christmas? It’s like you’re being spurned by a lover: Farewell shot: “Well, have yourself a merry little rest of your life.”

The slow sadness of the song is actually appropriate.  The lyrics — composed by Hugh Martin in 1943 — were for the otherwise cheery musical movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”, to be sung by the beautiful and gifted Judy Garland during the only really sad part of the movie.  The plot at this point has her family tormented by an imminent move to New York just as big things are happening in their lives. Young ladies are falling in love and the 1904 World’s Fair is about to occur in St Louis!

In Kevin’s Dec 23 newsletter, he described a bit of the song’s history.  It was originally even much sadder. Its lyrics went:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last.
Next year we may all be living in the past.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Pop that Champagne cork.
Next year we all may be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us … no more.

But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas … now.

(Most dreary lines in blue)

 

Wow. Makes me kind of weepy just reading and humming to myself now.

  • This Christmas “may be your last.” That’s just morbid.
  • “No good times”??? How sad.
  • “Faithful friends who WERE dear to us will be near to us NO MORE.”

Oh my.  No wonder Garland refused to sing the song that way.  She just couldn’t do that in the saddest scene in the movie to poor little 6-year old co-star Margaret O’Brien, who nearly stole the show as Ester’s (Garland’s) younger sister, Tootie.

Fortunately, the movie’s lyricist Hugh Martin eventually relented and re-wrote the song closer to the carol we know so well:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Make the yuletide gay.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us … once more.

Someday soon we all will be together,
If the fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas … now.

Much better, but still rather somber when sung at ballad tempo, less than 80 beats per minute.  And it still has that line “have yourself a merry little Christmas” … and ends with “We’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Muddle through?? Geepers. It was enough to help Margaret O’Brien gin up a few tears … to set her off to a fit of downright bawling – and destroying snowmen. And yet: It’s the original recording and still a very good one.

Well, there have been many covers of “Merry Little Christmas”, most notably by Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra asked Dean Martin to help him lighten up the song for his album “A Jolly Christmas.” It just wasn’t “Jolly” enough.

Martin changed the line with “muddle through” to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Dean and Frank made several other changes, which are shown in the notes below. You can hear it from the album here:  {Click the button or skip to 14:05 on the playback}

That’s a long way of getting to say this: Sally Benson’s story has had a heck of a ride over the last 111 years.  And … any way you look at it, we’re very, very glad this past Christmas didn’t fit the original two lines of “Merry Little Christmas” for Kevin.  It certainly was not your last, buddy!!  Stay strong my friend.  Peace and much healing to you.

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During World War II Americans craved entertainment that distracted them from the woes and worries of everyday.  Through much of the war, most news was not pleasant, even when the allies were winning.  For almost four years, US military service personnel perished at a rate of over 300 per day.  Casualties were over 800 per day.

The home front craved entertainment that had light, joyful stories that weren’t terribly deep. Something to take their minds off the awful news, both local and from around the world. Everyone was affected by death and severe injury in their family and among dear friends. The war was fought on the home front as well as in Africa, Europe, the Pacific.  So, who can blame them?

And the entertainment industry stepped up to meet those desires. Many entertainment creations of that era met these criteria. But two in particular share several remarkable coincidences.  These are the musical play “Oklahoma!” and the musical movie “Meet Me in St Louis.”

Coincidences?

  1. First, they are period productions, placed during jauntier times, in the first decade of the 20th century; during the Edwardian/pre-war era.

    • >“Oklahoma!” is placed in 1907, in Indian Territory just as Oklahoma is about to become the 46th star on the flag.
    • “Meet Me in St Louis” is placed in 1903-4, in, … well …, St Louis, just as the World’s Fair is about to come to St Louis.
  2. Second, each production originally contained the Rogers and Hammerstein song “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Producers dropped the number, twice, at the last minute due to running time.
  3. Finally, each was based on another story. In both cases, that other story was substantially autobiographical.
    • “Oklahoma!” is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs”, written by Lynn Riggs. Riggs was born in 1899 near Claremore, Indian Territory. He was 1/16th Amerindian*.  He grew up and went to school in, and near, Claremore — which is also the closest significant town to the setting of “Oklahoma!”
    • “Meet Me in St Louis” has a bit more history that I’m familiar with. It’s based on the book of the same title. That book, in turn, is slightly expanded from a series of semi-autobiographical essays that Sally (Redway) Benson wrote for The New Yorker magazine, from 1941 to 1942.
      • The essays were called “5135 Kensington”, which was her family’s address in a middle class neighborhood, located just over a mile from the main entrance to Forest Park, St Louis, where the 1904 World’s Fair occurred.

 

*: I have concluded that, sadly, there is not a perfectly appropriate term for this race of people.  “Native American” fails, since there are generations upon generations of other races dwelling here in the Americas who have no other place to call their native land.  “Indian” fails since that clearly belongs to the Indian subcontinent.  They are worthy of their own clear and distinct name, so I have accepted what some others have proposed: Amerindian.

