Disney: The Wonder of Songwriter Richard Sherman
Of all the Disney Legends with whom I’ve worked, none needed an event host LESS than legendary composer Richard Sherman. Our appearance at the 2003 Walt Disney Art Classics Convention aboard the Disney Wonder cruise ship reminded me that, in addition to his being one half of a amazingly prolific songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers, Dick is a born raconteur. For those who have become used to seeing him and his brother Bob on the special features sections of the Disney 2-disc DVD sets, this won’t come as a surprise.
A few months before the convention, I’d met with Dick, Imagineer Bruce Gordon and my friend (and fellow event host) Tim O’ Day for lunch at Disneyland. Over sandwiches and soup at Carnation Main Street, Tim and I talked through the convention show elements with Dick. Then we walked over to the Walt Disney Story theater to take a few promotional photos of Dick at the piano in Walt’s recreated “formal” office.
Dick Sherman and me at the piano in Walt’s “formal” office at Disneyland.
After the photo session, Bruce took the three of us for a special walk-though of the yet to open Winnie the Pooh attraction in the former home of Bear Country Jamboree. It was a real treat to experience it scene by scene with Disney veterans Bruce, Dick and Tim. At the end of the day, Dick presented me with an inscribed copy of his book, Walt’s Time, co-written with his brother Bob, and edited by Bruce, Jeff Kurtti, and David Mumford. I asked Bruce to sign it too, and I’m glad I did, especially in light of his recent untimely passing.
By the time May rolled around, everything was ready for the convention. The 500 spots for the cruise had sold out in a couple of days. My family accompanied me to Orlando, as they had for each of the previous conventions, but wouldn’t be joining me on the ship, since my wife was “too” pregnant for sailing. So Diane, Emily and Erin had to tough out eight nights at the Grand Floridian. Eric didn’t care either…he was comfortably in utero.
The “over sea” portion of the convention was to last only three days, just enough time for us to hit Nassau (on Friday) and Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island) before heading back to Orlando. There were also “on land” events scheduled at both ends of our sailing, making the total event a five day experience. Because our convention guests were just a portion of the group on board (we had a full seating), all of the usual stage shows went on as scheduled, meaning our special presentations were held early in the morning or late in the evening. But you tend to lose track of time out at sea, and no one seemed to mind. After all, in the middle of the ocean, where else was anyone going to go?
Saturday was already a full day before the lights dimmed in the Disney Wonder’s Walt Disney Theater. I had conducted a hilarious interview and career retrospective with Imagineer Alice Davis in the morning (I’ll have to post about that sometime!), and spent most of the afternoon on the private beaches of Castaway Cay.
Still, nobody was too tired for our final convention offering: a 10 pm show titled, “By Request on ‘The Beautiful Briny Sea.’” After an inspiring series of film clips featuring Sherman Brothers tunes, the crowd cheered Dick as he and the piano rose through the stage on a hydraulic lift. Due to a miscommunication, Dick had only packed a dark suit for the trip, while I had been fitted for a tuxedo at Walt Disney World. We decided that I should “dress down,” which created another problem. Because I had the tux, and my two other presentations were in “island casual” garb, I hadn’t brought a suit. In the end, I borrowed a shirt and tie from WDAC GM Michael Young for the show. And check out my deck shoes. Fortunately, no one was paying much attention to me.
The show set up was simple: I’d take questions and requests from the audience, and Dick would tell stories about how different songs were written, then perform a few verses of them.
Here’s one audio clip from that evening: Dick telling of how he and Bob first came to work with Walt (click on the arrow):
We started off talking about the Enchanted Tiki Room, and weaved our way from The Jungle Book to Mary Poppins (including “The Eyes of Love,” which didn’t make the film’s final cut), “One Little Spark” from the Imagination Pavillion, Annette Funicello’s “The Monkey’s Uncle,” and “About Time” from The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. We even spent some time talking about several attendee’s favorite non-Disney “Disney” movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which — at the time — had just opened as a musical (with six additional Sherman Brothers songs) on the London stage.
The songs were fun to hear, but the stories behind each were fascinating. This was before many of the Disney DVD collectors sets were available on the market, and few people had heard Dick’s song creation tales. For example, he shared the little-known story of the most addicting song he and his brother wrote, “It’s a Small World.” The brothers had first attempted to write a rondolet for the ride, which didn’t work out due to the overlapping scenes. And when they finally settled on the tune we know today, they conceived it as a much slower piece. It’s interesting how things evolve.
We eventually covered a few of my personal Sherman Brothers favorites, such as “The Ugly Bug Ball” from Summer Magic and the classic “It’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow” from the General Electric Carousel of Progress (originally at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, then Disneyland, and finally, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World). And from the “Tiki Room” on through to “It’s a Small World,” our finale, Richard Sherman gave the capacity audience just about everything they wanted.
And through it all, I had the best seat in the house.
Here’s the WDAC Team (I’m second from the right) on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private Caribbean island. That’s the Disney Wonder in the background, but you probably knew that. Good times.