The song Winter Wonderland has been a holiday standard for more than 70 years. The fact that its lyrics were written by a Wayne County, Pa. man, Richard B. “Dick” Smith is fairly well known locally.
HONESDALE - The song Winter Wonderland has been a holiday standard for more than 70 years. The fact that its lyrics were written by a Wayne County, Pa. man, Richard B. “Dick” Smith is fairly well known locally. But just how did he come up with the idea?
Some newly discovered information sheds more light on the inspiration.
His late sister Marjorie W. Smith said that he was inspired by how the snow decorated the park across from their house at 922 Church St., Honesdale, where Dick was raised. That’s just part of the story.
The writer of this story can attest to the beauty of the snowy landscape in Central Park, being brought up at 914 Church Street, two doors away from their friends, the Smiths.
Late at night, a good snow blankets the park and tree limbs, illuminated by the lamps, which make the cascade of snowflakes glow as they filter down to make another layer of white.
The Civil War statue also takes on a tall and whimsical, snowy cap, which Smith would have seen. Every winter there is a wonderful hush as snow piles in the park and streets, and so few are about. In Smith’s time as a child, snow plows were not the norm and people still fitted their horse buggies with sleigh runners.
Snow lines the majestic face of Irving Cliff, visible from the park, where since 1955 a Christmas Star has added to the scene.
These properties being small, there is no doubt that Dick Smith and his brother Warren, and sisters Marion and Marjorie enjoyed the park as if it were their own “front yard.” They must have made a legion of snowmen and had many a snowball fight there, as generations of kids did in the years that followed.
Smith was born in Honesdale in 1901; he graduated Honesdale High School in 1920, and Penn State College in 1927. He aggressively pursued his passion for song writing once he moved to New York City, a tough,competing market for young lyricists and composers, hoping to be published.
Smith came down with tuberculosis (TB), a respiratory ailment. In early 1934 he was confined to West Mountain Sanitarium in Scranton, a hospital for TB patients. His wife, Jean Connor Smith, was a nurse, and came back with Smith from New York to be by his side.
In later years his widow said in an interview that Dick was inspired to write Winter Wonderland while in the sanitarium that winter. He looked out the window at the neighborhood children playing in the snow, and it took him back to his healthy, carefree days of his own upbringing- and surely his memories of the park.
Taking a pen to paper, he wrote the famous lines that would enshrine his legacy and help brighten the world each year, lifting our spirits through the long, cold winter.
Rallying, he left the hospital, and returned to New York. A friend, Felix Bernard, was a professional composer, and together they prepared the song for the publishers. After many rejections, RCA Victor recorded the song that fall. His big break was when the great band leader Guy Lombardo introduced the song at his Christmas Show in 1934, at Radio City Music Hall. His song was heard far and wide, and commanded the attention of many big name recording artists.
His alumni, Penn State, published an interview with Smith in February 1935, in The Garnet and White. This was the monthly publication of Smith’s college fraternity, Alpha Chi Rho.
The magazine’s editor repeated a couple stories about how Dick Smith coined the title,”Winter Wonderland.”
The editorial states, “Dick tells us he got the title a couple of years ago while strolling through the Pocono Mountains on New Year’s eve. A girl in the party, awed by the beauty of snow-topped peaks and pine trees bending low beneath a myriad of snow flakes, gasped: ‘This is like a Winter Wonderland.’ Dick saw the possibility of a song title and, with frozen fingers, quickly dashed it down on the back of a tailor’s bill.
“Another version is that Felix Bernard met Smith on Broadway one day last summer during one of the heat waves and they went in to have some lunch at the automat and wrote, ‘Winter Wonderland’ on one of the stone-topped tables.
“Anyway, they’re both good stories.”
At this late date it is hard to reconcile all the details; each may have contributed to the inspiration Smith received.
Winter Wonderland was only one of at least 10 published songs to Smith’s credit, but the only one instantly recognized by the general public to this day. Smith only began to see Winter Wonderland gain in success, when his TB came back. Less than a year after the son’s release, on September 28,1935, the eve of his 34th birthday, Smith died in a hospital in New York.
His legacy would live on.
Today, as then, a young couple in love may still take to the park’s paths and leaving a double set of footprints, close together in the snow. A snowman may still be built named Parson Brown, and there remains plenty of dreaming to be done, warmed by the fire.
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. Council declared that the newly re-dedicated Star, a tradition in Honesdale since 1955, will stay. The decision was made in the wake of a challenge to the Star and Cross having been erected on borough land.
Editor’s note: Many more details, and pictures about Dick Smith and Winter Wonderland have been compiled for a small book, published this November 2018 by the Wayne County Historical Society in Honesdale. A second printing is already being planned.
The writer thanks Penn State University alumnus and Alphi Chi Ro member, Jeff Turco, for bringing his attention to the Garnet and White article.