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Leaving “Oklahoma!” for another time, let’s skip over to what became of Benson’s autobiographical essays: Meet Me in St Louis.Promo1

MGM was casting about for possible cheer-you-up movie plots wherein they could cast their greatest rising star – Judy Garland – when they came across Benson’s essays.  They decided it could be made into a screenplay for a musical movie, in order to showcase Garland’s beauty, grace and voice.

Only 21 at the time, Garland initially refused the role. She didn’t want to play a teenage “girl next door.” She was an adult now.

Indeed she was an adult.  During production, she and director Vincente Minnelli fell in love – resulting in the second of five Garland’s marriages.

“Meet Me in St Louis” is full of music, song and gay dancing  (duh, it’s a musical!). As full of music as it is, the movie’s songwriters — Hugh Martin (lyrics) and Ralph Blaine (music) — only composed three original tunes for the movie. These were: “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song”, and the aforementioned, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

These were written specifically to be sung by Judy Garland – (although she doesn’t come in on “Trolley” until over a minute — almost halfway through — after she sees her potential beau make it to the trolley.)

Both “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are among the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie songs of all time: “Trolley” coming in at #26 and “Merry Little Christmas” at #76.

No surprise, especially to Judy’s many fans, that she also holds AFI’s #1 spot with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Meet me in St Louis” ranks as AFI’s 10th best musical movie of all time.  Easy guess that “Singing in the Rain” is #1.

Although screenwriters took some liberty with Benson’s original texts, much of it remained faithful to her writings of her childhood memories.

  • The address of the Smith home is exactly the same as that of her childhood: 5135 Kensington Avenue
  • The names of all the family members (mother, father, four girls, one boy) and the maid are all exactly the same as Benson’s family — even the nicknames. The family’s surname, Smith, is actually Benson’s mother’s maiden name.
  • Opportunities to show what else was going on in St Louis at the time were skipped – for example Scott Joplin lived and performed just a couple miles away. Ragtime was very fresh and popular. Benson didn’t write about these because, as a young child of six years old, she didn’t remember it. She wrote about what she knew.

Today we remember “Meet Me in St Louis” for much more than “Sally Benson first wrote her essays based on her childhood memories.” She certainly had no idea where it would go – that it would be garnished with famous actresses and memorable songs.

It’s probably most remembered for the Christmas carol that Martin and Blaine wrote.  The song immediately became popular with servicemen abroad – and their loved ones at home.  Why? It heralded a happier time in the near future – next year – when we all “will be together”, “all our troubles will be miles away” and “out of sight.”  And indeed, the war ended the year after the movie’s release.

When you write your memories, no one can know what will become of them.  They probably won’t be adorned with beautiful actresses, showy songs and marquis lights.

But I can assure you this: somewhere, sometime, someplace, someone will be interested in them.  Perhaps your descendants, or a friend’s grandchild, or a grand-niece or nephew.  When they read your rambling musings, your journals, your essays – well – those works will indeed become timeless and moving works of art.

If it’s daunting, start slow and easy.  Keep copies of the notes, letters and cards you send and receive.  Start a journal, or a blog.

Write about your experiences and thoughts. Therein will lie your  memories, your “you”. Write about as many of your yearnings, loves, disappointments and successes as you dare. Yes, there — wherever you put them — available and preserved, for future generations.

As true as that is for you and me, I know this.  Last Christmas was, miraculously, not Kevin’s last.  Nor was it yours.  As soon as Kevin recovers enough to write – he will.  It seems it may be soon. And now he has so much more to write about.  I can’t wait to read it all.  And some day, his grandkids and great-grandkids will be glad that he did.

Live well. Be inspired. Write. Create.

Peace.

Joe Girard © 2015

Note: Sally Benson is also well known for writing “Junior Miss”, which was also made into both a play and a movie. The movie starred Peggy Ann Garner.  It was also based on a series of semi-autobiographical stories that she first published in – yes – The New Yorker.

Most of her New Yorker essays were published under the nom de plume of “Esther Evarts.”

 

Bibliography:

Taylor, Mike: CEOs of the Year, Mark & Annie Danielson; Cobizmag: https://www.cobizmag.com/articles/ceos-of-the-year-mark-and-annie-danielson1

 

AFI top movie songs
http://www.afi.com/100years/songs.aspx

AFI top musical movies
http://www.afi.com/100years/musicals.aspx

NPR: The Story behind Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas
http://www.npr.org/2010/11/19/131412133/the-story-behind-have-yourself-a-merry-little-christmas

Some good back story on movie Meet Me in St. Louis. And a lot of detail on the plot.
http://www.filmsite.org/meetm.html
http://movies.amctv.com/movie/1944/Meet+Me+in+St.+Louis

Notes: comparing the versions of the song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Garland v. Sinatra (changes for Sinatra version – 1957 – in Blue)

 merry-little-christmas