Friday, August 12, 2011

Robbie Sherman Talks About His Father, the Sherman Brothers and the Kennedy Center Honors

On the set of Mary Poppins (l. to r.):
Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews,
Dick Van Dyke and Robert Sherman
Last month, I blogged about the campaign by Robbie Sherman to have his father and uncle, the Sherman Brothers, named as Kennedy Center Honorees. Since then, I reached out to Robbie and he kindly agreed to answer some questions by e-mail about the Sherman Brothers, their music and his relationship with his father Robert, a complex man of intellect and artistry.

Robert Sherman was born in 1925 and, besides being one half of the team that wrote such Disney musical classics as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "It's a Small World," and "Winnie the Pooh," he is also a decorated World War II veteran and an accomplished poet, sculptor and painter. In 2002, he moved from the United States to Great Britain, where he currently resides.

Tim: The Sherman Brothers have won many awards during their careers, two Oscars and a Grammy among them. What would be the significance of your father and uncle becoming Kennedy Center Honorees?

Robbie Sherman: Kennedy Center Honors is one of the most high profile accolades given to people in the entertainment business. For the Sherman Brothers to be included among the honorees would significantly elevate peoples' awareness of their work as well. I can think of no other songwriters' music and lyrics which more closely reflect what John Kennedy was all about: his spirit of optimism and confidence. Since the Kennedy Center Honors was created in the late president's memory, it would seem particularly fitting for the Sherman Brothers to be chosen for this honor.

Tim: How did the Kennedy Center Honors campaign begin? When did you decide this was an award to pursue?

RS: Every year in December, when the Kennedy Center Honorees were announced on television, I thought, "Somebody should do that for Dad and Uncle Dick.” So, I suppose it was always in the back of my mind. Specifically, though, last December I put together a step-by-step to-do list and, when there was time, I worked on it with one of our L.A. interns whose name is Matthew Pollard. A student of music and animation, Matthew is a recent graduate of Chapman College. We have no word yet whether or not the Sherman Brothers are going to get Kennedy Center Honors this year, but if it happens, it will be in large part because of Matt's efforts. He has also been a real force in moving along our United States distribution of Walt's Time books to school libraries. In May of this year we distributed close to 400 books in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone. After that was done, I put him onto Kennedy Center Honors, full force.

Robbie Sherman (l.) and
Robert Sherman, 2003
Tim: Why do you feel your father and your uncle are deserving of this honor?

RS: I'm not a big fan of the word "deserve.” The term seems, somehow, inherently presumptuous and inescapably pretentious. Frankly, if we were doing this just so that my dad and uncle could receive yet another plume in their caps, what would be the point? That said, both my father and uncle have been very appreciative of my efforts. You see, even though I don't think that the Sherman Brothers need to receive this honor (on a personal level), I strongly believe that their songs do. Sherman Brothers' songs have brightened all our lives. Intervening decades have demonstrated their lasting quality and cultural significance. The Sherman Brothers' work is marvelous, inventive, witty and often poignant. Ironically, because their work is so subtle and accessible, it's also sometimes overlooked. What's amazing is that their work continues to contribute so much to popular culture. The very words we use, even the way in which we think, has been shaped by these two men. I still hold that the only good reason to acknowledge great art is so that more people will, in turn, be exposed to it. And songs as positive and inspirational as the Sherman Brothers' should not be overlooked.

Tim: What type of support have you received from your family and from Richard Sherman's family in campaigning for the Kennedy Center Honors?

RS: That's an interesting question. As I've already shared, both my father and uncle have been very supportive of this effort. They greatly appreciate everything that their fans are doing as well, especially the letter writing. I mean, writing a letter represents a lot more than just clicking a "like" button on Facebook. Writing a letter takes a measure of time and focus. Of course I'm organizing things on this end, but we need everyone's support if we're going to make this happen.

Tim: What was it like growing up the son of a Sherman Brother? What is your fondest childhood memory?

RS: Growing up my uncle's son would have undoubtedly been very different from growing up my father's. Indeed, I recall discussing this very topic with my cousin Greg a dozen years ago. He was quite wistful about the matter as I remember it. I guess because my father and uncle are so different, there really isn't a single "quintessential" anecdote to illustrate "what it was like to be the son of a Sherman Brother" (to use your words). That's a long prelude, but I think that, inevitably, it's an essential part of the story. The aura was different specifically because the brothers are so famously dissimilar. I can't tell you what it was like being the "son of a Sherman Brother." But I can tell you what it was like being Bob Sherman's son.

First of all, our house was always filled with what I would call "an abundance of wonderment," if that makes sense. This is visually evident in any myriad family photos. My father is so many things-- a poet, painter, sculptor, archeologist--but, perhaps most of all, he is a natural scholar. If a subject should happen to capture his interest, he becomes a sponge to it, absorbing every bit of it.

When asked about my Dad, I always try to explain that first and foremost he is an intellectual. And the real ones are actually very rare. If you want to begin to understand my father, I believe that you first have to accept the notion that he lives in and for his own mind and is fed from the feast of intellectual pursuit. He has zero time for small talk or, for that matter, repeating stories he's already said. For that reason, you may have noticed, he rarely participates in interviews and almost always regrets having done so. But, I hasten to add that he is also extremely generous with his time and a profoundly good and kind person--perhaps to a fault. This generosity of spirit branches out in many directions.

