Thursday, December 17, 2015

Meet Me in St. Louis This Christmas

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the December 17, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Apparently, the French are the only people who pronounce St. Louis without an s. Consider, for instance, the Louis kings of France. You most likely think Louis with a French accent. The folks who settled St. Louis in 1764, Pierre Lacl├Ęde and Auguste Chouteau, may have assumed that the city (named after Louis IX) would have always kept its proper pronunciation.

Missourians, however, identify you as an outsider if you leave off the s in the name of their beloved St. Louis. It's St. Louis (“lou-is”), and that’s that.

Regrettably for me, I've visited St. Louis once only (other than the airport). That was over thirty years ago, yet the impression the city made on me has endured as if it were yesterday. 

Ascending the massive Gateway Arch was one of my life’s all-time highs, no pun intended. The first people to move up the 630-foot structure on the western bank of the Mississippi River did so in 1967 when it opened to the public. It remains the highest man-made structure in the Western Hemisphere in 2015. (At least ten other structures in the world are currently built higher. The tallest, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, stands at 2,722 feet.)

A striking 45,000 sq. ft. Museum of Westward Expansion is built at the base of the Gateway Arch. President Jefferson understood America’s survival as an self-sufficient nation as successful expansion into the lands west of the Mississippi River. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase increased the size of the United States by 100%. It extended from Canada to the north to New Orleans to the south; from the Mississippi River to the east and to the Rocky Mountains to the west.  I was especially impressed by the history and, well, the expansiveness of the museum.

1903 was the 100th year after the Louisiana Purchase and naturally, St. Louis was chosen to host the celebration.  The Louisiana Purchase Exposition or 1904 World’s Fair opened the next year.  At the time, St. Louis was a city of over half a million people and significant corporations such as Ralston-Purina and Anheuser-Busch were founded there. The much-anticipated World’s Fair was built on 1,400 acres of land with 1,500 buildings. Nearly 20,000,000 people attended the fair during the seven months it was open. The 1904 Olympic Games were also held at the same time, but the fanfare was unspectacular. Apparently, Puffed Wheat and Dr. Pepper, both which debuted during the fair, were much more exciting and overshadowed the sports competitions.

My list of beloved Christmas movies (among those my family finds especially annoying, such as Love Actually) includes National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Trapped in Paradise, and standards like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and the other usual suspects. As early as Thanksgiving weekend, a more recent favorite film, the Family Stone (2005) finds its way onto my DVD player just as it has found its way into my heart and to the very top of my must-sees.

One of the scenes in The Family Stone is a cut from the brilliant Technicolor film, Meet Me in St. Louis.  In one scene, Judy Garland (playing Esther in the Smith family) sings to her littlest sister in an effort to cheer the five-year old up. Garland croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in especially poignant way. In yet a different scene, Esther dances with her grandfather to the orchestral music of Auld Lang Syne. Both film cuts portend the grief that the New Year will bring to the Stone family, just as they are touching scenes in Meet Me in St. Louis.

Shortly after Christmas, the Smith family is about to move to New York, a decision their father has rashly made that will effectively ruin all four of his daughters’ lives. But it’s Christmas Eve and the ballroom in the fine house is elegant, the handsome, young gentlemen are plentiful, and Judy Garland and her gorgeous red dress are lovely and memorable.

Judy Garland’s performance was considered as somewhat her debut as the beautiful woman she had become. She had left her awkward childhood and adolescence behind at 21. Director Vincent Minelli was equally as enchanted.  He and Garland were married the next year, in 1945.

Meet Me in St. Louis was based on short stories by Sally Benson. They were published in a series of vignettes in The New Yorker between June of 1941 and May of 1942. The eight-part series titled 5135 Kensington was based on Benson’s childhood growing up on St. Louis' fashionable Kensington Avenue. Four stories were added to the collection and an entire book was published by Random House as Meet Me in St. Louis just as the as the movie script was being finalized. A copy of the hard-to-find book is in the Minuteman Library Network's catalog.

Interestingly, the film was not actually shot in St. Louis but was filmed in a large back lot of the MGM studios in Culver City (near Hollywood.)  Large Victorian houses were constructed on a fictitious grand avenue to replicate the Kensington Avenue neighborhood of 1904.  Author Sally Benson approved the interior and exterior designs. The interior of the house is exquisite and the luxury of the day is not lost. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Kensington Avenue in Norwood at the turn of the 20th Century – the home of George Morrill, benefactor of the Morrill Memorial Library was very similar.


The film was remade for television in 1966 and the Broadway musical debuted in 1989 and successfully ran in New York for one year.  Two songs, Meet Me in St. Louis (written in 1904) and the Trolley Song (“ding, ding, dong goes the trolley” written for the film in 1944) became great hits along with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The film is considered Judy Garland’s most memorable one after The Wizard of Oz.   It made massive profits for MGM. Certainly, moviegoers have loved it for over 70 years; it is a favorite among those of us who meet each other in St. Louis for the Christmas season every year.