In the last years of his life, Walt Disney had a Friday evening ritual: His studio songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman, would slip into his office to chat awhile. Soon Walt would walk to the north window, gaze out, and say simply, “Play it.”
The brothers knew what he meant. Richard would sit at Walt’s piano and begin to play “Feed the Birds,” the lovely melody they wrote for Mary Poppins.
Walt would stare out the window, hands behind his back, and the tears would flow down his face. “Yes,” the brothers once heard Walt whisper to himself, “that’s what it’s all about.”
You see, unlike just about any other classic movie song you can think of, “Feed the Birds” isn’t about romance, or yearning, or triumph. It’s a song about charity, of giving for the sake of kindness. “Feed the Birds” was “We Are The World” 20 years early, and it was wrapped in one of the most wonderfully executed film fantasies ever made.
Of course, the Disney legend is littered with apocrypha, and who knows if that often-told tidbit is 100 percent true. But it gets to the heart of the unique relationship Disney had with the people who worked for him: He was the incurable sentimentalist…they were the artists who brought his heartfelt visions to life.
Robert Sherman, who along with his brother wrought most of Disney’s greatest musical hits—the songs for Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Winnie the Pooh—died on Monday in London. I got to meet Robert once, at the celebration of Disneyland’s 50th birthday in 2005. At first he caught my attention because he appeared to be the very oldest person there—somewhat stooped, walking with a cane. He seemed vaguely familiar, and then I saw his tie: designed to look like a piano keyboard. I knew this was one of the Shermans but really, I couldn’t be sure which one. I mean, look at their photos. They weren’t twins—Robert was older—but they sure looked a lot alike.
He was, oddly, standing there all by himself, balancing a drink cup and hors d’oeuvres. I really wanted to shake his hand, but I knew that could lead to disaster; either drink or food all over that nice tie. So I stepped over to him, took his elbow, and said, “Thank you.” He looked up and smiled, and I knew he knew what I meant. I suspect for the last half-century of his life, Robert Sherman got a lot of those unsolicited thank yous because, really, what else can you say to someone who provided the soundtrack for your life?
You can hear some of the most beautiful movie music ever composed on our own Movies for Grownups Movie Music Channel, but the Shermans may well deserve a channel all their own. And if you burrow down deep into their canon—past their Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cheree,” past “Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious,” down through “I Wanna Be Like You” and even beyond their late-‘50s pop hit “You’re 16 (You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine)”—the nut at the center of the brothers’ body of work is a 30-second ditty they wrote for Walt’s Pepsi Cola exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
“It’s a Small World After All” is as infectious as the flu, as tenacious as a tapeworm—and is, in all likelihood, the most-performed song in the history of humanity. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculating to try and figure out just how many times that song has been sung, and the math is mind-boggling:
Accepting the 30-second length of one go-round of “It’s a Small World” (it’s just a tad longer), and assuming those hundreds of little doll robots are singing the song in unison—albeit in their own native languages—that would mean “It’s a Small World” cycles 120 times an hour. Figuring an average 10-hour workday at Disneyland (the park is often open longer than that and sometimes shorter), that works out to 1,200 performances a day, 438,000 in a 365-day year. Multiply that by the 48 years the ride has been in operation, including two years in New York, and you get a mind-numbing 21 million performances of “It’s a Small World” for the Disneyland version alone! And we’re not even counting the “Small World” rides in Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong. Nor the kabillion verses that have been sung in family minivans pulling out of theme park lots, nor those mumbled by haunted parents in their sleep.
That’s quite a legacy for a little song with big ideas: Richard Sherman called the song “A hymn for peace.”
And now, as Bob Sherman sits at some great white grand piano in the sky—poised to perform as his old boss gazes out over a shimmering cloudscape whispering “Play it”—I wonder what song he’ll sing.