The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

December 24, 2013

Christmas classic

Butala recalls singing in holiday favorite

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

SHARON — For Tony Butala, “White Christmas,” the hit holiday movie that plays on the popularity of the song of the same name, was just one of many film and television appearances he made as a member of the Mitchell Boys Choir.

“We were working kids,” Butala said.

And, he’d been around “White Christmas” star Bing Crosby before; they went to the same church.

Butala, a Sharon native, moved to Los Angeles as a 10-year-old singing boy wonder and joined the Mitchell choir, the go-to group for Hollywood producers that needed a boy choir.

It was an era when moviegoers loved films with singing and dancing, girls in pretty dresses and love stories, a formula embraced by “White Christmas.”

The film was shot in the fall of 1953, around the time Butala turned 13, and he was one of the older boys in the choir at the time.

“I do remember doing it,” Butala, 73, said, calling from Windber, Pa., where his group, The Lettermen, was making a holiday concert appearance.

“I remember being on the set,” he said.

The choir recorded the song, “White Christmas,” with the other stars in a sound studio a few days before they filmed the scene in which it is sung in the movie.

Butala does not sing on the hit version of the song, as that was recorded in 1942 when Crosby sang it in another movie, “Holiday Inn.”

It took three days to film the final scene as the cameras were mounted on what Butala described as “rail cars” and had to be moved to achieve the desired shots on a stage that was smaller than it appears to be in the film.

“Most of the time, you can see me over Vera-Ellen’s left shoulder,” Butala said, although a photo The Herald captured from the film shows him between Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

Vera-Ellen, a talented dancer, was not as good a singer and she mouthed parts sung by another woman. All of the stars lip-synched during the filming, Butala said.

Butala’s sister, Joan, was visiting Tony – the family called him Anthony – while “White Christmas” was being shot. She was a big fan of Clooney, and he was allowed to bring Joan onto the set to meet Clooney.

It was rare that the Mitchell singers could bring family members onto sets, because the boys were supposed to be professionals and others could only get in the way, he said.

“I don’t remember a lot because I was in awe,” Joan Butala said. “I was so tickled with all the dancing and the scenery. Everything amazed me. I was razzle-dazzled.”

She remembered talking to Clooney about the weather.

“I was from Pennsylvania and here I was in sunny California,” Joan Butala said.

The Butala family adored their Anthony and it was hard to let him go to California, she said.

“He was such a tiny kid,” she said. “We had to protect him. To see him out there with all those stars was awe-inspiring.”

Clooney posed for a photo with the Butalas and, years later, Tony Butala showed it to Clooney when The Lettermen did a show with her. Clooney teasingly told him to lock it away because she didn’t want people to know how much older she was than he, he said.

Clooney’s kindness to the Butalas was typical of the stars on the set of “White Christmas,” Butala said.

Crosby, who was a star in films, on records and in concert, had reached a celebrity status where he had little privacy.

“Bing couldn’t even attend church without someone bothering him,” Butala said.

Crosby attended Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills – as did Loretta Young, Danny Thomas and Gary Cooper – and the Mitchell choir sang for the noon Mass every Sunday. To allow Crosby to worship in peace, he sat with the boys in the choir loft.

“He would be very friendly to all of the kids,” Butala said.

Although Crosby’s reputation took a hit when his son published a book that portrayed the star unflatteringly, Butala said he never saw a negative side to Crosby.

“One of the nicest men I ever met, very congenial to everyone around him,” said Butala, who is writing a book about his storybook rise from boy singer to hitmaking pop star.

Mitchell and Crosby were friends and the Mitchell choir appeared in other Crosby films, including “Going My Way,” another big hit for Crosby.

Although “White Christmas” was a smash, Butala didn’t see it until sometime later, probably two or three years.

“It was just one of many that I did,” he said.

About its enduring popularity, “I think people get a feel-good feeling out of it,” Butala said.

The chemistry between the actors, which included Danny Kaye, was “sincere” because they liked each other and got on well off-camera, he said.

Joan Butala called the film “adorable” and still enjoys watching it.

“I always see something I missed before,” she said.