Dayton scores some celebrity love from Zooey Deschanel, Sam Neill

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Zooey Deschanel and Sam Neill cover the Randy Newman song “Dayton, Ohio 1903.”

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Humble-but-mighty Dayton, Ohio is basking in a little celebrity love lately, courtesy of a couple of Hollywood stars, Zooey Deschanel and Sam Neill, and a song written nearly 50 years ago.

"I thought of a song that cheers me up, might cheer you up ... It's called Dayton Ohio - 1903," actor Sam Neill, of "Jurassic Park" fame, said before performing the tune on ukulele and posting to Twitter last week.

Neill mentioned he hadn’t picked up the instrument in years, yet the short video immediately went viral. “One million viewers! WHAAT? Me playing the uke ... badly. Anyone would think people were maybe staying home....” Neill tweeted in response.

A few days later, actor and singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel took to the piano to perform the same "Dayton Ohio - 1903" song. Yet again, the video racked up a million views. This phenomenon made me wonder about this song, its story and why people are loving it.

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In this sudden new era of social distancing, this lovely little tune is particularly poignant and has us pining for the good ole days. The lyrics harken back to a much simpler time, one we are collectively longing to return to: “Would you like to come over for tea with the missus and me? It’s a real nice way to spend the day in Dayton, Ohio, on a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903.”

Randy Newman, a prolific songwriter best known for writing "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "You've Got a Friend in Me," along with scores to many Disney-Pixar films, wrote this song in 1972. It appeared on his "Sail Away" album, which has been included in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

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Singer Randy Newman performs during a concert at the Finkelman Auditorium on the Miami University-Middletown campus in Middletown, Ohio Saturday Feb 19, 2011. FILE
Singer Randy Newman performs during a concert at the Finkelman Auditorium on the Miami University-Middletown campus in Middletown, Ohio Saturday Feb 19, 2011. FILE

Credit: PAT AUCKERMAN

Credit: PAT AUCKERMAN

When asked about the inspiration for the song, Newman explained it wasn’t about Dayton in particular. His aim was trying to evoke a different time.

"When I wrote it, all I had in my conscious mind was that it sounded like a beautiful time ... from about 1890 up through 1918 it was sort of a more innocent time. No one had any idea how horrible World War I would be," he stated in a Dayton Daily News interview. "I wasn't even thinking about the Wright Brothers ... It felt right and sounded right. I was thinking about a town in the middle of America."

Regardless of the direct connection to Dayton, it’s heartwarming that this “Dayton” song is cheering up so many people. For Daytonians who want to experience another version of the song set to images of our beloved city, watch Harry Nilsson’s version below.

A fun little postscript ... Sam Neill, who kicked off this phenomenon, stated that his Jurassic Park character, Dr Alan Grant, is now comfortably retired here in Dayton: "He's retired from paleontology. He's sick to death of dinosaurs and running. He's not quite as fleet of foot as he was, and he's now retired to Dayton, Ohio, and has a very successful accountancy business. I think that's what's happened to Alan," Neil said. 
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