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'Christmas City' singer dies of cancer

While Merv Griffin, who died Sunday at age 82, might seem as Hollywood as Tom Cruise, at least for a brief period in his life he called Ironwood, Mich., home.

While Merv Griffin, who died Sunday at age 82, might seem as Hollywood as Tom Cruise, at least for a brief period in his life he called Ironwood, Mich., home.

Beyond his exploits in Hollywood, Griffin also left a lasting mark on Duluth.

The "Christmas City" song, ubiquitous in Duluth during the holiday season, was originally sung by Griffin.

And naturally, it's the theme song during the annual Christmas City of the North Parade through downtown Duluth around the end of November every year, marking the official start of the Northland holiday season.

The song was written in 1962 by Hibbing native and New York songwriter Don Peterson.

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It was recorded by Griffin. Before his TV talk show days and his fame as the producer of the game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!," Griffin was a noted pop crooner.

But when he sang "Christmas City," it was in the days before he was famous, said radio personality Lew Martin, who spent his career at WDSM, first reading the news over the radio and later on television. WDSM is now KBJR-TV.

"He wasn't real popular at that time," Martin said of Griffin.

The reason Griffin was even in the neighborhood was because of a stint at an Ironwood, Mich., radio station, Martin said. Which is why Martin doubts Griffin was paid much for the singing job by radio and TV station WDSM.

"I don't think he charged us anything," Martin said. "Today, you'd pay a lot of money."

Griffin was asked to sing the song because, at the time, he was friends with the WDSM Channel 6 station manager Bob Rich, Martin said.

The song may come across as warm and fuzzy, but it sure didn't help warm up the temperatures during the annual parade. Over the years, Martin remembers having to stand out in the freezing cold and interview prominent people as they walked by.

"I had insulated underwear and I was freezing to death," he said. Sometimes, bands would shuffle down the street with barely a sound, because the instruments would freeze.

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"The only things they had going for them were the drums," Martin said.

When Martin heard on the news that Griffin had died, the song immediately sprang to mind. "I said to my boy, 'I should call Channel 6 and tell them about it,' " Martin said.

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