Brattleboro's Kevin O'Connor writes about 'White Christmas'
BRATTLEBORO >> The four Florida friends eye the promotional poster in the northbound train like children waiting wide-eyed for Santa.
"Have fun in the snow," the placard reads. "Vermont, the Winter Playground of America."
So why are they arriving to a landscape nearly as balmy as the beachfront they just left?
Record-melting warm weather throughout the Green Mountains is causing meteorologists to monitor a shifting jet stream while everyone else mulls the cash flow of the state's $1.5 billion ski industry.
But the aforementioned scene isn't the result of climate change, El Niño or the polar vortex. It's the handiwork of the scriptwriters of "White Christmas," the 1954 Bing Crosby movie musical that put Vermont tourism on the map.
Forget that the picture was shot on Paramount studio's Hollywood Stage 9 in the heat of summer. The film became one of the first advertisements for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing — and, alas, a mirror of what skiers and snowboarders are seeing so far this winter.
Some background: Most people recognize the movie's title as a classic song of the season. What the gigabyte generation may not know is that 20th-century composer Irving Berlin penned it as just another tune for his 1942 movie musical "Holiday Inn."
That black-and-white picture, produced as escapist fare during World War II, featured Crosby and Fred Astaire singing and dancing at a Connecticut inn open only during the holidays. The film was popular, the song even more so — winning an Academy Award and, after selling an estimated 50 million copies worldwide, the Guinness Records distinction of biggest single ever.
That success, in turn, set up a Technicolor sequel of sorts 12 years later. Crosby and the song would return, but this time paired with Danny Kaye and placed smack in the middle of Pine Tree, Vt.
Wondering if that's a town in the Green Mountain National Forest? An offshoot of Woodstock? A neighbor of Sugarbush? No, it's a figment of a scriptwriter's imagination — assisted by set designers who transformed Vermont photographs into painted backdrops for the first film shot in "VistaVision," a wide-screen format that aimed to lure viewers away from the newfangled invention of television.
Watch the film and the only map reference you'll see is that Pine Tree is on a rail line. As for plot, Crosby and Kaye discover their former Army general is running a ski lodge on the brink of bankruptcy.
The reason: No snow. Back before the days of snowmaking guns, Crosby and Kaye instead fire up a showy Christmas benefit, pulling in co-stars Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.
Vermont's promotional push starts 27 minutes into the picture when the cast is introduced in a Florida nightclub two weeks before the holiday.
"Vermont should be beautiful this time of the year," says Vera-Ellen, dancing with Kaye. "With all that snow."
Kaye, more interested in his partner's "big brown eyes," trips over his reply: "Vermont should be beautiful this time of year — all that snow."
Vera-Ellen: "That's what I just said."
Kaye: "We seem to be getting a little mixed up."
Vera-Ellen: "Maybe it's the music."
Kaye: "Maybe it isn't only the music."
Whatever, the line gets a workout. Kaye repeats it riding a train north with Crosby: "Must be beautiful this time of year in Vermont Do us a lot of good, all that snow and the fir trees and the clean, fresh air. Great change of pace! Just what we need!"
Crosby agrees: "Should be beautiful this time of the year in Vermont — all that snow and everything."
After a production number in the train's club car — "I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow!" — the cast pulls into Pine Tree. In case you don't recognize the backdrop, the script offers a few hints.
Conductor: "Pine Tree! Coming into Pine Tree!"
Vera-Ellen: "Is this Vermont, New England's winter playground?"
Clooney: "This is supposed to be America's snow playground!"
Instead, they find the Green Mountains sadly living up to their name. While that's familiar to current residents, the Vermont of six decades ago was different. Take one exchange between the movie's leading men.
Crosby: "What do you think would be a novelty up here in Vermont?"
Kaye: "Who knows — maybe we can dig up a Democrat?"
Crosby (with a chuckle): "They'd stone him!"
(Some history for followers of studentsforberniesanders.com: The state was the only one in the nation to have supported the top of every GOP ticket — Richard Nixon included — from the party's founding in 1854 until 1962, when Philip Hoff — a young, charismatic counterpart of President John F. Kennedy — became the first modern-day Democrat elected Vermont governor by popular vote.)
Yes, times have changed. Listen to Vera-Ellen, lamenting about finding someone to marry.
Vera-Ellen: "I suppose it ought to be someone that I know."
Kaye: "That always helps."
Vera-Ellen: "And of course it's got to be a man."
Kaye: "That's an absolute must!"
Vera-Ellen: "Oh, no, no, no, I mean a mature man. One that's witty, gay "
Then again, with Vermont going on to become the first state to approve same-sex civil unions in 2000, maybe things weren't so different. Whatever, between song-and-dance numbers with tambourines, feathers and blaring brass accompaniment is one Vermont reference after another.
"Vermont logs burning briskly!"
"I don't know whether the best things happen while you're dancing," Kaye sums up after a similarly titled song, "or they just happen in Vermont!"
Six decades after the 1954 film "White Christmas" portrayed Vermont with no snow, Brattleboro's Harris Hill Ski Jump features white lights and green grass this holiday season. Photo by Allan Seymour
Hollywood wraps up this holiday package in two hours. Without giving away the ending, it's safe to say you'll see and hear a "White Christmas" before the closing credit.
The movie, released in the fall of 1954, reaped $12 million nationally, making it the year's top moneymaker over such competition as "Rear Window," "A Star Is Born" and "On the Waterfront."
"You'll see Vermont in VistaVision," one newspaper ad promised.
Make that VistaVision's vision of Vermont. But no matter: Suddenly a country flush after World War II was hearing about a place to ski, shop and sleep, as one of its songs promises, "counting your blessings."
"Vermont, in turn, became everyone's neighborhood and fulfilled everyone's dream of a white Christmas," University of Vermont art professor emeritus William C. Lipke writes in the book, "Celebrating Vermont: Myths and Realities."
The producers of "White Christmas" didn't spend a dollar in the state, but the commercial payoff continues to snowball. The Department of Tourism and Marketing, for example, just fielded a call from an Italian woman seeking to travel to the Green Mountains.
"If you Google 'White Christmas Vermont,' quite a number of articles come up," says J. Gregory Gerdel, state chief of tourism research, "which is how she found me."
Present-day meteorologists who are tracking unusual jet stream patterns this month don't expect to see much if any snow in the eastern United States, powder-producing ski resorts excluded. But Vermonters still have a chance to catch a White Christmas — if they purchase a DVD or download.
"It is hard to believe that the film is over 50 years old," reads one customer review on Amazon.com. "Watching it, I almost felt like I was there in person."
Tepid temperatures aside, Vermont is still beautiful this time of year.
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