Remembering 'Christmas' Songwriter Hugh Martin

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis i i

Judy Garland (center) starred in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis. She sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to her sister, played by Margaret O'Brien, who was upset that her father wants to move the family to New York City. The Kobal Collection hide caption

itoggle caption The Kobal Collection
Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis

Judy Garland (center) starred in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis. She sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to her sister, played by Margaret O'Brien, who was upset that her father wants to move the family to New York City.

The Kobal Collection
Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door
By Hugh Martin
Hardcover, 409 pages
Trolley Press
List price: $29.95

Read an Excerpt

Songwriter Hugh Martin, who co-wrote the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, along with dozens of other songs for MGM and Broadway musicals, died on Friday. He was 96.

In 1989, Martin and co-author Ralph Blane, who passed away in 1995, joined Terry Gross for a discussion about their lives and the story of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which has since been recorded by scores of musicians — including Tori Amos, Garth Brooks, Robert Goulet, Lady Antebellum, James Taylor and Bob Dylan, to name just a few — in the past 65 years.

The song "began with the melody," Martin said. "I found a little madrigal-like tune that I liked but couldn't make work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket."

Luckily, Blaine had heard the tune, too — and told Martin it was too good to throw away.

"We dug around the wastebasket and found it," Blaine recalled. "Thank the Lord we found it."

With the melody saved, the two men started working on the words. But the first draft was too sad, and Judy Garland asked for a revision.

"The [film producers] said, 'No, no — it's a sad scene, but we want sort of an upbeat song, which will make it even sadder if she's smiling through her tears," Martin said. "Then we wrote the one you know in the movie."

Martin, who appeared by himself on Fresh Air in 2006, also wrote the music for the Broadway productions Best Foot Forward; Look Ma, I'm Dancin'; and the stage version of Meet Me in St. Louis. A memoir, called The Boy Next Door, in which he detailed what it was like to work with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly, among others, was released last fall.


Interview Highlights From Hugh Martin's 2006 Interview On Fresh Air

On The Original Version Of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

"The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, 'If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they'll think I'm a monster.' So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, 'Well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric.' But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, 'Hugh, you've got to finish it. It's really a great song potentially, and I think you'll be sorry if you don't do it.' So I went home and I wrote the version that's in the movie."

YouTube

Twisted Sister - 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'

On The Many Covers Of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"

"The strangest version [I heard] was by a group called Twisted Sister. My all-time favorite versions are from the olden days. Judy Garland, of course, [was] always tops with me. And Mel Torme, who wrote a beautiful new verse for it, was really out of this world. And Frank Sinatra — you can't beat 'Mr. Blue Eyes.' "

On His Favorite Christmas Memory

"My favorite Christmas memory was of being 6 or 7 years old, and my mother decorating the tree. And she was a very artistic woman, and she did sensational Christmas trees, so it was a real joy every year when she would decorate it, and it was a very wonderful moment. That was my favorite Christmas memory."

On How He Views Christmas Today

"I'm really upset by Christmas now. I just hate Santa Claus and the jingle bells and reindeer and the wrapped packages and the holiday push. I hate all of that. I just loved it when it was, well, all my life ago, 90 years ago."

Excerpt: 'The Boy Next Door'

The Boy Next Door
Trolley Press
Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door
By Hugh Martin
Hardcover, 409 pages
Trolley Press
List price: $29.95

Chapter 1

The Palace

I wasn't born in a trunk, but I did become a show biz junkie early in life, before ever glimpsing Broadway or Hollywood.  In addition to a natural attraction to it, I had a theater-loving mother who regularly left home, hearth, husband, and Birmingham, Alabama, for New York City, starting when I was two years old.

Then there was Variety. Our public library didn't carry the magazine of show business, but a local newsstand did.  Lucky for me, the news dealer was a friendly soul who didn't object to a customer browsing for hours. I discovered Variety the year I entered junior high, and I was never the same after that.  It introduced me to glamour, glitz, and glorious Technicolor, a welcome world to a dreamy youngster growing up in a city built around iron furnaces and steel mills.

According to Variety, the sanctum sanctorum of the entertainment world was the Palace Theater on the corner of 47th Street and Broadway. I lay in bed innumerable nights with visions of the Palace dancing in my head.  These dreams never included my being on stage at the Palace, merely being a spectator.  Yet, twenty-two years later, on the night of October 16, 1951, I found myself, to my astonishment, in a tuxedo, on the stage of the Palace at a nine-foot Steinway accompanying headliner Judy Garland as she sang these lyrics by Roger Edens:

"I've played the State, The Capitol, But people said "Don't stop. Until you've played the Palace, You haven't played the top." For years I had it preached to me And drummed into my head: "Unless you've played the Palace, You might as well be dead." A team of hoofers was the headline At the Majestic down in Dallas, But they canceled the day Their agent called to say, "You can open the bill at the Palace." So it became the Hall of Fame, The Mecca of the trade; When you had played the Palace, You knew that you were made. So I hope you'll understand my wondrous thrill, "Cause vaudeville's back at the Palace, And I'm on the bill!"

