SALAMANCA — Born in February 1915, Ray Evans would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Wednesday, Feb. 4. Although Evans passed away in 2007, his memory lives on in Salamanca where a party for his birthday took place in the Ray Evans Seneca Theater, named for the late Oscar-winning songwriter.
Attendees wishing to celebrate his birthday came from all of Western New York and gathered in the lobby to sing songs, share memories, eat cake, drink punch and tour the historical theater.
“This is a wonderful celebration of his life,” said John Sheehan, executive director of the Seneca Salamanca Chamber of Commerce. “It’s amazing to hear all of the stories and to see what an impact he had on the community.” Those who remembered Evans shared stories with each other, many of which cited how humble, approachable and down-to-earth the man was.
“Two of Ray’s most important things in life were to be remembered and to eat lots of cake,” said Linda Freaney, president of the Cattaraugus County Living Arts Association. “It was one of his four food groups.”
For the celebration, a sheet cake with “Remember Ray on his 100th Birthday!” and some of his songs’ titles written in frosting was purchased for all attendees to enjoy with fruit punch.
“I think everyone who came out had a good time,” said Sally Marsh, who led the group in song much of the evening. “Anything we can do to keep this theater active is great. It’s nice to see everyone working together.”
“We really want to thank the CCLAA for setting all of this up,” said Sheehan. The community’s theater group has worked with the city over the past year to bring the theater back into continuous use, something that many have said Evans would have wanted.
But the theater isn't the only way Evans’ hometown remembers him.
“Welcome to Salamanca, hometown of lyricist Ray Evans,” reads a sign at the east entrance to the city. And each December, the city holds the Silver Bells in the City Festival in Evans’ honor. Arguably Evans’ most popular song with partner Jay Livingston, “Silver Bells” has been recorded by nearly 150 artists and has sold more than 160 million copies.
Evans was the only son of Philip and Frances (Lisitz) Evans. He had one sister, Doris, who was married to Alexander Feinberg. In high school, his eloquence and affinity for words was noticed early on.
The Seneca High School yearbook from 1931 states, “His original themes and brilliant oral talks are the despair of his classmates. Ray's quite a humorist, too. At times, his satire is positively killing.” Evans graduated from Salamanca High School as valedictorian of his class.
In 1931, Evans enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study business. His future songwriting partner, Jay Livingston, entered one year later to study journalism. They met at the Beta Sigma Rho fraternity and at the University's college dance orchestra, The Continentals. Evans played the clarinet and the saxophone, and Livingston played the piano and conducted.
After graduating, Livingston and Evans continued in music and aimed for a career as a songwriting team on New York's Tin Pan Alley. The team’s first success came with an audition for the comedians Olsen and Johnson in 1939. Their song “G'Bye now” made it into the successful Broadway show “Hellzapoppin’” and became a hit in 1941, the first of a successful songwriting career.
Hollywood soon followed.
After a temporary interruption due to the war, Livingston and Evans moved to Los Angeles in 1944. They signed a contract with Paramount Studios in 1945 and wrote songs for movies, such as “The Lemon Drop Kid (“Silver Bells”), “The Paleface” (the song “Buttons and Bows”), “Captain Carey, U.S.A.” (“Mona Lisa”), and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (“Que Sera, Sera”), winning Academy Awards for Best Original Song for the latter three.
Around 1945, Evans met his wife, Wyn Ritchie and the couple married April 19, 1947. In the early 1950s, the couple built a house that received much attention in the press and earned them and their architect William Sutherland Beckett an "Architectural Record Award of Excellence for House Design." The childless couple was married for 56 years until Wyn's death in 2003.
Evans and Livingston were a song-writing team for life until Livingston's death in 2001. They continuously received honors and awards, among were their three Oscars plus four more nominations for the Academy Award. About 26 of their songs sold over one million copies.
Livingston and Evans were honored with the prestigious Aggie Award, and their song “Mona Lisa,” as performed by Nat "King" Cole, was voted into The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
For “Silver Bells” and “Mona Lisa” the team received special awards by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and the Young Musicians Foundation presented them with “A Lifetime Achievement Award.” Livingston and Evans each received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and were even presented the key to the city of Los Angeles.
“He was a good friend,” said Linda Freaney. “We’ll always remember him.”
Ray Evans died in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 2007.
(This story appears in the Feb. 12, 2015 edition of The Salamanca Press.)