Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself.
In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics.
Blues singer Ethel Waters sang four of the songs, making As Thousands Cheer the first theatrical event in which black and white stars took the stage together with equal billing.
The first act closed with a big Fifth Avenue number, and Berlin wanted an old-fashioned song for it. He had trouble finding just the right kind of melody until he remembered “Smile and Show Your Dimple.” It required only some minor reworking and all new words.
He later explained that a hit song was like a marriage between the music and the words; “Easter Parade,” however first required the divorce of the tune and its not particularly successful original lyric. In this second marriage, he had a winner.
For centuries, the English-speaking world, at least, observed a tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter. In New York, high society had long indulged in holding a parade from St. Patrick’s Cathedral down Fifth Avenue. During the Depression, of course, most women had to be content with a new hat.
True to the satiric intent of the show, Berlin’s lyrics picture working class couple. The man sings to his girl how wonderful she’ll look in a bonnet “with all the frills upon it, which hardly sounds like upper-class elegance.
Several of the songs outlasted the popularity of the revue. Berlin used it again in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, which required a song for every major holiday. In 1948 he built an entire new film around the song, and called it, not surprisingly, Easter Parade.
Here’s a clip of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing it to each other: