Richard and Robert Sherman wrote the soundtrack to Walt Disney's dreams. Their music is an integral, indelible part of many of Disney's classic films, shows, and theme park attractions. But for the Shermans, success was not always just a dream away.
The story of the Sherman Brothers might have sprung from a stock Disney plot: after long struggles and numerous failures, a serendipitous event brought them fame, fortune, and happiness. That event was their first meeting with Walt Disney, a meeting which they left with their heads hanging, as Walt's only comment about the song they played for them was: "That'll work."
In Walt-speak, however, "that'll work" was high praise indeed, and the Shermans (or "the boys", as Walt called them) went on to create a musical legacy that millions of Disney fans just can't get out of their heads.
In this well-researched biography, Kathryn Price traces the lives of the Shermans, from their unsettled childhood as the sons of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and their early failure to replicate his success, to their chart-topping but surprisingly short collaboration with Walt Disney and the long coda to their careers after Walt's death and the transformation of the Disney company into a disharmony they could not tolerate.
Chapter 1: Musical Roots
Chapter 2: Growing Up Sherman
Chapter 3: World Wars and Purple Hearts
Chapter 4: Legends in the Making
Chapter 5: Separate Ways
Chapter 6: Lucky Break
Chapter 7: A Fateful Meeting
Chapter 8: A Shot in the Dark
Chapter 9: When Opportunity Knocks, You Answer
Chapter 10: Life Around the Studio
Chapter 11: Color, Wizards, and the In Betweens
Chapter 12: Winds from the East
Chapter 13: Walt’s Fair Lady
Chapter 14: Making Mary Fly
Chapter 15: Welcome to Disneyland
Chapter 16: World’s Fair
Chapter 17: The Studio After the Fair
Chapter 18: The Next Big Hit
Chapter 19: It’s a Jungle Out Here
Chapter 20: The Day the Light Went Out
Chapter 21: Life After Walt
Chapter 22: A New Chapter
Chapter 23: Broadway or Bust
Chapter 24: Disney Legends
Chapter 25: Looking Toward Tomorrow
Kathryn Price resides in a small rural town in northern Maryland with her family and three children. She graduated with honors from Frostburg State University with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and later returned to Frostburg to obtain her master’s degree in Business Administration. She currently runs Katy Marie Studios as both a fine artist and an author.
Since she was a little girl, Kathryn has had a passion for writing. She has studied the art of creative and technical writing throughout her educational experience. Writing is a way for Kathryn to express herself and she uses it as a creative outlet.
When she isn’t writing, she enjoys painting portraits and animated art. Her paintings have been on display with the Walt Disney Company, the Chuck Jones Gallery, and one of her paintings has found a permanent home in the Lucille Ball Museum and Center for Comedy in Jamestown, NY. Kathryn has donated many paintings over the years to several charities and benefits around the country to help raise money for various causes.
The Shermans' first visit with Walt Disney left them with no hope whatsoever for a great big beautiful tomorrow.
Walt Disney had two adjoining offices that he regularly used in this suite. He had his working office and his formal office. His working office was his own personal space. It was where Walt conducted meetings with the cream of the crop in Hollywood, as well as many dignitaries from around the world. A large white couch sat in the back of the office, surrounded by memorabilia from Walt’s travels. The boys caught a glimpse of a chrome kitchen area, near a full-sized bar. His desk was more of a large black lacquered table than a formal desk. It was piled high with projects currently in the works and proposals for future ones to come. It was said that Walt’s desk was lower than the average desk because he needed to be able to see over the sky-high piles of papers that were constantly ornamenting the space. The desk was surrounded by shelves filled to the max with scripts, animation cels, and blueprints for future projects.
Sitting behind the desk was the man himself, Walt Disney. He was dressed casually in an orange cardigan sweater and smiled warmly at the boys. His dark hair had begun to gray and his age was starting to be more pronounced. A map of tiny wrinkles patterned his face. His forehead told the stories of his failures and bankruptcies in business, the many sleepless nights he spent fighting to chase his dreams. His eyes and smile spoke of laughter, of merriment, of a childlike imagination. He was a man who had seen a thing or two in life and had persevered through the darkest of times with his ambition and drive snuffing out the sparks of despair. Just being in his presence was electrifying for the boys; his creativity radiated off of him like the heat off the pavement on a blistering summer day in Los Angeles.