The improbable events that led to this fantasy-come-true started in the fall of 1951. I was living in New York and happened on an announcement in one of the papers that the Palace, after many inglorious years, was planning to re-open on a two-a-day basis with an old-time vaudeville show headed by Judy Garland.  I have never been an opening night freak, but I adored Judy, had written the songs for one of her movies, Meet Me in St. Louis, and thought to myself, "This is one opening night I'd like to attend."  Someone tipped me off that she was staying at the Waldorf, so I phoned her, hoping I wasn't being a nuisance.  She was cordial as could be, so I screwed up my courage and asked if it would be possible to get a couple of house seats for the première.

"I have a better idea," she said without missing a beat.  "Sitting in the audience is so ordinary.  Why don't you sit on stage with me?"

Hugh: Judy, you shouldn't kid an old friend.

Judy: I'm not kidding,

I felt a little light-headed.

Hugh: Isn't Roger coming east to play for you?

Judy: He can't, he's in production with something for Arthur and they're right in the thick of it.

Roger was Roger Edens, her long-time and brilliant mentor; Arthur was Arthur Freed, MGM's top producer of musical films.

Hugh: Are you serious?

Judy: Never more so. I know you're terribly busy, but it's only for three weeks.  I would so love it if you would.

Hugh: How much will I have to pay you?

She laughed that marvelous Judy Garland laugh.

Judy: I'll talk to Sid about it.

Sid Luft was her manager and soon-to-be third husband.  I liked him immediately.

That was a watershed moment in Judy's career at a time when she felt threatened and rejected.  Sid thought the time was ripe for her to get away from the cameras and back to her roots: vaudeville, the medium in which she had made her dèbut at age two singing "Jingle Bells."  His first project for her was the London Palladium. He contacted the bookers, and he and Judy were gratified at the immediate interest. The British had always deeply loved her, and her four weeks there quickly sold out.

What next?  Sid felt it had to be the New York Palace.  Judy and Mickey Rooney, in their early juvenile "Let's put on a show!" movies, never stopped talking about playing the Palace, so what was more logical?  The deal was set, and Roger Edens started writing an act for her.  Old friends from MGM expressed a desire to help in any way possible; Chuck Walters agreed to stage the act and Irene Sharaff to costume it.  After I came on board, I was flown to Hollywood to observe the fruits of everyone's labors, and especially to be coached by Roger on how my piano accompaniments could bring out the best in Judy vocally.

Early in October we assembled at the Palace to start rehearsing.  It was a larger then usual company for a vaudeville act because Judy had brought along seven male dancers from California.  Most of them had worked with her in the "Get Happy" number in Summer Stock. There were other acts on the bill as well, so dressing rooms were at a premium.  I ended up in a little cubicle so high up in the flies that it made me dizzy to look down.

When Judy learned that my dressing room was practically in another building, she was annoyed at the management.  "That's crazy," she said, "and insulting to Hughie.  Sid, go ask Sol Schwartz if he can fix it for Hugh's room to be next to mine."  Sid told her that the dressing-room situation was tight and that there was no chance that mine could be moved.  She was disappointed.

"I know," she said suddenly.  "Hugh, look at this little annex in my room.  I'll never use it.  Is it big enough for you to dress in?"

"Well, sure," I said, "but what about your privacy?  There's no door." She thought a minute.  "What if we hung a sheet between us? Remember Clark and Claudette in It Happened One Night?"

I glanced at Sid.  No frown.  Good.

"Sounds fine to me," I said.

Sid told me later when we were alone that it helped solve one of his greatest problems—Judy's insecurity.

In my opinion and that of many others, Judy Garland was the greatest entertainer in the history of modern show business.  But try to tell her that!  In 1951 she felt like a failure, having just been fired by MGM, the only career home she had ever known. Perfectionist that she was, she often felt dissatisfied with her singing.  Most devastating of all for a woman, when she looked into her mirror, she saw someone disturbingly older than her Esther in Meet Me in St. Louis.

More about the Palace later.

Excerpted from The Boy Next Door by Hugh Martin. Copyright 2010 by Hugh Martin. Excerpted by permission of Trolley Press.

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