Included in the collection is a handwritten diary that Evans kept from 1939 to 1945, as he and Livingston struggled to establish themselves as songwriters.


Ray continued to commute every day from his Manhattan apartment to a dull clerical job in the accounting department of Edo Aircraft on Long Island. Back home at night, he worked on songs. Or at least he did if he could rouse his partner/roommate—who put a few coins together by writing arrangements for others and working as a rehearsal pianist—to action. One day he confided in his diary, “Came home late and Jay griped me by his indifference and apathy. I make suggestions, he rejects them, and that is as far as they get.”

Ray’s mother, Helen, who was back home in Salamanca, New York, was not the most stable person in the world, and her nagging letters only added to his anxiety. At one point she complained, “I visualized myself in expensive clothes, cars, money and everything else through you but I guess not.” Her idea of advice was misguided, to say the least: “From now on, do not let any one know if you can help it that you are Jewish as I feel from the bottom of my heart that has been the greatest handicap you have had and if any one asks what church you go to tell them Christian Science.”

In 1939 as in 2012, however, contacts were priceless, and Mrs. Evans was indeed helpful in this regard. She got in touch with a former mayor of Salamanca, George Abbott, whose son, George Abbott Jr., was the biggest musical comedy director on Broadway. The elder Abbott replied to her that normally he didn’t get involved in these matters, but, “My son George Abbott of New York was a Salamanca boy; and, I make an exception by enclosing herewith the introduction you request.” It seemed Ray and Jay’s big break had finally come.

Evans’ diary tells what happened next:

23 April: … Saw George Abbott Saturday afternoon. He was very friendly and courteous, and he had a pleasant laugh that made me feel entirely at ease. He said that no place of the theater has such a shortage as the music end. So he promised to call me for an audition.

1 May: Had our audition. He made no comment whatsoever, laughed at the risqué song and asked Love Resistance to be repeated … After the audition was over George Abbott merely said “goodbye.”


Four days later came a letter from Abbott. Ray ripped it open hopefully, then sighed when he read its brief contents. (Evans’ yearning for success is so palpably present in his letters and diary entries that it’s impossible to avoid imagining his feelings and actions.) There would be no big break; even the praise the director could muster was profoundly faint. “I thought both the lyrics and the music were good, though not brilliant,” he wrote. “I think you will both do better work as you mature, and I shan’t forget you. There is nothing I have to suggest for the present.”

With rather remarkable persistence, Ray and Jay kept at writing and peddling, as Jack Yellen had suggested, and within the year they started to see more of their songs published, performed, and recorded. There were still struggles, however, and their period of professional uncertainty didn’t definitively end till the night in March 1949 when they sat in a Hollywood theater and heard their tune “Buttons and Bows” announced as the winner of the Academy Award for Best Song. Livingston and Evans went on to win two more best-song Oscars, for “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera, Sera.” They would also write two Broadway shows; one of the top-selling Christmas songs of all time, “Silver Bells”; such hits as “Tammy,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Dear Heart” and “To Each His Own”; and, not least, two of the most memorable theme songs in television history, “Bonanza” and “Mr. Ed.” By the time they were done, Ray calculated that 26 of their songs had sold a million records or more, and that total record sales had exceeded 500 million.

As a Wharton grad, Ray was always doing such ciphering. His accountant background and inclinations may also have contributed to the fact that, of all American songwriters, he was without question the biggest magpie and packrat. Ray held on to everything, from his mother’s nutty correspondence, to the Dear John letter he received in 1939 from the former Helen Ecker (“I know that you will understand while I pen this rather difficult note”), to the smallest Billboard clipping indicating that Tony Martin happened to perform one of his and Jay’s songs in a nightclub act in Toledo. Then there was his diary, to which he contributed longhand entries from 1939 to 1945.

Ray Evans died in 2007 [“Obituaries,” July|Aug 2007]; his wife, Wyn Ritchie Evans, had passed away four years earlier.  Last year, the Ray & Wyn Ritchie Evans Foundation donated the couple’s papers and memorabilia to the University of Pennsylvania libraries, and also provided a $200,000 grant to cover the costs of cataloguing, digitizing, and promoting the materials on campus and on the web.  (An exhibition focusing on seven Oscar-nominated songs, “Silver Bells and Oscar Gold: Ray Evans in Hollywood,” opens April 11 and runs through October 29 at Van Pelt Library’s Eugene Ormandy Gallery.)
 


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