Santa Claus Came to Town For the First Time Thanksgiving 1932
Written in 1932, it was Thanksgiving Day in 1934, the 22 of November, when the world first heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
That was on the Eddie Cantor Show. Since that day, hundreds of artists have covered the song. It’s been as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe and pine trees.
What’s interesting about the first big performance of the song was how the man behind it, Eddie Cantor, was a jack of so many trades. Yet many young adults would hardly recognize his name today.
The Cantor recording wasn’t the very first, but that was the recording that put the song on the Christmas map. It would be two more decades before the song made the charts, and three before it hit the big screen.
But, without Cantor’s Show, the world may have never known the man in red was coming to town.
The Eddie Cantor Show
In the early days of radio and television, a self-branded show was the way to blow up. Just look what it did for Howdy Doody and he wasn’t even real.
Cantor started on the stages of vaudeville in 1907, but eventually got his own radio show, where he’d play songs and perform comedic bits.
Born as Edward Israel Itzkowitz on January 31, 1892, he went by Eddie Cantor professionally, but most people called him “Banjo Eyes.” He picked up that nickname for his trademark move of making his eyes bug-out.
Someone even wrote a musical, in which Cantor starred on Broadway, Banjo Eyes.
The sort of songs Cantor played were peppy fun songs like “Makin Whoopee,” “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” and yes… “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Cantor wasn’t only fun and games. He was the second president of the Screen Actors Guild, and was the guy who thought up the name “The March of Dimes.”
On that occasion, he’d asked radio show listeners to mail President Franklin D. Roosevelt a dime as the most notable American suffering from polio. The White House received almost 3-million dimes in the mail.
The man had talent, but he also had sway.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
According to legend, Haven Gillespie wrote the song in 1933 while riding a New York subway. He was on his way to a publisher’s office when the lyrics came to him.
Gillespie had a reputation for writing catchy children’s songs, but he’d turned down the request to write the song. His brother had just died so writing a catchy Christmas songs didn’t sound like a good idea.
But, the song proposal stuck in his head while ruminating on Christmases with his brother. “Be good,” Gillespie’s mother had advised the boys, “Santa is watching.”
Like that the song hit him. He scribbled them on the outside of an envelope then asked composer J. Fred Coots to create a melody. Two years later that song young up in front of Eddie Cantor via Coots, who was a writer for the show at the time.
The Santa Claus song aired on the 1934 Thanksgiving show, live. It was a hit.
They made no recordings of that show, so there’s no way to listen to it now, but one can measure the effect of the performance in what happened next. Requests for the sheet music emptied off shelves. Within 24 hours, orders for 5000,000 copies went out.
The Life of the Song
When the labels first heard the song, music producers assumed it was too childish to make money. After all, what do kids do to drive Christmas sales?
In the long run, various artists would record some 200 versions of the song. Gillespie became a millionaire thanks to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Only two Christmas songs outperform it, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “White Christmas.”
Cantor may have started the fire, but it was Perry Cuomo who made it a recorded hit in the 1940s. Then, everyone who did a Christmas album had to record it, Sintra, Elvis, Dean Martin, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Bruce Springsteen unleashed his gritty style on the song back in ’75. Five years before that, an animated film by the same name featured the song. If it wasn’t already there, that film permanently fixed the song in the box labeled “Christmas Stuff.”
Cantor recorded songs, starred in movies, produced TV shows, voiced cartoons, wrote books, and even starred on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Well, sort of; a character based on him stars on the show.
Still, his performance of Santa Claus is Coming to Town was the most resonant performance of them all. That one, everybody knows, even if they don’t know they know it. There is a version is almost every major language, including a Navajo version.
Everybody wants to know when the big man is coming to town, thanks to Eddie Cantor.