If you had met a robust, bearded man strolling down Commercial Avenue in this season of cheer, he may very well have wished you a “Holly Jolly Christmas”—evoking, no doubt, a lively tune that would dance in your head for days to come.
Your well-wisher, Burl Ives, one of Anacortes’s most respected residents, balladeer, and actor, retired to Anacortes in 1989. Though he resided here only until his death in 1995, he left a warm, lively, generous, and indelible impression on his adopted hometown.
Burl and his wife Dorothy had visited Anacortes at the behest of Burl’s longtime agent, Marge Ashley, and fell in love with its small-town warmth, dramatic views of Mt. Baker, and lively waterfront. The following year the Iveses purchased a retirement home on Oakes Avenue, remodeling it into a 10,000-square-foot showplace. Unlike many entertainers who might have sought to shelter themselves from public life after a successful, decades-long career, the Iveses quickly embraced their new community.
Anacortes and Skagit County, it seems, provided a perfect venue to share their love of children and song. They agreed to open their home, with its manicured gardens and displays of entertainment memorabilia, for the city’s annual Home and Boat Tour, benefiting Seattle Children’s Hospital. On another occasion, they donated proceeds from the sale of 2,000 special limited edition Burl Ives CDs to benefit Seattle Children’s uncompensated care program.
Closer to home, in 1991, as a debt of gratitude for the “wonderful care” he’d received as a patient at Anacortes’s Island Hospital, Ives presented a benefit concert—attended by over 800 people—that raised $20,000 for the hospital’s pediatric services. He also lent his clear tenor voice to two “On the Old Front Porch” concerts in support of the Greater Skagit Community Foundation. The Iveses helped found the foundation, which Dorothy served as president, to build a world-class community arts center—the gem now known as McIntyre Hall.
A Boy Scout himself, Burl Ives was a life-long supporter of scouting, and received the organization’s highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award. The environment and the arts also benefitted from Ives’ generosity. As Fidalgo Magazine said of the couple in December 1992, Burl and Dorothy Ives “have taken an active role in improving the quality of life for the area’s children.”
With his stout frame and twinkling eyes, Burl Ives cut a memorable figure almost from the start of his career. Ives claimed he “couldn’t remember when he didn’t sing.” During his junior year in college, he finally gave in to his restless spirit and literally walked out of a classroom, heading off down the road with only his banjo and a change of clothes to explore life as a wandering minstrel.
He honed his skills first in New York City, where personal appearances led to radio work and, over a career, to roles on Broadway and in TV and film, including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Big Country,” for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor.
Ives charmed young and old, alike. His resonant voice and imposing presence lent itself equally well to playing the autocratic Southern patriarch in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” as to the voice of Sam on the holiday special, “Frosty the Snowman.” His tune, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” became a Christmas standard after being featured in a 1964 CBS-TV presentation of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Inspired by the show, a fan created a set of painted wooden figures that decorated the lawn in front of the Ives’ home for many years. The figures subsequently have been displayed across the country and at various community events in Anacortes.
So, as you walk down your street this holiday season, channel the spirit of this personable and generous man whose love for the universe, for children, stories, and song have inspired—and will continue to inspire—generations. And, as Burl Ives would sing, “Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet!”
Photo: Burl Ives during one of his final performances. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Ives. (June 12, 1996)