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You may be dreaming of a white Christmas, but it may not be likely that you’ll see cold precipitation in your area — especially if you live in the South like me.
The Upcountry History Museum offers the next best thing: The Greenville, S.C. museum has brought a “White Christmas” to the Upstate of South Carolina through an exhibit. On loan from the Rosemary Clooney House in Augusta, Ky, the exhibit will be on display in Greenville until Jan. 30, 2021.
“White Christmas” (1954) is a holiday favorite starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The film begins during World War II and then covers 10 years to show Crosby and Kaye’s characters are now entertainment successes. They meet two sisters (Clooney, Ellen), and the four travel to Pine Tree, Vermont, where they find their World War II leader, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), is running a failing inn. The group tries to figure out a way to help business while also honoring General Waverly’s service.
This is a rare time when the “White Christmas” exhibit has traveled away from its Kentucky home, said museum owner and former Miss America, Heather French Henry.
“This benefits the Upcountry History Museum because we can take our exhibit to people who may never travel to Augusta,” Henry said.
A peak into the exhibit room from the entrance.
The exhibit includes Edith Head-designed costumes, film props, and other memorabilia, such as a special lighter with Bing Crosby on it that he gifted that Christmas. The costumes include the blue lace and tulle “Sisters” dresses worn by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the white wool dress and green velvet that Clooney and Ellen wore at the Christmas party, the black pants George Chakiris wore in “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and Ellen’s white “Mandy” costume.
After watching “White Christmas” since I was a child, it was amazing to see Edith Head’s iconic costumes up close and in person. I went with my parents, sister and four-year-old niece, who particularly loved the “Sisters” costumes and the “Mandy” white outfit.
With COVID-19 in mind, I felt comfortable at the Upcountry History Museum throughout my visit. My family was masked, and there were only one or two other small families there, making it very easy social distance.
The dresses worn by Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Mary Wickes at the Christmas party. Henry said that the white dress was one of the most delicate, because it is wool. (Photo/Jessica P.)
Moving history across states
To move all of these pieces from Kentucky to South Carolina, each item must be carefully cataloged. To avoid any wear or damage to the costumes, the costumes remain on the mannequins, and most travel upright.
The exhibit also includes items that aren’t displayed at the Rosemary Clooney House due to space, like the sleigh. The only replicas in the exhibit are the red finale dresses made by Henry’s mother, Diana French. Paramount has not been able to locate the red dresses, which are either owned by a private collector or were altered and repurposed after the film, according to the exhibit.
Since many of the costumes are now 66 years old, the condition can be a concern, but with Edith Head and her team’s great work, many are in excellent condition.
“That’s what makes it so crazy. Not only do we have a phenomenal collection, but they are also all Edith Head designs,” Henry said. “Even if you aren’t interested in the film, you may be interested in the design.”
The blue “Sisters” dresses, worn by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in “White Christmas.” Vera-Ellen’s dress on the right was restored by Paramount and the lace was hand-created. (Photo/Jessica P.)
Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the dresses, for comparison.
From Miss America to Museum Founder
Like so many people, Henry grew up watching “White Christmas,” and says being part of this is unexpected.
After Henry won Miss America in 1999, fellow Kentucky-native Rosemary Clooney was one of the first phone calls she received. The two later performed together.
Rosemary Clooney moved to Augusta, Ky, in 1980, and after Clooney died in 2002, her children reached out to Henry and her husband, Dr. Steve Henry, about purchasing her home. The Henrys enthusiastically agreed and preserved the home, creating a museum to celebrate the life and career of Rosemary Clooney.
Since the Rosemary Clooney House opened in 2005, the Henrys started working to collect memorabilia and costumes over the years, including “White Christmas.”
“Each costume has its own story about its journey,” Henry said. “In fact, when we first started, we didn’t even think we would find but maybe one or two pieces.”
Henry first was connected with Paramount when she reached out for a sketch or pattern to recreate the red finale Christmas dresses for a “White Christmas” stage show she was performing in.
“They (Paramount) realized for the first time that they didn’t know where any of the costumes were,” Henry said. “After the show, I called them back and asked if they found anything.”
It was a “snowball effect” as collectors began to contact them. The “Mandy” ivory dance outfit was their first big auction item.
“Rosemary’s ‘Sisters dress’ was on eBay labeled ‘vintage 1950s party dress,” Henry said. “Vera’s companion dress was with a collector in Texas.”
Vera-Ellen’s dress had been altered into a sleeveless dress and was resorted for two years by Betsey Potter of Paramount, who hand-created the dress’s lace.
Costumes from the “Mandy” number in “White Christmas,” including Vera-Ellen’s white costume. The exhibit said the red/orange costume may look different in the film due to the Techcnicolor process, and due to age. Photo/Jessica P.
The “Mandy” number for comparison
A Multi-Generational Tradition
“White Christmas” was the top box office hit in 1954 but has continued to be a holiday favorite for the past 66 years.
“White Christmas is a movie I have watched since I was born. My mother had us watch it and now our girls watch it,” Henry said. “What’s so great is you see that multi-generational tradition with this film.”
Henry says her favorite number is “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” but she also loves “Choreography.”
“When she comes down in the hot pink tap dress, I just love it,” Henry said. “Vera-Ellen is one of the most underappreciated dancers of her time.”
Plan your visit
The film and exhibit also tie in with her military veteran advocacy, and in connection with the Greenville exhibit, Henry partnered with the museum to create launching Operation Waverly. Through this initiative, the museum will be collecting supplies to benefit Fellow Countrymen, a community-based non-profit committed to ending Veteran homelessness within the Upstate of South Carolina. When you visit, you can donate one of the following items for an area veteran.
Learn more about planning your visit to the Upcountry History Museum or how to take a virtual tour of the exhibit. The exhibit will return to the Rosemary Clooney House in February.
Your humble writer in front of the sleigh and replica dresses at the exhibit, located at the Upcountry History Museum.