Up in Smoke By Peter Filichia
“L&M to Lucky Strike.”
So goes a lyric in “Here’s Love,” the title song from Meredith Willison’s 1963 musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street.
I listen to it every holiday season, for it takes place during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas — and I’ve always adored its title song.
“Here’s Love” is first and foremost a list song, but unlike “You’re the Top” or “Cherry Pies Ought to Be You,” it has a decided message to impart. For the ever-optimistic Willson urged that at least through the holiday season, every rival should declare a truce and say “Here’s love” to an arch enemy. Among the adversaries he cited were Dallas and Fort Worth; CBS and NBC; dogs and cats; Michelob and Blatz; Army and Navy; pitchers and hitters; Cinderella and her sisters.
And “L&M to Lucky Strike” — two cigarette brands that were then ultra-popular.
Doesn’t this prove how ingrained cigarettes once were in American society? These were the years when an estimated 42% of Americans smoked. Now, most of us are happy to say, the figure hovers around (a still-too-high) 15%.
With fifty-four years under “Here’s Love’s” belt, many of the references have greatly dated. JFK, Khrushchev, Castro, Norman Vincent Peale, Elizabeth Taylor — all gone. And while L&M and Lucky Strikes are still with us (more’s the pity) if a song along the lines of “Here’s Love” were written today, its lyricist might well include the names of competing cities, networks, animals, beers, organizations, baseball players and fictional characters. Cigarettes, however, would not be included probably because they wouldn’t even be on a songwriter’s radar. That’s how far they’ve fallen out of mainstream consciousness.
Few if any would have predicted that in, say, 1949, when
one of the most talked about sight gags came courtesy of South Pacific and director Joshua Logan. Luther Billis, in drag after having played Honey Bun to Nellie Forbush, lights up and has no place to put his ashes. So he decides to flick them into one of his coconut bra cups. Yes, that got a laugh, but not as big as the one that would come seconds later — when one of those ashes turned out to be a still-hot ember that showed no concern for his chest hair.
Oscar Hammerstein might not have thought of that one, but in 1955 he did acknowledge smoking in one of his Pipe Dream songs. Doc sings about his growing affection for Suzy. “You start to light her cigarette and” — here comes the title — “All at once you love her.” When even the starry-eyed Hammerstein saw romance in smoking, you see how pervasive the habit was then in American life.
Eight lines later, Doc is thinking of what’s to come: “You kiss goodnight,” he croons, dismissing the fact that because Suzy has been smoking, the unappealing taste akin to burnt leaves will not be a consideration.
Right around the time that Pipe Dream debuted, filters were The New Big Thing in cigarettes. So in 1958, Hammerstein also included “Ball point pens and filter tips” in his lyric for “Chop Suey,” the Flower Drum Song track that championed all things American – including Zsa Zsa Gabor and Truman Capote.
Other famous names established that smoking was glamorous. B-level-actor Ronald Reagan showed the teeth as white as Milky White’s milk while hawking Chesterfields. Both Dick Van (Bye Bye Birdie) Dyke and Mary Tyler (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) Moore spoke of the pleasures of Kent cigarettes. And if anyone was glamorous and famous, it was Lily Garland who would complain “My cigarette is out” in Babette, the musical-within-the-fondly-remembered-musical On the Twentieth Century.
During the October ‘63-July ‘64 run of Here’s Love, the country’s Surgeon General released a report that said smoking was hazardous to one’s health. Still, some of our musical theater writers kept writing jingles for cigarettes. Shortly after composer Mitch Leigh penned Man of La Mancha, he wrote “The Dis-advantages of You” for Benson & Hedges. If you infer that it warned of the disadvantages of smoking, no: B&H cigarettes were 100mm while the average ciggie was 39/1000ths of an inch shorter, so the fiction was that they were always getting stuck in such things as closing elevator doors.
The instrumental was so winning that it became its own single record performed by The Brass Ring. The group didn’t quite catch the brass ring with it, but did see it hit #36 on the charts.
Richard Adler, co-composer-lyricist for The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, wrote a ditty: “Newport Filter Cigarettes.” On many occasions, he told me that it was the only song he ever regretted writing given what smoking had done to so many millions.
Perhaps The Surgeon General’s report inspired Alan Jay Lerner when he conceived On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, for he made cigarette smoking an important part of his plot. Daisy Gamble went to therapist Mark Bruckner in hopes he could keep her from inhaling packs a day. As she said in a line that made the Boston tryout but for some (inexplicably bad) reason was dropped for New York, “I’ve got yellow hands.” It was a joke based on the fact that heavy smokers wound up with yellow fingertips gained from unwanted nicotine and tar stains.
Two months before the film version of Clear Day opened in June, 1970, Congress had voted in favor of The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. It decreed that at the end of the year, commercials for “coffin nails,” as cigarettes were often called, would be banned on both television and radio. On January 1, 1971, The Tonight Show aired the last-ever ad.
Before that, though, the 1969 off-Broadway musical Promenade actually had a ditty called “The Cigarette Song.” A servant – originally played by the up-and-coming Madeline Kahn — sang “To walk down the street with a mean look in my face, a cigarette in my right hand, a toothpick in my left. To alternate between the cigarette and the toothpick? Ah, that’s life!”
Actually, one could effectively argue that if one didn’t opt solely for the toothpick, the line should be “Ah, that’s death!”
Since the Surgeon General’s report and The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, musicals set in “Time: Now” rarely included smoking. However, period pieces did. Annie, which takes place in 1933, had our heroine assume in her touching opening song “Maybe” that her wayward parents “collect ashtrays and art.” Actually, in the ‘30s, ashtray collecting was a minor indoor sport, mostly practiced by tourists who bought one as a souvenir of a honeymoon or vacation. Many others took them from their hotel room, for the “non-smoking room” was still decades away.
(By the way — have you ever noticed that “ashtray” is “trash” in Pig Latin?)
Although the frightfully underrated My Favorite Year was written in the early ‘90s, it was set in Benjy Stone’s beloved 1954. Because it involved a TV variety show, it referenced the Old Gold Cigarette commercials of yore. Two performers whose faces and torsos were totally masked in oversized cigarette packs only had their legs exposed as they danced across the stage.
Max Shulman, whose 1945 comic novel Barefoot Boy with Cheek was made into a musical, saw another of his books, Anyone Got a Match? — all about the cigarette industry — optioned for the musical stage; alas, it didn’t get much beyond that point.
However, when Shulman wrote the book for How Now Dow Jones, he had Kate and Charlie light up after their one-afternoon-stand and mention that’s what people tended to do after having sex. Then Kate arose and decided to “Walk Away,” a truly beautiful waltz, which you might not have expected from Elmer Bernstein; he did, after all, compose the pulsating theme for The Magnificent Seven.
And that, as oldsters may remember, was eventually repurposed as music for a Marlboro cigarette commercial to represent how ultra-butch smoking was. Several decades later when David Yazbek was writing “Men” for The Full Monty, he cited Bernstein’s famous theme to represent the ultimate in masculinity.
Three days after How Now, Dow Jones opened on December 7, 1967, Hair closed its off-Broadway run and was on its way to The Main Stem. This new musical didn’t mention cigarettes, but not for health reasons. It had a different kind of smoking on its mind.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.