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Tracing Frosty's W.Va. connection

CHARLESTON,W.Va. -- While every songwriter wants his work to be heard and appreciated by just about everyone, Walter E. "Jack" Rollins is one of the very few for whom that dream came true.

"There are probably very few people in the world who haven't heard one of his songs," said West Virginia Music Hall of Fame founder Michael Lipton.

Rollins was born in 1906 in Keyser in Mineral County. He wrote more than 500 songs, an impressive number that was cited in his induction into the Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 15. But you -- and probably a couple billion people or so -- know him better by just two songs.

One of them is possibly playing this instant, in one version or another, on a radio station, TV or iDevice near you. That would be "Frosty the Snowman," with lyrics written by Rollins in 1950 and music by Steve Nelson. In proof that lightning can strike twice, the same duo crafted "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" the year before.

It doesn't take but a few words to start the average human brain going on the lyrics and melody to "Frosty," especially at this time of year. The deceptively simple song is, in fact, a compressed -- dare one say, almost melancholic? -- short story about a jovial snowman who magically comes to life after some kids place an old silk hat upon his icy head.

They race off around the town together, packing in as much fun as they can while Frosty ignores authority figures ("... Right to the traffic cop/And he only paused a moment when/He heard him holler 'Stop!"). After all, the hot sun threatens to end Frosty's life in a puddle of mush, so he has to live it up big time. ("Frosty the Snowman/had to hurry on his way...)

The song was first covered by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950. From there followed everyone from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald to Leon Redbone, The Partridge Family and the Cocteau Twins. "Mountain Stage" host Larry Groce recorded a version in 1976 for one of his Disney children's records.

It's fair to say that for 60 years and counting, Rollins' little song has entwined itself securely into the world's holiday DNA.

"It's hard to imagine anyone even wrote the song," said Lipton. "It seems like it just existed."

To put it another way, "It's beyond a classic," as one commenter writes on the Official Frosty the Snowman Facebook Page (which had been liked 12,515 times as of Wednesday afternoon).

Frosty also has his own Myspace page where you can send a personal e-mail message to him. You'll also discover, at least according to whomever set up the page, that Frosty is a 36-year-old male, still in the prime of his life. 

(It should be noted that Frosty has only 3,946 friends on Myspace, but that probably says less about Frosty and more about the fade to black of Myspace as the current social media of choice.)

But there's no reason even to get all post-modern and cleverly hip about the ongoing popularity of a celebrity who remains cool and, well, must remain cool to survive. Another comment on Frosty's Facebook page sums up his enduring appeal:

"I LOVE Frosty The Snowman. Favorite Christmas Cartoon, ever. I cry when Frosty melts... everytime. :("

The commenter refers to one of the song's offshoot cultural manifestations, which helped seal the deal of its ongoing fame. Generations of TV watchers know the character and song best through the Rankin-Bass 30-minute animated special, released in 1969 and narrated by Jimmy Durante with Jackie Vernon voicing Frosty.

But the real life tale of the man who wrote the song is captivating in its own way.

While growing up in Mineral County, Jack Rollins had to care for a mother who had been blinded by glaucoma. She wrote poetry, so he did, too, recalled Rollins's grandson, James Busemeyer, who lives near Cincinnati, where Rollins died in 1973 at age 66.

After hearing her son's poetry, Rollins' mother had a suggestion that would come to reverberate across the years, Busemeyer said in a phone interview.

"It was her who said 'Maybe you ought to put some music to it.' She always encouraged him quite a bit. He felt very close with her."

Still, as a younger man, Rollins never took the leap into full-time songwriting. By age 40, he was still working at New York's Penn Station, where he was first hired as a baggage handler. He wrote music on the side and sold his very first song for $5, according to the Music Hall of Fame bio on Rollins.

After an irate customer unloaded a volley of complaints one day, Rollins quit on the spot to become a full-time songwriter.

He and lyricist Steve Nelson had early success with "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." As the story goes, the song's initial title was "Reginald the Rabbit." After switching it to "Peter Cottontail," Rollins had the lyrics down in 15 minutes.

Rollins then moved to Hollywood, where a long string of songs ensued, including a key bit of editing. After being signed on to write the lyrics to a USDA Forest Service campaign for "Smokey Bear," it was he who added the 'the' -- since he was unable to fit "Smokey Bear" into the lyrics.

In addition to helping burn Peter Cottontail, Frosty the Snowman and Smokey the Bear into the world's collective brain, Rollins also had success writing popular music for big stars. He co-wrote tunes for George Jones and Eddy Arnold and penned a No. 1 hit for Hank Snow in 1953 with "I Don't Hurt Anymore."

Rollins' grandson recalls a grandfather who could write songs at the drop of a hat or mention of a phrase.

"When I was a kid, I'd be around the house and I'd say, 'Grandpa, write me a song about my gym shoes!' And he'd write a song about it. That's what he did," said Busemeyer who accepted his grandfather's Hall of Fame award.

Busemeyer still possesses his grandfather's original songwriting paperwork. You'll also find sitting in his house a key item which helped to birth some of those "beyond classic" lyrics from a man whose gravestone in Keyser, W.Va., also bears the name of "Frosty the Snowman."

"I've still got the piano Grandpa wrote his songs on. My granddaughters are learning how to play on it."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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