The Winter Playground
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Hollywood historians shed light on the role that Vermont played in influencing Irving Berlin’s beloved film, White Christmas
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY HLC PROPERTIES
The holidays are a truly magical time of year. As the nights grow longer and the temperatures drop, familiar sights and sounds evoke feelings of nostalgic wonder. If you turn on the radio or television during the peak of the holiday season, you will likely stumble upon some of the same classic songs and films that have charmed and delighted holiday merrymakers for several generations. One of the most universally-beloved songs from the American holiday canon is Irving Berlin’s seminal classic, “White Christmas.” While the treasured tune has been recorded by a vast number of gifted musicians over the years, no cover can compare to the original version, performed by famed singer and entertainer Bing Crosby.
“White Christmas” was originally performed by Crosby on the NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas day in 1941. (Crosby was concurrently filming Holiday Inn for Paramount Pictures, in which the song was also prominently featured.) “White Christmas” found considerable success as a hit holiday single in the years following its release, but it reached new levels of cultural relevance when it served as the opening and closing theme for the blockbuster 1954 feature film White Christmas. Set mostly in the tranquil and picturesque fictitious village of Pine Tree, Vermont, White Christmas takes viewers on a lighthearted and whimsical feel-good romp. The film is no doubt best known for its heartwarming story and iconic soundtrack, but it also serves as an unapologetic love letter to Vermont, its culture, and its outdoor scenery.
Although the movie White Christmas was not filmed in Vermont, multiple references to Vermont’s natural beauty and rustic mystique are sprinkled throughout the script. Over the years, the film has become inextricably linked to the Green Mountain State. Just as Vermont played a pivotal role in enhancing the charming and romantic atmosphere of the film, the film also played an integral part in bringing Vermont new levels of worldwide exposure as its emergent winter tourism industry was beginning to develop. As White Christmas continues to warm the hearts of both new and old viewers this holiday season, we reached out to several esteemed Hollywood historians and entertainment writers to provide a deeper behind-the-scenes look at the film and its ties to Vermont. Their commentary provides crucial perspective on the multiple ways that Vermont helped to shape the story of White Christmas and sheds new light on the enduring impact and cultural legacy of the film.
The song “White Christmas” was originally workshopped by Irving Berlin in the mid-to-late 1930s, but it was not completed and finalized until 1941. Before the song was premiered by Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall radio show, Berlin made the crucial decision to omit the song’s original opening verse from his performance:
“The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the twenty-fourth, And I am longing to be up north.”
Though original sheet printings of the sheet music for “White Christmas” did feature the opening introduction, Berlin eventually ordered that the introduction be removed from future printings after realizing that the cultural impact of the song had grown far beyond the original composition.
According to Robert Bader, Vice President of HLC Properties and overseer of Bing Crosby’s archives, this critical change allowed “White Christmas” to appeal to a wider range of audiences. “Taking that original verse out made the song truly resonate around the world. Had those original lines stayed in the song, the Vermont connection with the film White Christmas might not have ended up being nearly as strong.”
Bader adds that the change also played an important part in making “White Christmas” a song that captured the homesick feelings of soldiers who were fighting overseas in World War II at the time of its release. “The song ‘White Christmas’ brought immense amounts of comfort to World War II soldiers, which directly led to the song’s enduring success. Bing Crosby also performed at several special overseas concerts for soldiers during World War II. He was driven around in Army jeeps near the front lines, and his concerts helped to revive the morale of the troops who were fighting over there.” Crosby’s wartime performances later served as the inspiration for the opening scene of the film White Christmas, where his onscreen character, Bob Wallace,
performs “White Christmas” to an audience of World War II soldiers. In the first moments of the scene, Bob Wallace stands in front of a picturesque painting of a wintry mountain forest scene with Phil Davis, who is played by Crosby’s charismatic co-star, Danny Kaye. In the scenes that follow, Crosby and Kaye’s characters team up as a performance duo, and go on to find considerable success in the entertainment industry. Through a series of serendipitous events, they eventually find themselves on a train to Vermont with their army friend’s beautiful sisters.
In one of the most memorable moments from White Christmas’ train scenes, Crosby and Kaye sit next to Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney in a booth in an otherwise-empty club car. In the center of the frame, a stylized tourism poster stands against a windowsill bearing the following words:
Vermont: The Winter Playground of America
Crosby’s character is initially hesitant to follow his creative partner and the aspiring starlets to Vermont, but he gradually opens up to the idea, as he sits in the booth by the tourism poster. The four of them then break into one of the film’s most spirited numbers, “Snow.” The song heavily references Vermont’s ski culture and wintry charm, and builds anticipation for Crosby, Kaye, Ellen and Clooney’s arrival in the Green Mountain State. When they finally arrive in the fictional town of Pine Tree, Vermont, they are greeted by a snowless landscape on their way to the Columbia Inn. Once there, Crosby and Kaye’s characters discover that the Columbia Inn is owned by General Waverly, a compassionate and stoic military commander who oversaw their infantry division during World War II. Finding the General in low spirits, Crosby and Kaye spend the rest of the film attempting to bring people to the inn to revive his business.