The following is a vignette which I hope will give you a sense of what it was like growing up with a man like Bob Sherman for a dad:

While my grandfather may be known for his prowess at making kites (The Sherman Brothers song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” was inspired by their father Al Sherman’s skill at kite making—Tim), what I'll bet you were unaware of was that my father took this notion to another level altogether.

Robbie and his dad, 1971
One time when I was about nine or ten, my dad and I (but mostly my dad) designed and built a model airplane from scratch using only balsa wood, rubber bands and wax paper. In fact, the only pre-fabbed part of the airplane was the propeller, two small hooks and some 1" wheels (we bought those latter items at a local hobby shop). Where this fascination stemmed from, I have no idea.

Building the airplane was as much an intellectual exercise for my dad as it was a father/son activity. I'll never forget the experience--his intensity, his care for every detail and his remarkable sense of craftsmanship. It was a majestic thing to be a part of, really. It's a strange experience to put into words. My father made sure I was as much a part of the process as I wanted to be. I measured out strips of wax paper and balsa wood which he would then cut with his jigsaw. For him, building an airplane was as much about artistry as it was about tangibly digesting the science of flight. Somehow, he just seemed to know how one goes about harnessing the forces of lift, drag and thrust. Instinctively or through study, he understood how these forces would interplay with the body of the airplane we were building. I remember thinking at the time, that if he'd been alive a hundred years earlier, how he might have beaten the Wright Brothers at their own game.

Our airplane was a remarkably elegant device--about three feet long by three feet wide--and I greatly anticipated the day we would finally get to test it out together. It was such a cool experiment. There were no guarantees that it would actually fly, of course. But that's what made it so exciting!

The plane was built in two parts, the central body and the wings. Through the nose of the central body, we drilled a narrow hole, dropped a hook through the center of the propeller and ran a long, industrial size rubber band through the fuselage. At the plane's tail was another solid block of balsa wood and another hook. My dad tasked me with winding the propeller 100 revolutions (he explained that this would provide just the right amount of torque to give the airplane the speed it would need to attain lift). One summer day in 1978 (if my math is right), we tested the plane out, and you know what happened? It actually flew. It gained speed, achieved lift, and then, miraculously, it landed once more (and in one piece). After a few flights across the park, our beautiful plane crashed violently (and perhaps predictably) into a brick wall, but by then it no longer mattered. The experiment had been a success.

You see, building the airplane was never about creating a thing-- a trophy to brag about-- at least not for my dad. It was about seeing if we could design a working airplane from scratch, with no electricity required for flight. It was all about the intellectual challenge. This is what drives my father. It's what has always moved him forward through life. It's a hard concept for people to get their heads around, I think. It's amazing that an intellectual like my dad could also find a way to include his young son in what he was doing. There was no sense of distance (as one might surmise when dealing with a "true intellectual") and perhaps that is what makes the memory so special. He didn't come down to my level. To the contrary, you might say he gave me wings and provided the necessary lift. He's always been about "the next challenge.” That's probably why he never tried to repair the first plane or build a new one. He was already onto his next pursuit. It's never about reliving the past with my dad. So many of us are stuck living in the past, or off of it. But that way can never be the way forward. I am convinced that my father is largely misunderstood and, ironically, by some of the people who claim to know him the best. I can say without any doubt that he is easily the most fascinating person I have ever known.

Tim: What quality of your father's are you most proud of?

RS: His bravery. He has a truly fearless quality about him. I'm sure that this is a byproduct of his experience in the War.

Tim: Your father is also a painter and you have arranged for a number of exhibitions of his work. How would you describe his artistic talent? Do you have a favorite painting of his?

Robert Sherman's art (l. to r.): "Moses," "San Francisco," and "Sacrifice"

RS: I love most of his work. I'm particularly partial to a few of his paintings, though. "Moses,” "Sacrifice" and "San Francisco" are among my favorites. I love the detail in "Moses,” the expressiveness in "Sacrifice" and, because it hung outside my bedroom door for many years when I was growing up, I have always had a special place in my heart for "San Francisco.” I love the bright little red house hiding behind the darker buildings in the foreground. It somehow reminds me of my Dad's personality. The red house is kind of like the gleam in my father's eye. There's a particular optimism in that painting.

Tim: What can fans do to help support your Kennedy Center Honors campaign?

RS: Keep writing letters! And get others to write letters too. I just received a response from one of the members of the KCH board. He has agreed to suggest the Sherman Brothers for this year's honors. But that's still no guarantee that they'll get it. KCH has not yet met. Their decision will be made closer to the end of the month. Before, I only knew that they would be making their decision sometime in August. Now we know that it will be by the end of the month. So anyway, any support for this effort is welcomed and will certainly still be useful. It's not too late to write letters!


For more information on the Kennedy Center Honors, visit Letters in support of the Sherman Brothers should be sent to:

The Kennedy Center Honors
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20566

To join Robbie's Sherman Brothers group on Facebook, visit

1 comment:

  1. I'm in love with the San Francisco painting! Great article/interview, Tim!