'A Merry Little Christmas': Songwriter Hugh Martin Dies at 96

Hugh Martin wrote songs for Hollywood and Broadway for 70 years, including a Christmas classic

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Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

It's Christmas Eve, 1903, in St. Louis, and some members of the Smith family are anguished about leaving their home for Mr. Smith's new job in New York City. The six-year-old, Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), is especially desolate about having to leave the family of snow people she has helped build in the front yard. Her teenage sister Esther (Judy Garland) has her own miseries, facing separation from the boy next door who just asked her to marry him. To cheer Tootie and comfort herself, Esther sings a seasonal ballad, whose original lyric suggested a suicide note put to music:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
It may be your last.
Next year we may all be living in the past...

Garland and her director, Vincente Minnelli, who were falling in love in 1944 while making Meet Me in St. Louis, asked the film's songwriters, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, for a slightly less morbid lyric. Martin obliged with...

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight...

...and set the properly poignant tone for one of the loveliest, most longing of Christmas songs. In a career that spanned 70 years, Martin composed many numbers for Broadway and Hollywood musicals. As an arranger and vocal director he helped stars from Garland to Lucille Ball and Lena Horne find that special sparkle. But at his death Friday at 96, in Encinitas, Cal., Martin's most enduring work was a single song written 67 years ago.

Hugh Martin was born Aug. 14, 1914, in Birmingham, Ala., to an architect father and his wife Ellie, who was, the San Diego Tribune reported, "an accomplished musician and a lover of all things New York." That's where Hugh went after studying at Birmingham Southern College, and at 23 he was performing in (and arranging the music for) the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg satire Hooray for What! Also in the chorus was Blane, born Ralph Uriah Hunsecker 16 days before Martin, and fresh from Broken Arrow, Okla. The young men teamed as half of a vocal quartet, The Martins, that appeared on Fred Allen's radio program; and soon they forged a songwriting partnership.

The pair's first Broadway score was for the 1941 Best Food Forward, which spurred the careers of June Allyson, Nancy Walker and Stanley Donen and produced a hit song, the rah-rah "Buckle Down, Winsocki." Martin and Blane were clearly comers. "In five years they'll be the next Rodgers and Hart," a friend rhapsodized to Broadway impresario Max Gordon. The producer's reply: "Bring them back in five years." Instead, Arthur Freed brought them to MGM, where they worked on the movie version of Best Food Forward, importing most of the original cast and adding Ball as star catnip.

The plot for their next project, Meet Me in St. Louis, seemed singularly lacking in incident: a family plans to move to New York, then doesn't. But the Martin-Blane score infused the movie with warmth and verve. It set the time and locale with a jaunty hymn to electric vehicles "The Trolley Song" ("Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley"), cued the wistful tone with Garland's "The Boy Next Door" and served up battered optimism with their merry little holiday anthem. Like the big holiday hits of the previous two war years ("White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas"), this one served as consolation to women separated by an ocean from the fighting men they loved. After completing the score, Martin left Hollywood to serve in World War II. He and Blane were just 30 that year; neither knew that they had reached a peak they'd never again scale.

The team was unusual, Martin later explained, in that "Ralph and I both wrote music and we both wrote lyrics. Almost always each of us wrote songs unassisted by the other and simply pooled our work." (Martin also said that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was totally his composition.) In the '50s they collaborated on two Jane Powell musicals, Athena and The Girl Most Likely, and in 1989 wrote new songs for a Broadway version of Meet Me in St Louis. On his own, Martin wrote a 1948 show for Walker, Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'!"; the 1949 Make a Wish, with a book by Preston Sturges; and the 1964 Hugh Spirits, a musicalizing of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. With Alec Wilder's assistance he wrote a symphony, New England Suite. But his main employment was as a vocal arranger and accompanist, for Horne, Debbie Reynolds and, most notably, Garland in her comeback concert series at New York's Palace Theatre.

Martin may also have been the only pop compoer of eminence who was also a Seventh Day Adventist. In latter days he served as musical arranger and accompanist for religious-music contralto Del Delker. With the help of Delker and John Fricke, he rewrote his most enduring song as "Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas." In sacred or secular form, Hugh Martin's greatest hit remains a carol for all Christmases.