He stood up and cordially shook hands and greeted the Shermans. His handshake was warm, but firm. Walt was not one for formality and went straight into small talk. “Ah, yes. The Sherman brothers.” He looked at them with a wily smirk and inquired, “Are you two really brothers? In vaudeville, most brother acts weren’t really related, you know.” Walt’s face was incredibly expressive. The millions of thoughts circling around in his mind were worn on his face through whimsical smiles, inquisitive raises of his eyebrows, and endearing glances. The tone of his voice reflected his mood and it was always clear what he was trying to convey.
Bob responded quickly and nervously without thinking, “We really are, Mr. Disney. Brothers, that is.”
He regretted breaking the one piece of advice Jimmy had given them: referring to Walt as Mr. Disney. Walt’s smile disappeared as he jumped right into the professional side of the meeting. He invited the boys to sit down. He began describing a plot for an upcoming project, a movie about two identical twins separated at birth who meet for the first time at a summer camp. Bob and Dick looked at each in panic. Their hearts sank and a giant lump formed in their throats. They had no idea what Walt was talking about. This wasn’t the movie Jimmy had described and the songs they had prepared would make no sense with this plot line. The boys hoped Jimmy would step in and correct Walt that the Shermans were here in regard to Annette Funicello’s The Horsemasters. Jimmy’s face was red with embarrassment and shock as he stood in the corner like a frozen statue. No one wanted to interrupt Walt.
Walt lit a cigarette and lounged comfortably back in his chair, continuing to divulge information about the cast and crew of the film. The potent smelling smoke from his French cigarettes permeated the air, swirling around the confused brothers. Bob finally mustered the courage to boldly blurt out that they were confused about this project because they had prepared songs for the upcoming movie starring Annette.
Walt abruptly stopped and remarked with surprise, “Why the hell didn’t you stop me? Come on, let’s go hear what you’ve come up with.”
With that he rose from his chair and walked into another office through a door at the far end of the room. The Shermans followed, feeling as if they were being led to a dead end.
The boys followed Walt into his formal office, which looked like an executive-styled living room. This office was reserved for more casual meetings and idea pitching. It was spacious, comfortable, and decorated with modern decor. Large windows dressed with long, soft, tan curtains allowed the sunlight to illuminate the room. A huge white couch sat along the back wall, next to a glass coffee table and a grand piano. An enormous bookshelf was crammed with books by Mark Twain and many other classic tales from which Walt drew inspiration. A bulky wooden desk sat in the corner, surrounded by many familiar faces on the shelves behind it. Pictures of Walt’s daughters, Susan and Diane, hung proudly on the walls. Baby shoes that had been bronzed and preserved in time served as bookends.
Walt Disney was a professional man, one who built arguably the largest empire in entertainment. He was a genius when it came to creativity and imagination. His childlike qualities helped him create some of the most memorable and ground-breaking moments in entertainment history. His office was a professional space, but there was no shortage of Mickey and the gang all around for inspiration. This office captured the essence of Walt Disney and his many facets, both the business man and the dreamer.
The piano faced the wall, which didn’t aid the slight phobia Dick had of playing music to a wall. Dick was an outgoing person by nature, and liked to take in the response and expressions of the people listening as he played. He sat down at the piano and tried to twist his neck as far as he could so he’d feel as if he were playing for Walt and not a wall. Walt stood staring out the window, cigarette in hand with his back to the boys. He was above all else a storyteller, but his immaculate attention to detail carried over from storytelling into his musical influences for his projects. He wanted the songs to carry into the storyline and be a part of the story themselves.
The brothers played a mere ten seconds of “Strummin’ Song” for the two executives before Walt motioned for them to stop. Bob and Dick anxiously looked at one another; they prepared to hear the worst. How could Walt have made a decision about their song from a measly ten seconds of it? It couldn’t mean good news. Walt overlooked the boys and glared directly at Jimmy.
“Yes, that’ll work,” Walt said.
Dick and Bob didn’t know what “that’ll work” meant. Did it mean he didn’t really enjoy the song, but that it would suffice for now? The boys’ egos were knocked down a few notches with Walt’s nonchalant response. They were extremely proud of this new song and had put a lot of dedication into making it, and he didn’t even marvel or bat an eye at it.
The Shermans followed Walt back into his main office, overcome with self-doubt after their presentation of the song had been cut so short. Walt stopped in the middle of the office with his hand rubbing his chin as if he were pondering something. He turned to the boys and said, “While we’re at it, since I’ve wasted so much of your time with that other project I mentioned, why don’t you take a crack at it. Why don’t you see what you boys come up with.” He pressed an intercom button on his desk and asked Dolores to hand the Shermans a copy of the script for We Belong Together on their way out. Walt turned to the boys and with a slight hint of disgust exclaimed how he disliked the name of the project and asked Dick and Bob to see if they could come up with something else. The boys nodded, still in disbelief how the meeting had gone, as Jimmy edged them toward the door. “Thanks, Walt,” he blurted out and continued to guide the boys out of the office.
