The West Virginian Who Gave Life to Frosty
“There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found.” Is there any child or adult who doesn’t recognize the words to this timeless holiday song? Yet few people know that the author of this and other well-known songs was a West Virginian.
Walter "Jack" Rollins was a versatile songwriter who is credited with writing more 500 songs, including "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Smokey the Bear," as well as many gospel and country songs. Born in 1906 at Keyser in Mineral County, Rollins came from a large family. Reportedly, he developed his song-writing skills as a young boy by composing lyrics to entertain his mother, who was blind.
Rollins left West Virginia at age 18 and spent his early adult life in a series of blue-collar jobs, struggling to provide for his family. During this time he continued to write songs, but he had limited success marketing his songs until he signed with a New York music publisher in 1948 and was teamed with musician Steve Nelson.
That same year, Rollins wrote the lyrics and Nelson the music for "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," a catchy tune about the arrival of Easter. Peter Cottontail was a composite of two well-known characters, Peter Rabbit and Cottontail from Beatrix Potter’s children’s story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. More than a million copies of "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" were sold after being recorded by leading artists of that time, including Gene Autry, Dinah Shore, Roy Rogers, and others.
In 1949, Rollins and Nelson wrote "Frosty the Snowman," and Frosty quickly became known, along with Santa Claus and Rudolph, as the secular Christmas trinity. First recorded by Gene Autry in 1950 as a follow-up to his hit record "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" has also been recorded by such diverse singers as Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ronettes, the Beach Boys, George Strait, and most recently by Kimberley Locke of American Idol fame.
Over the past fifty years, Frosty the Snowman has been heavily merchandised—first as a Little Golden Book in 1951, then as an animated television special in 1969. Several animated sequels have extended the story of Frosty since that first television appearance. As a measure of his popularity, the concept of Frosty was used in the 1998 film, Jack Frost, in which Michael Keaton starred as a deceased father who came back to life in a snowman built by his son.
In 1952, Rollins and Nelson wrote yet another nationally prominent song. They wrote "Smokey the Bear" in response to the national advertising campaign for Smokey Bear, the symbol of the U. S. Forest Services’ wildfire prevention program.
Little is known of Rollins’ personal life during the years he spent as a successful songwriter in New York and Hollywood; however, the Mineral County Historical Society is working to increase recognition of his accomplishments.
Rollins died in 1973 and is buried in Keyser’s Queens Point Cemetery where his grave is marked by a likeness of Frosty the Snowman.
"Frosty the Snowman" continues to be featured on Christmas albums by today’s recording artists, and every year it is listed as one of the top 25 most performed holiday songs by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Although Frosty the Snowman "waved goodbye and hurried on his way" many years ago, thanks to Jack Rollins, he returns again each Christmas season to bring magic to another generation of children.