What if Bing and Danny really took the train?

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 19, 2019

In a famous scene from the 1954 movie White Christmas, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen sing 'Snow' in the lounge car of their train en route from Florida to New York.
There are several things I can’t do without this season. One of them is the movie White Christmas. I like it despite its mawkishness, its sentimentality, its total improbability. I fall into this film every year the way you fall into gingerbread cookies and eggnog. It’s predictable and comfortable, as Christmas should be.

I’m especially fond of the train scene near the beginning, in which old Army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) head north from Florida to New York to get back to their blockbuster Broadway show. The plot has them giving their Pullman tickets to their new friends the Haynes Sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), whom they just saw perform at Don Novello’s nightclub. The “girls” are in trouble, for reasons too complex to explain here.

After they hurriedly buy new tickets for themselves from the conductor, played by the wonderfully dry and diminutive Percy Helton, Bing and Danny head for the club car. They have no Pullman space anymore — that went to the sisters. Soon Rosemary and Vera join them for a nightcap, everyone breaking into the song “Snow,” accompanied by Kaye’s rhythmic “choo-choo” sounds. It’s corny, but these people know how to sing close, jazzy harmonies. And you can’t do better than composer Irving Berlin.  

At this point a couple of establishing scenes appear, and they’re both howlers. You probably know them: the evening train out of Florida is played by a Santa Fe San Diegan racing down the California coast (the Pacific Ocean standing in for the Atlantic), and the morning arrival in Vermont by a Southern Pacific train in the mountains. Director Michael Curtiz hardly could have chosen scenes that were more wrong.

Although the movie uses stock footage of a Santa Fe San Diegan racing along the Pacific to represent a Florida–New York train, the White Christmas foursome would probably have been aboard Atlantic Coast Line's Havana Special, seen northbound at Savannah, Ga., in 1949. David A. Salter
But who cares? The whole movie is typical of MGM musical fantasies — suspension of disbelief is paramount.

But that got me to thinking: what if Wallace & Davis were real people, attending a real Haynes Sisters show in Florida, and had to hustle up to Vermont? What railroads would they ride? What trains would they take? Fortunately, one of my Official Guides sitting here on my desk is dated June 1954, the year they made the movie. 

To make this work, I had to make a few assumptions about the trip based on what I can glean from the movie. I decided the nightclub scene at Novello’s unfolded on Florida’s east coast, always a draw for New Yorkers, so I’m going with Hollywood (what else?), a beach town 17 miles north of Miami. That gave me two railroads to choose from, either Seaboard Air Line or Atlantic Coast Line. 

I went with ACL and its train 76, the Havana Special, an evening run out of Miami over Florida East Coast that stopped at Hollywood at 10:28 p.m., just about the time our stars got on the train to head north. Under normal circumstances, Bing and company might have chosen ACL’s more prestigious East Coast Champion, but its daytime carding out of Miami doesn’t jibe with what happens onscreen. Same thing with SAL’s Silver Meteor, whose northbound schedule wouldn’t allow the connection I want in New York for Vermont.

Besides, I decided Crosby would like the idea of riding this train after singing “I’ll See You in Cuba” in the 1946 musical Blue Skies. The Havana Special got its name by running all the way to Key West over the FEC’s Key West Extension, destroyed in the great hurricane of 1935. Passengers for Cuba connected via ship at Key West. And what an evocative name for a train associated with palm trees and beaches.

A Central Vermont 4-8-2 leads the Ambassador, the likely connection off a Florida train for travelers bound for Vermont ski country, north near West Hartford, Vt., circa 1950. R. E. Tobey
The Havana Special had the right equipment for our friends, including a through Miami–New York 10-section, 1-compartment, 2-double-bedroom sleeper that could have accommodated the Haynes sisters. After rolling along the 1,388 miles of its FEC-ACL-Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac-Pennsylvania Railroad routing, the train would arrive in Penn Station at 6:20 a.m., in time for the next chapter in our story. More on that in a moment.  

I had to make some compromises. In the real world, the club car scene would only be possible on the second night out of Miami. The Havana Special carried a tavern-lounge car, but it wasn’t added to the train until 7 a.m. the first morning when the train reached ACL track at Jacksonville. In the movie, however, they clearly head for drinks just after boarding. So, in my imagination, for some reason ACL put the tavern-lounge on at Miami that first night. Still with me?

Fast forward to New York’s Penn Station. The beautiful thing about using the Havana Special is that, assuming it ran on time, you could make a convenient connection via taxi with Central Vermont train 66-77, departing Grand Central at 8:30 a.m. on a New Haven-Boston & Maine routing to meet train 307, the Ambassador, a joint operation with B&M, at White River Junction, Vt. In 1954, steam still ruled CV passenger service, so I’d like to think our stars might have taken a moment to use the stop at White River Junction to check out the big 4-8-2 being coupled to their train before departing at 3:20 p.m. 

Central Vermont commissioned colorful posters to entice skiers to ride its trains to snowy Vermont.
After this the movie runs into a bit of trouble. When the cast rolls into fictional Pine Tree, Vt., they’re waking up from a night in Pullman section sleepers. As a day train, the Ambassador didn’t carry sleepers. In fact, in 1954 it didn’t even have parlor cars. Bing Crosby, one of the biggest stars in show business (or his character, anyway), would have been obligated to go coach.

As for arriving in “Pine Tree,” we can assume that, in reality, the cast would have gotten off the train at 5:15 p.m. in Waterbury, a small town 10 miles north of Montpelier and not far from Stowe, the heart of Vermont ski country. In the heyday of CV passenger service, Waterbury gave passengers easy access not only to Stowe but also other ski destinations such as Smuggler’s Notch, Sugarbush, and Mad River Glen, all celebrated in period CV travel posters.  

After their arrival in Pine Tree, trains don’t figure all that much in the drama of Bob Wallace, Phil Davis, and Betty and Judy Haynes. But the movie is a reminder of how passenger trains remained a part of daily life in 1954. They didn’t need Delta or Jet Blue to get from Florida’s Gold Coast to New England — they had the Havana Special!

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season, filled with your own favorite holiday movies. You’ll likely hear Bing somewhere, singing “White Christmas” once again. Meanwhile, I’ll be back in 2020 with a new year of Mileposts. Happy holidays! 

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