Continued in "Walt Disney's Melody Makers"!
When Walt Disney died, just six years after he had first met the Shermans, the brothers' stature in the company shrunk, and their services were no longer in demand. They knew the end was near.
Walt had his hand in all projects happening around his studio. He knew what everyone was doing, from the highest employee on the payroll to the loneliest mailroom clerk working in the corner crevice of a darkened basement. No one at the studio had any inkling Walt was even sick, let alone dying.
The Sherman brothers came to the studio one day late in 1966 and couldn’t find Walt. He could usually be seen strolling the hallways and various pathways of the studio, but that day he was nowhere to be found. He had gone to St. Joseph’s on November 2, 1966, for a pain in his neck, thinking he had a pinched nerve. The employees assumed it was due to his old polo injury, which required massages and intensive physical therapy for pain management.
An X-ray Walt had taken during his visit to the hospital revealed tumors on his left lung, most likely due to his incessant chain smoking. The doctors advised Walt to undergo surgery to remove the tumors and he brushed it off, leaving the hospital to cross the street to his studio to take care of business. He re-entered the hospital on November 6 and underwent extensive surgery which resulted in the removal of his lung due to the advanced stage of the cancer found there.
His final visit to the studio was during the last week of November when he attended a rough-cut screening of The Happiest Millionaire. Bob and Dick noticed how gaunt and sickly he looked, and they knew something was wrong. It wasn’t like Walt to be absent from the studio for any period of time and then to return looking so frail. They feared the worst. After the screening he conducted business as usual and gave the director and editor suggestions for the final cut of the film. As he left the theater, he stopped in front of Bob and Dick Sherman, his boys. He smiled at them and said sincerely, “Keep up the good work, boys.” He winked at the songwriting duo and left the theater. That was the last time the Shermans ever saw Walt Disney. He died just over a month later, on December 15, 1966, from acute circulatory collapse.
His greatest partner, his brother Roy, stayed by his side right to the end, rubbing his feet and saying, “Well, kid, I guess this is the end of the road.” He made sure the lights at the studio stayed on 24/7 so Walt could be propped up by the window and see the glimmer of the lights from afar. Roy was his partner, but above all that, he was Walt’s big brother. Roy knew Walt’s passion and ambition and was always there standing behind his little brother and pushing him toward achieving his dreams.
Bob and Dick Sherman, Walt’s boys, always saw him as a father figure. His immense confidence in their work, as well as his guidance and support is something that can never be surpassed. The brothers credit their success in business and in life to two people: their father Al and Walt Disney. The Sherman brothers music captured an immortal essence of Walt in each lyric and every note. His spirit lives on each and every time one of their songs is played.
Following Walt’s death, dozens of projects were put on hold. Life at the studio wasn’t the same. The boys attempted to go back to work as usual and finish the projects that had been in production before Walt’s death, but it was not an easy task.
Before his death, Walt had become increasingly fond of live-action musical films, after the colossal success of Mary Poppins. The Happiest Millionaire was in post production when Walt died, but this film only added to his growing enthusiasm for the musical genre. Walt had planned for a two-part episode called The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band to be featured on his weekly television program. It was based on Laura Bower Van Nuys’ true story depicting her family’s adventures in music in the 1880s. The script, by Lowell S. Hawley, revolved around the family of musicians and their travels bringing music to the world wherever they went. Walt loved the heartwarming story and thought it would pose an excellent opportunity for the Sherman brothers to incorporate some original songs. The boys read the script and became as enthused as Walt. Bob and Dick believed that this project could be more than just a few new original songs; it could make a tremendous musical on its own.
In November of 1966, the brothers completed the musical score for the assignment. Walt wanted Bob and Dick to do an extensive demo session of all of the songs and set a mid-December date for the session to take place. In an untimely turn of events, the recording session ended up being the day after Walt had died. Bob and Dick had no energy to even return to work that day, let alone do a recording session of a project Walt had been so attached to. Unfortunately, the number of performers it took to complete the demos was of epic proportion and due to scheduling, the session couldn’t be cancelled.
The Shermans felt ill as they watched their happy songs being recorded, knowing Walt would never hear them. It was one of the most difficult and painful experiences the boys had ever had to endure.
After The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band project had been completed, the brothers finished up the work they had in production around the studio. Work slowly ceased and they were no longer in demand as they once had been. As their projects neared completion, they weren’t getting any new ones. The brothers knew their days at the studio were numbered.
Continued in "Walt Disney's Melody Makers"!