Once a story man, always a story man.
The Sherman brothers (or “the boys” as Walt Disney called them) were staff writers for The Walt Disney Studio, and are responsible for some of the best-loved songs in entertainment history. In an early meeting with Walt, the Sherman brothers explained their reasoning behind the song “For Now, For Always” from the 1961 film,The Parent Trap. They had written the song in a 1940’s style, taking into account the time period when the two characters in the movie would have fallen in love. Walt looked at them and said, “You boys think ‘story,’ don’t you?” It is no wonder that the afternoon spent with Richard Sherman at The Walt Disney Family Museum was a wonderful blend of song and story.
Jeff Kurtti, Sherman biographer and a familiar friend of the Museum, chatted with Richard about both his special relationship with Walt and the collaborative creation ofMary Poppins. Jeff mentioned he didn’t want to waste time with a long introduction of a man we likely knew a great deal about already. He did, however, know someone who would give us a great introduction. He cued a clip of the boys performing the song “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” with Walt alongside the piano, singing along.
At the conclusion of the song, Walt introduced us to “the boys.” “Our songwriters, Dick and Bob Sherman of The Walt Disney Studio. The Sherman Brothers have written many of the wonderful songs for our motion pictures and television shows, and I think this song, written especially for you, captures the spirit of the General Electric pavilion at the New York World's Fair. Thanks, boys.” Richard Sherman then came out to join us, welcomed by a standing ovation.
Richard’s ability to get inside the characters, themes and emotions of a story helped him and his brother, Robert, land the opportunity of a lifetime—writing the score for Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins.
Almost a half-century later, Richard still “thinks story.” He shared his stories, particularly his memories of Mary Poppins, to a sold-out audience at The Walt Disney Family Museum on March 13.
He accompanied his tales with corresponding songs, which he sang and played on the piano. For instance, he sang a few bars of “Through the Eyes of Love,” a ballad that didn’t make it into the movie, after recalling that Julie Andrews rejected the song because she “wanted something with a little more snap.” The Sherman brothers granted her wish by writing the peppy “A Spoonful of Sugar” as her signature song. The brothers even incorporated “snap” into the new song’s lyrics.
“Thank you, Julie,” Richard said. “You broke our hearts, but you made us write a better song.”
The audience hung on every word of his stories and every note of his songs, and was by turns charmed and touched by his recollections. He basked in the adoration, and appeared to be having as much fun as the diehard fans in attendance.
The Sherman brothers’ association with the Mary Poppins project began when Walt Disney handed them a copy of P.L. Travers’ book. The Shermans returned to Walt's office with their ideas and the book. They had underlined six chapters of Mary Poppins that they thought would translate well into film. Walt then showed the brothers his copy of the book—he had underlined the same six chapters.
In one of those chapters was a three-page story about how Mary jumped into Bert’s sidewalk pictures, had tea, and came out. The brothers added the Banks children to the segment and wrote “Jolly Holiday” for the scene. He then performed a rousing rendition of the song for the Museum audience.
Richard went on to share wonderful stories about his days at the Studio, writing songs with Robert and working with Walt, stopping every so often to burst into song. While singing, he would shift his gaze from the piano keys to the audience, connecting with them and emphasizing through his tone and facial expressions, the feeling of the music. Encouraged by both Jeff and Richard, the audience unabashedly joined in on the chorus of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Richard also told what to many Disney fans is the familiar story of Walt’s love for “Feed the Birds,” the brothers’ song about a woman who sells breadcrumbs on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Walt often requested that the brothers come to his office and play that song for him.
During the question and answer session, a guest asked Richard what it was like to be at the Mary Poppins premiere, seeing his work on the big screen. “Everyone was screaming and cheering—and I was crying” he replied.
Another audience member asked Richard about the Sherman brothers’ arguably most recognizable tune, “it’s a small world (after all).” Richard chuckled and said, “People either want to kiss us or kill us!” After sharing a story about the evolution of the song, he played it, encouraging us to join him in singing.
Richard continues to honor Walt with “Feed the Birds” over the years, perhaps most memorably at the dedication of the “Partners” statue, which features Walt holding hands with Mickey Mouse, at Disneyland’s hub. The 2001 ceremony marked the 100th anniversary of Walt's birth.
“There were 2,000 people on Main Street, but I said, ‘I’m going to play this song for Walt,’” he recalled. When he reached the line, “Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag,” a lone bird flew “down from heaven,” he said, and swept above his piano. He took it as a sign that Walt was watching. He topped that story off with an emotional performance of “Feed the Birds,” which earned him one of many standing ovations.
When it was time to say goodbye, the audience stood in applause to thank Richard for his time, his stories, and his music. We were so appreciative to get to spend time with a man that is as talented and fun loving as he is lovable. He beamed back at us with a twinkle in his eye and a satisfied grin.
Sandy Hock-Justman, WDFM Volunteer
Richard Sherman and WDFM volunteer Bonnie Morgon
Photos by Andi Wang, courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.