By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
A CHRISTMAS TALE WITH SOME TEETH IN IT
In the early seventies my then wife and I bought our first house in Wellesley, MA. On the
day that we moved in the man who lived across the street came ambling over to welcome
us to the neighborhood. His name was Don Gardner and, while not famous himself, it
came out in our first conversation with him that he had once done something that turned
out to be quite famous. He wrote the words and music to “All I Want for Christmas Is My
Two Front Teeth.”
“The Teeth,” as its composer referred to it, is generally dismissed as a trite novelty song,
but it retains its popularity year after year. That’s because it is about something universal
to every man and woman who has ever walked the face of the earth, the rite of passage
when we lose our baby teeth to make way for the adult set which is on the way. We first
learn the song when we are about seven years old and going through the experience
ourselves, then we relearn it a generation later when we have children of our own, and
then again years after that when the grandkids come along.
The story of how “The Teeth” was written and how it became famous bears retelling.
In 1942 Don Gardner was in charge of the music department in the Smithtown, New
York, school system. He was organizing a Christmas concert to be given by the grammar
school children and was searching for an appropriate song for the second-graders to
perform when he noticed that a large proportion of them were missing some of their
teeth. He went home that night and put together “The Teeth” in less than an hour. The
kids sang it at the concert, the audience loved, it and that was the end of it – until what
A few years later Don went to work for Ginn and Company, the publisher of school
textbooks. The job required that he attend various conferences around the country, and
when he did he’d find a piano and lead his fellow conference-goers in a sing-along, and
he’d throw a couple of his own songs into the mix, including “The Teeth.” The song was
always a big hit and, to make a long story short, Spike Jones heard about it. Jones, whose
band, The City Slickers, had instruments that included cowbells, train-whistles, clappers
and all kinds of zany sound-effects, met with Gardner in 1946 and secured the rights to
record it, with Don retaining ownership. Christmas came and went that year and nothing
happened with the song. Don assumed that the deal was dead.
But there was a musicians’ strike the following year, 1947, and in anticipation of it
artists had stockpiled recordings to be released later in the year. In November, as Gardner
was returning home from yet another conference, he thought he heard a woman in Grand
Central Station humming his song. Then he was sure he heard a baggage handler singing
it. “The Teeth” had been released that week and was a run-away smash hit. When he first
heard Jones’ recording of it, with all the honking horns and clanging bells, Don was
appalled, but he calmed down once the royalty checks started to roll in.
In those years there was always a Christmas song that dominated record sales during the
season; in 1947 it was Spike Jones’ “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,”
in 1948 it was Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song” – you know,
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – that one. Its composer, Mel Torme, reaped the
benefits of the millions of records it sold. So did Don Gardner. On the B-side of that
recording Cole had sung “The Teeth.” In the years since it has been recorded by countless
artists and by groups as diverse as the Muppets of Sesame Sreet and the London
Philharmonic Orchestra (presumably without the cowbells).
Evergreen trees are very big at Christmas; so are evergreen songs, and “All I Want for
Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” is one of them. It will never go out of style because
there is a new crop of kids losing their baby teeth every year.
It did not take long for our family to fall head over heels in love with Don Gardner and
his wife Doris. They were the perfect neighbors and became a bonus set of grandparents
for our kids. Even when we moved to the neighboring town of Wayland we remained
close. Every Christmas Eve we would invite the neighbors, their children, and a few close
friends over for a cup of Christmas cheer and a visit from the Jolly Old Elf hinself (this
is where I take a deep bow for my portrayal). The highlight of those evenings, though,
would come when Don would produce a zither-like instrument and play while Doris, who
could be quite theatrical, would sing “The Teeth;” on the second chorus the whole gang
would join in, including children, at the top of their voices. What grand times they were
and what golden memories we have.
But, as the years slip by, things change. Marriages – some of them, anyway – end.
Children grow up and move on to lead lives and build families of their own. Don and
Doris Gardner have both passed away but the song he wrote seventy-five years ago for
the second-graders in Smithtown, New York lives on and will last for as long as children
lose their baby teeth. My two daughters and former wife are all California girls now and
have been for some time. I’m back in Boston where I belong but am far from alone; I
have more friends than I can count; I am a part of the Red Sox family and am blessed to
be so; I feel like I am part of the fabric of this old town I love so well. My bones are
beginning to creak a little but my creative muscle seems to be as strong and as supple as
ever and I plan to keep exercising it. I love writing my Musings and reciting my Red Sox
Verses and Curses, and another book is in the works.
As you read this I am in California, surrounded by love and wrapped in warm memories,
but I’m coming home soon. Life is good. I hope it is for you, too.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season.