Hollywood’s Most Prolific Songwriter Celebrates 90
With two giant-size Oscar statues flanking either side of the stage of Beverly Hills’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, one couldn’t have asked for a better finale to an perfect evening: After all the speakers and performers ascended the stage, a film clip from “Mary Poppins” and the lyrics of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” appeared on the screen; everyone sang along as The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented “The Sherman Brothers: A Hollywood Songbook” on Wednesday, June 20.
John Stamos, who called himself a “life-long fan” of the Sherman Brothers, hosted the event. “I’d like to take this chance to thank the Academy,” he quipped, “because it may be the only chance I’ll get!”
The event also celebrated the recent 90th birthday of Richard M. Sherman. According to a 2002 on-air interview with his brother and writing partner, the late Robert B. Sherman, for London Today, the Sherman Brothers wrote more film music than any other songwriting team in motion picture history. The duo served as the first and only staff songwriters at Disney Studios and wrote countless movie scores, including “Poppins,” various Winnie the Pooh films and 1967’s “The Jungle Book.” Working as freelance artists, the Sherman Brothers also worked on the 1973 film “Charlotte’s Web” and 1974’s “Huckleberry Finn.” They wrote music for Disney theme park attractions, including “It’s a Small World (After All)” and “The Enchanted Tiki Room,” and they wrote “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress. Their array of pop tunes includes “You’re Sixteen” for Johnny Burnett in 1960 (and Ringo Starr in 1973) and “Tall Paul” for Annette Funicello in 1959. Most recently, Richard Sherman has three newly written songs, which will be heard in the soon-to-be-released Disney feature film “Christopher Robin.”
Over the course of the evening, songwriter Kenny Loggins spoke about his first encounter with the Shermans at Disney studios, when they collaborated for “The Tigger Movie .”Actress-singer-dancer Lesley Ann Warren, who appeared in two Disney-Sherman Brothers films, performed a Sherman Brothers song from Disney’s “The Happiest Millionaire,” in which she starred. “Coco” voice-actor Anthony Gonzales sang a stirring rendition of the title song to the Sherman Brothers-scored “Snoopy Come Home.”
Other performers and speakers included actresses Hayley Mills and Karen Dotrice; Grammy-winning singer-songwriter LeAnn Rimes; composers Alan Menken, Michael Giacchino and John Debney; veteran Disney cartoonist Floyd Norman; Pixar’s Bob Peterson, Jonas Rivera and Pete Docter; actress and singer Keala Settle; singer Maude Maggart; actor-singer-musician Jordan Fisher; guitarist Tommy Emanuel; and the evening’s musical director, Richard Allen, and his band.
After witnessing the horrors of Dachau when he and his fellow troops liberated the concentration camp in 1945, Robert Sherman just wanted to make people happy, said son and writer-producer Jeffery C. Sherman. “He smiles down at us every time someone sings a Sherman Brothers song,” he told the audience. Jeffrey inspired his father and uncle to write “A Spoonful of Sugar” after he received the polio vaccination on a sugar cube as a child. “Dad’s turning a school vaccine into one of the most memorable songs of all time tells you just what and genius he — and Dick [Sherman] — were,” he said later.
“I think their songbook will outlast all of us,” said writer-producer Gregory V. Sherman, son of Richard Sherman and the organizer of the event. The two cousins produced and directed the 2009 documentary “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.”
“Well, like most people, we had five pianos in our house,” Gregory said of his unusual childhood. Added artist Laurie Sherman, daughter of Robert Sherman and creator of fine jewelry, “It was fun to watch them work when I was a child. It had a huge effect on my own life and art.”
The songwriting duo wrote both the songs and screenplay to the 1973 film “Tom Sawyer,” which inspired Jeffrey and Gregory to embark on their own writing careers. Gregory’s writing and producing credits include the television series “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “Card Sharks.” Jeffrey created and produced a four episode series for the Disney Channel, “The Enchanted Musical Playhouse,” which featured music from the Sherman Brothers. His other television credits include “Boy Meets World” and Showtime’s “Wendy Liebman: Taller on TV.”
“I had this idea for a long, long time,” said Gregory, later, of the Academy tribute. “It was a lot of work, but there are very few people in the world who get to celebrate their dad the way I got to. I’m extraordinarily blessed.”
“There’s something about what they [the Sherman Brothers] wrote that went straight to your heart,” said fellow cast-member Dick Van Dyke. The renowned actor belied his 92 years with a song-and-dance routine alongside a capella vocal trio the Vantastix. Van Dyke also starred in the Sherman-scored “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Toward the end of the evening, Richard took the stage. After speaking about his and Robert’s experiences with Walt Disney, he went straight to the piano and treated the audience to a serenade of the iconic “Supercalafragisticexpialadocious” from “Poppins.” Acclaimed film critic Leonard Maltin summed up the sentiment evoked accurately: “We can’t thank Irving Berlin anymore for all the glorious songs he gave us. We can’t thank George Gershwin. It’s too late to say ‘thank you’ to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. But Richard Sherman is still here… Thank you.”
In preparing for his role as Robert Sherman in the Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” actor B.J. Novak asked Richard Sherman what he dreamed about in those “optimistic days,” before the success of “Poppins.” “Walking with giants,” Sherman replied.
Brenda Goldstein is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.