Walt Disney’s favorite Sherman brothers song from his 1964 blockbuster musical “Mary Poppins” wasn’t the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” the upbeat “A Spoonful of Sugar” or the tongue-twisting “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Instead, it was the haunting ballad “Feed the Birds.” Disney loved it so much that he would summon Richard M. Sherman to his office to play it for him.
“It was [about] a lot more than birdseed for birds,” Sherman said of the song that lovingly celebrates the simple act of giving (“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag”). He’d just say, ‘Play it for me.’ And I’d sing and play it for him, and he’d say, ‘Yep, that’s what it’s all about.’”
When Walt Disney Studios had a special unveiling of the restoration of its namesake’s offices on the Burbank lot in 2015, Sherman had a strange experience when he sat down at the piano and began to play “Feed the Birds” for the rest of the invited guests.
“The piano started rapping, started beating time,” said Sherman, who turned 90 this month. (His brother, Robert B. Sherman, died in 2012). “It was amazing. Something was clicking away.”
Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks in “Mary Poppins” and attended the unveiling, recalled that, “The lights were flickering. All of the heads of the studio were there. The people who organized the [event] were mortified. We went, ‘Don’t worry. That’s Walt. He’s joining in.’ Walt was completely present.”
No doubt, the spirit of Walt and Robert Sherman will be permeating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ tribute to the Sherman brothers Wednesday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. (The event is sold out, but there will be a stand-by line).
“The Sherman Brothers: A Hollywood Songbook,” will feature clips from the Disney films they worked on, including “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” performances by Dick Van Dyke (“Mary Poppins”), Hayley Mills (“The Parent Trap”), Jordan Fisher and LeAnn Rimes and speakers such as Dotrice, Lesley Ann Warren (“The Happiest Millionaire”), composer John Debney, Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, film critic Leonard Maltin and veteran Disney animator Floyd Norman. John Stamos is the host.
“It’s very nice to have given so much to the world and on this milestone he gets to give something back,” said Richard Sherman’s son, Gregory V. Sherman, who is producing the evening with the film academy. “He doesn’t have to perform. He just gets to sit back and watch what he’s done.”
So why are the Sherman brothers’ songs so magical and memorable?
Maltin believes it’s the tunes’ inherent optimism.
“The songs are always singable,” he said. “They are not complex, musically. And as you know, simplicity is very hard to achieve. There’s a big difference between simplistic and simplicity. Anybody can hum or sing them. That’s why you and I can still remember them.”
“They’re earworms,” added Dotrice, who remains close friends with Sherman and his wife, Elizabeth. “[A tune] gets in your head, and you can’t get rid of it. You sort of hum them the first time and you find yourself singing them six hours later.”
Warren made her film debut in 1967’s “The Happiest Millionaire,” which was the last live-action movie Disney produced before his death on Dec. 15, 1966.
“I was 18 or 18½ or something like that and I was so scared,” Warren recalled . “But they made me so comfortable and sort of held my hand through the whole process of learning the material, coaching me on how they wanted it to be sort of performed. But they were also respectful about letting me find my own voice, so to speak, my own acting voice with the songs.”
The magic of the brothers’ songs, she believes, is that they are complicated emotionally yet “deceivingly” simple.
It was specific to that movie, but universal in its message. I think that’s one of their enormous talents.
“Even the song I got to sing in ‘Happiest Millionaire’ — ‘Valentine Candy’ — is really about a young girl in search of herself and confusion about who is she going to be,” said Warren. “It was specific to that movie, but universal in its message. I think that’s one of their enormous talents.”
Disney witnessed that talent when he heard his “Mickey Mouse Club” superstar Annette Funicello score a huge hit in 1959 with the Sherman brothers’ pop tune “Tall Paul.”
“The people at the Disney record company said, ‘Do you have anything for Annette?’” noted Sherman. “And we said, ‘Oh, my God, yes we do.’ We started writing a lot of things for Annette.”
They also wrote the hit pop tune “Let’s Get Together” for Disney’s young star Mills for 1961’s “The Parent Trap.”
“Then Walt took interest. He put us on staff, and we started writing practically everything that came down the pike at Disney for about eight years,” Sherman said.
Not only did they compose songs and musical scores for movies (the Sherman brothers won a second Oscar for their “Mary Poppins” score) but they also composed tunes for Disney attractions, most famously for the It’s a Small World ride, along with “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” for the Enchanted Tiki Room.
The Sherman brothers were influenced by their father, famed Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman, who wrote such tunes as “Save Your Sorrow” and “On the Beach at Bali-Bali.”
Al Sherman lived to see his sons’ success. “Our dad was very proud of us,” said Sherman. “He was a wonderful man. They’d say to him, ‘What are your biggest hits?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I have two biggest hits, Richard and Robert,’ or Robert and Richard, depending on who was sitting near him.”
Sherman isn’t resting on his laurels.
“I compose all the time,” he said. “I have a film coming out.”
“‘Christopher Robin,’” piped up his son.
“Three new songs and one reprise of an old song — the title song,” said Sherman. “Original musical and lyrics. I’m still writing, still working.”