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Paul V. Coates--Confidential File

October 21, 2007 |  5:24 pm

Paul_coates Oct. 21, 1957

When a funnyman tries to be serious, he doesn't always come across.

In fact, sometimes his sincerity is rewarded with laughs that approach guffaws. And, much as he hates it, the guy is downright hilarious.

And maybe that was Sy Miller's trouble.

For years Sy had been known around Hollywood as a solid comedy writer, a man who could knock out a funny script for television or a good act for nightclubs with equal ease. 

Occasionally, with his wife, Jill, he'd punch out a song, too. Novelty numbers--the kind that have to hit the market at the right time with the right voice or they fall harder than a bad joke.

It was two years ago last spring that Sy had his moment of seriousness.

He had an idea for a song, and with his wife he polished it into something final.

1957_1021_bestsellers The lyric was based on an old Oriental proverb.

First, they played it for their two teenage daughters and the girls liked it fine. Of course, Sy wasn't blind to the fact that the kids might be favorably biased, inasmuch as the writers were their own parents.

And he put his attempt to express a serious emotion into a drawer marked "Forget It."

It probably would still be there today, except for the fact that, a few months later, his daughters went to "Anytowners" youth camp, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

And the fact that the girls have good memories.

Because one of them--in her first letter home--wrote:

Dad, when you visit us, would you bring some copies of the serious song you and Mom wrote. We told some of the kids about it and we'd like to use it in one of our 'sings' up here."

The Millers dug it out and took it to camp on their first visit.

And, before they left for home again, they heard some 200 teenagers join voices to sing it for them.

It wasn't long afterward that they started getting requests from school and youth groups for copies. The young campers, on returning to their homes, had obviously spread the word.

Shortly before Christmas of 1955, the Lincoln High School Choir learned the song and presented it on a "Young America Sings" radio program.

And more requests came in--nearly all from teenagers.

But slowly, the word spread to some adults.

Jack Carson sang the song on New Year's Day of 1956.

Champ Butler made a recording. So did Roy Rogers.

One by one, other artists tried it on radio and TV. Among them, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bob Crosby, Jack Smith, Rhonda Fleming and Roberta Linn.

Stanley S. Slotkin, president of Abbey Rents, was among those who heard it. He liked it so much that he volunteered to distribute copies to all who wanted them--for nothing.

In three months, he passed out more than 100,000.

Today, Miller estimates more than half a million persons in the United States and 15 other countries have sung his song.

The opening lines explain the emotion quite simply:

"Let there be peace on earth.

"Let it begin with me."

And now that his song is on its way, Miller's glad that it got its start the way it did--through the interest of tomorrow's adults.

He's even optimistic enough to hope that it's significant.