Although Crosby’s character is portrayed as an overworked singer and producer who is partial to city life, Bader reveals that the real Bing Crosby was a consummate outdoorsman. “The funny thing about it is that Bing loved to go skiing! He loved to go hunting and explore nature. He was also a proficient athlete. He played baseball and basketball in college. He comes across in the film as someone who hates to be outdoors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Author and producer John Fricke says that although the final version of the film White Christmas was set in Vermont, the script went through numerous changes before the final setting was chosen. Fricke explains that the original genesis of White Christmas was an Irving Berlin stage musical called, Stars On My Shoulder, co-written by Norman Krasna. The show was initially announced in 1948, and production was slated to begin in New York City later that year. “The musical originally was built around the story of a forgotten World War II general who was living in Brooklyn. Rodgers & Hammerstein were originally on board to produce the musical, but it was later shelved after they failed to reach a financial agreement with Krasna.” Several of the songs that Berlin had written for the original musical ended up in the film White Christmas, one ended up in his 1954 film There’s No Business Like Show Business, and one was featured in Berlin’s 1962 Broadway show Mr. President.
After Stars On My Shoulder was scrapped, Berlin went on to premier two Broadway musicals in the following two years: Miss Liberty (1949) and Call Me Madam (1950). “In between the premieres, Berlin began to work on a new script in 1949, entitled White Christmas. Berlin originally intended for the film to star Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, paired with two women that they met as a sister act in Florida. In an early version, the two girls that Crosby and Astaire meet wanted to go home to Connecticut for the holidays. Fred Astaire eventually bowed out and was replaced by Donald O’Connor. When O’Connor fell ill, Danny Kaye was rushed in to replace him, much to the benefit of the film.”
In the months that followed the initial revision, Berlin made the decision to change the setting of the film from Connecticut to Vermont. “Berlin realized that he wanted to build the story around the fact that snow was the livelihood of Vermont’s tourist economy,” says Fricke. “Vermont was chosen because it was widely regarded as a winter wonderland that skiers flocked to during the holiday season. While Connecticut is certainly snowy during the winter season, it didn’t have the same inherent cultural connection to the snow that Vermont did.” In one version of the script, the sisters that accompanied Crosby were native Vermonters. In the final version, they became singers who had been booked at the Columbia Inn as performers. Fricke adds that several preliminary versions of the script included campy and outlandish plot detours. “In one version, the two male leads take a plane up to seed the clouds to try to make it snow. They end up seeding clouds in the wrong place and destroying crops in the process. Another version includes a scene where perplexed Vermont townspeople try to figure out what has led to the uncharacteristically warm weather. In the course of their conversation, they blame the weather on flying saucers and the atom bomb.”
Once Vermont was chosen as the location for the film by Berlin, the film’s producers began to scout locations in Vermont for potential filming opportunities. Fricke says that there are several pages of documents in the White Christmas material held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library that feature late autumn weather reports, predictions and elevation listings for Brattleboro, Burlington, Waterbury, and Brandon.
In a 1953 draft of the script, a scene was proposed where Crosby would sing “White Christmas” in an attempt to cheer up his female companions’ unhappy feelings regarding the warm weather as they trek from the train station to the Columbia Inn. During the drive, they would pass by a snowless ski mountain, a melted skating rink and a sun-scorched toboggan slide. An additional suggested closing scene would feature a panoramic shot of the Columbia Inn and its surroundings, with a rustic chapel bell tower in the foreground surrounded by gently falling snow. Although these scenes never materialized, they nevertheless emphasize the importance of the film’s setting, and prove that the producers had every intent to showcase the beauty and majesty of Vermont’s natural scenery.
Fricke says that some of the most memorable moments from White Christmas that allude to its Vermont setting were actually improvised on-set by Crosby and Kaye. “One of the best examples of this is the moment where Crosby and Kaye first step off of the train and realize that they are dressed too warmly. When Kaye’s character complains about the long underwear that he’s wearing and the electric blanket underneath, Crosby replies ‘You’ll get a nice tan.’
Those spontaneous moments made White Christmas the classic film that it is. It’s a fun movie, and the actors and extras certainly had a good time on the set during its production.” Pop culture historian Kathy Brown is currently working with Fricke on a comprehensive book about White Christmas and its production process, which is tentatively slated to be released in the Fall of 2022. Entitled White Christmas: A Pictorial History of the Classic Holiday Film, the book came into existence as the result of a long-term collaboration between Steve and Heather Henry (proprietors of The Rosemary Clooney House in Augusta, Kentucky), Fricke, and Brown. The book will feature over 500 illustrations, which include high-resolution pictures from the film set, production files, costume tests, and set reference photos. The book also features in-depth interviews with actors, extras, and members of the production team. Brown encourages all fans of White Christmas and Rosemary Clooney to visit the Rosemary Clooney House, which hosts the largest collection of White Christmas movie memorabilia in the world.
Brown says that although the set for White Christmas is rumored to be made out of the framework of the same set that was used in Holiday Inn, the true story surrounding their similar appearance is far more complicated. “I’ve done very specific comparisons of the set photos for Holiday Inn and White Christmas. If you casually look at both sets side-by-side, you might notice similarities. However, the set production budget for White Christmas includes extensive expenditure listings for new set building materials. The Columbia Inn is much bigger than the Holiday Inn, and the Columbia Inn set also features more exterior windows than the Holiday Inn. In the cast party scene in White Christmas, the interior walls do slope in a similar way to the interior walls in several scenes in Holiday Inn. To my knowledge, that is the only set element that appears in both films. It could have been reused, or it could have been rebuilt to look just like it. Either way, it’s a beautifully-designed set.”
Brown says that through her extensive research process for the book, she has gained new appreciation for the setting of the film and the role it played in its overall development. “The best aspects of Vermont are lovingly reflected in this film,” says Brown. “Of all of the places that they could have picked to put the Columbia Inn, they chose Vermont. White Christmas wouldn’t have been the film it is without the Vermont connection, and I firmly believe that the film should serve as a great source of pride for all Vermonters.”