The day after songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman won two of the six Academy Awards that went to the 1964 Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” they bounced gratefully over to Walt Disney’s office, Oscars in hand.
His typically restrained response was, said Robert Sherman: “The bases were loaded, we hit a home run and that’s great. From now on, just try to get on base.”
“Walt was very feeling,” Richard Sherman said, “but he didn’t show his emotions. They were there in the love and spiritual values of everything he did. His nicest compliment was always, ‘That’ll work.’ He put everything he had, his whole studio behind it. When he’d give us that nod, we were on top of the world.”
(Many share the Shermans’ warm remembrance of Disney’s managerial style, but others differ. In his book “Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation,” Charles Solomon writes: “He seems to have been a human Rorschach test. Everybody knew a different Walt.”)
In their modest apartment studio on a quiet, dead-end street in West Hollywood, the Shermans’ reminiscences have been prompted by today’s Walt Disney Records release of “The Sherman Brothers.” The celebratory, retrospective album is a collection of original-cast recordings and other renditions of their work of which the songwriters are especially fond.
Besides musical selections from “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” “Bedknobs and Broom-sticks” and other films, there are songs from Disney theme park attractions, including “It’s a Small World (After All).” Walt Disney joins the Shermans in a few bars of “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and Annette Funicello is heard in a session outtake of “Tall Paul,” the 1959 rock ‘n’ roll hit that opened Disney’s studio doors to a couple of aspiring songwriters. “Annette was our lucky charm,” Robert Sherman said.
(“I feel the same way about them,” Funicello said later. “They knew how frightened I was of singing. They made me laugh, they gave me so much moral support.”)
When “Tall Paul” (co-written with Bob Roberts) sold big, the Shermans were asked to come up with another rock ‘n’ roll tune for the ex-Mousketeer. Soon, said Richard, “Walt Disney said, ‘Who are the fellas who are writing these cute little songs for Annette?’ ”
“Not all the songs on the album are hit songs,” Robert Sherman said. “Some of them are just our favorites.”
“There are some very special moments,” Richard added. Maurice Chevalier’s last recording, for one. The suave French star, who had worked with the Shermans’ father, Al, one of the top songwriters of his day “and our greatest pal,” came out of retirement to record the title song for “The Aristocats.” He was lured by a sample of the tune as sung by Richard.
After the recording session, Richard was eager to apologize to the star for “that thick phony accent I used on the demonstration record.” Chevalier was puzzled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Accent? I heard no accent.’ ”
The brothers’ pleasure in what is obviously an oft-told tale seems genuine. Richard Sherman is an enthusiastic storyteller, his words often tumbling over each other. Robert, the elder, occasionally reins him in with a word or two puffed out from beneath his walrus mustache, but their mutual respect is unmistakable. (They both write music and lyrics.)
The brothers, now in their 60s, never hit another “home run” after Disney died, but did earn Oscar nominations for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Slipper and the Rose,” among others.
Their next project, due out in August, is “Little Nemo,” an animated film based on the classic Winsor McCay comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” featuring the voice of Melissa Manchester.
They have high hopes that their “magnum opus,” a stage musical they’ve developed with Tommy Tune called “Buskers,” will open on Broadway next year.
But mostly, they remember with great affection the man who gave them their big break.
How, when Robert had back trouble, Disney had a special rocking chair flown in for him.
How a wild-eyed man burst into Disney’s office during a script meeting and the Shermans grabbed him and hustled him out to security--and when they returned, adrenaline racing, Disney’s only comment was, “Now, on Page 57. . . .” But he told everyone what they had done.
How, at the end of a long week, “the boss” would sometimes call them into his office, look out the window and say, “Play it, Dick.” And Richard would play “Feed the Birds,” the poignant “Poppins” song about giving.
“Whenever I play it, I think of him,” Richard said. “After he passed away, I used to go to his office on a Friday afternoon and play it for him. I know he heard it.
“That’s why this album is special. Because we’re sharing something with Walt. We loved him.”