two years of isolation due to the Corona Virus pandemic, the streets and
stores are busy again. But
nothing like the bustle pictured in the motion picture debut of
the holiday tune Silver Bells (City Sidewalks.) Folks have become too used to the convenience
online shopping and rapid gift delivery. The shopping malls that largely usurped
downtown shopping districts in the late 20th Century are still
nearly ghost towns with most of their department store anchors closed. Even the bells are rarer—here in McHenry
County we are bereft of Salvation Army bell ringers and Red
Kettles sit lonely outside grocery stores and street corners.
pages are flying off the calendar like in those old movies as we near Christmas. It’s time to consider the most urban of what might be called the secular advent songs from the Golden Age of American holiday music. Like
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas and
other songs it captures the vibrancy,
bustle, color, and excitement of
the season but sets it on the crowded
streets of a big city. Other songs captured nostalgia for by-gone Christmases,
country villages, and sleigh rides but Silver Bells, sometimes
called City Sidewalks, was set squarely in the modern post-World War II era.
The song writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were commissioned to
produce a song for the movie The
Lemmon Drop Kid in 1950. The
pair specialized in songs for film and
their hits included Buttons
and Bows for the The Paleface, Mona Lisa for Captain
Carey, U.S.A., and Que Sera, Sera for The
Man Who Knew Too Much, and Tammy for Tammy and the Bachelor. After Buttons and Bows won an Oscar
for the Bob Hope and Jane Russell vehicle with in 1947 Paramount Studios was eager to have the
pair work on a song for Hope’s new movie.
Lyricist Evans first titled
the song Tinkle Bells but in an oft told anecdote he described being called
off by his horrified wife who
reminded him of the mom slang for wee wee.
was so often the case, Bing Crosby first
recorded the song with Carol Richards while
the movie was in post-production. It hit the charts in October of 1950.
In an already shot scene the song was almost a throw away with guff voiced
vaudevillian William Frawley singing and the stars Hope and Marilyn Maxwell briefly chiming
in. With the success of the record Hope
and Maxwell were called back to shoot a more elaborate street scene version
with them carrying most of the song.
Released in 1951 The Lemon Drop Kid was based on one of Damon Runyon’s Broadway short Stories. The title character was a small time race track tout and swindler who got into a jam with a gangster and had to raise $10,000 by Christmas or he “won’t see New Year’s Eve.” The kid concocted a phony charity scam featuring street
corner Santas collecting money for an Old
Dolls retirement home. Abetted
by his trusting girlfriend, he
assembled a bunch of old dolls—former girl
friends of cheap hoods, chorines, and hostesses at mob joints—and
plunked them down in an abandoned casino. Needless to say, complications arose with both cops
and gangsters closing in but the
Kid determined to win back his disillusioned girlfriend and out of a
genuine affection for the Old Dolls however reluctantly did the right thing and everyone lived happily
reprised the song, which had become almost a second theme song behind Thanks for the Memories,
on his annual television Christmas
specials in the ‘60’s through the ‘90’s teaming up with such guest stars as Gale Storm, Olivia Newton-John, Marie
Osmond, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and his own wife Dolores Hope on his final original
special in 1993.
Silver Bells has been covered
by a host of artists becoming a staple of
many holiday albums and seasonal specials.
Among them are Doris Day,
Dean Martin, The Supremes, Elvis Pressley,
Anne Murray, the Oakridge Boys, Martina McBride, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, and Michael Bublé.
by the 21st Century the song had
become as much a nostalgia piece as the sleigh ride songs of fifty years
earlier. Even before the pandemic the
urban street scene that Hope and Maxwell strolled with its thick crowds of shoppers, street vendors, cops on the beat, and now embarrassing
ethnic stereotypes have long vanished.
It was supplanted first by
the suburban mega malls and big box stores and now even those are
now falling victim to on-line shopping. Busy street life has been replaced by the
isolation of the computer and smart phone.
let’s go back to the original movie scene.