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"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight
We're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland"
Richard Smith, of Honesdale, Pa., penned those lines in 1934, while at the West Mountain Sanitarium in Scranton, being treated for Tuberculosis.
Born in Honesdale on September 29 1901, Richard Smith grew up in a house with a direct view of Honesdale's Central Park and the Wayne County Courthouse. He learned to play the piano as a child there.He graduated from Honesdale High School in 1920, and went on to Penn State, where he conducted the school orchestra. He was also editor-in-chief of the newspaper, and he wrote several songs for the glee club. After graduation, he managed movie theaters in Connecticut, New York City, and Tennessee.
Smith married Jean Connor, a nurse from Scranton, in 1930. The couple lived in New York, where Smith was attempting to sell his jingles.
In 1931, Smith contracted tuberculosis. The couple returned to Pennsylvania, and Smith was admitted to Scranton's West Mountain Sanatorium, where he spent his time writing jingles and ads and entering contests. He won first prize in a Maybelline Eye Shadow slogan contest ("The Eyes Have It") and started writing songs--including "When A Gypsy Makes A Violin Cry," "Bringing My Honey Back To Me, and "Winter Wonderland."
Dick, as he was called by friends and family, was inspired as looked out the window at the neighborhood children playing in the snow. Both his widow, and sister, in later years said that he was reminded of his healthy, carefree days of playing in Central Park in Honesdale, across from his childhood home.
Recovering from his TB symptoms, Smith was able to leave the sanitarium and return to New York, where he collaborated with his friend Felix Bernard. Bernard was a professional composer, and together they added music to the lyrics. After many rejections, RCA Victor recorded the song that fall.
"Winter Wonderland" was an immediate hit. Guy Lombardo introduced the song at his Christmas Show in 1934, at Radio City Music Hall. The song was heard far and wide, and commanded the attention of many big name recording artists. But it was not until 1946, years after the death of Bernard and Smith, when Perry Como & The Andrews Sisters recorded the song, that it became the popular Christmas classic we know today.
The song has topped the list of the 10 most played Christmas songs every year since 2002, and was the second most played Christmas song in 2007.
Smith published at least 10 songs in his short career as a songwriter, but "Winter Wonderland" is the only one instantly recognized by the general public today. He had just begun to see success, when, less than a year after "Winter Wonderland" was released, his tuberculosis returned. Smith died on September 28, 1935, on the eve of his 34th birthday, in a New York hospital. He had recently accepted a contract to write music in Hollywood, but died a month before he was to make the trip.
Tuberculosis, also called consumption, was a highly contagious disease that primarily affected the lungs but also caused other body tissue to waste away. It was the most common cause of death throughout the 19th century. TB sanatoriums were places that provided treatment for TB patients and took the patients out of their home, which reduced the chance to spread TB to their families. Patients were treated for TB with fresh air, good food and sometimes surger.
In 1907, Emily Bissel, a social worker, wanted to help raise money for a local sanatorium. She designed the first “Christmas Seals” stamp and sold them for a penny. The first year, she raised $3,000 – 10 times what she hoped to collect. This began the tradition of selling Christmas Seals to raise money for TB sanatoriums.
On December 12, 2018, Honesdale Borough Council passed an ordinance officially designating the electric Christmas Star on Irving Cliff, the “Winter Wonderland Star” in memory of Richard B. “Dick” Smith. In addition, there is a small plaque on the front porch of a privately owned house in Honesdale that was once Smith's childhood home.
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