Sunday, March 18, 2012

Robert Sherman: Life, Death and Social Networking

It was a strange and fitting coincidence that when I first heard about Robert Sherman's death two weeks ago, I was listening to songs he had written with his younger brother Richard. That the songs were on a vinyl record I hadn't played in years--a souvenir from a family trip to Disneyland in 1967--only added to the surreal nature of the moment.

The album was The Music of Walt Disney, a collection of classic Disney tunes released shortly after Walt's death in December 1966. Etched into its grooves were "Heigh Ho," "When You Wish Upon a Star," "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" and 16 other memorable songs. Five of them were Sherman Brothers tunes: "On the Front Porch," "Castaway," "Chim Chim Cheree," "Winnie the Pooh" and "It's a Small World."

I wouldn't have even been listening to that record had it not been for a random photo Disney historian Paul Anderson had posted on his Disney History Institute page on Facebook. It's a 1967 pic of a Wonderland Music Shop display window at Disneyland containing an assortment of The Music of Walt Disney albums. Immediately recognizing the familiar face of Walt on the cover, I dug out my copy of the album (surprisingly easy to find) and posted a picture to share on DHI.

The Music of Walt Disney . . . and the Sherman Brothers

Circumstances dictated, of course, that I play the record. Say what you will about the convenience of modern digital music, there is still something very special about the tactile action of placing needle to vinyl and listening to rich, analog music. Forty-five years later, the album still sounds wonderful.

As the strains of "It's a Small World" were fading out (a charming choral version), Jeff Kurtti, another noted Disney historian--and a former Imagineer--posted a photo of Robert Sherman on Facebook with a simple tribute. "Rest well, my friend, and thank you for the gifts you gave." This was how I first found out the legendary Disney songwriter had passed away. After a period of declining health, Sherman died in London at the age of 86. The news was sad not just because of the passing of a talented artist, but because we lost one more person who knew and worked with Walt Disney. There are fewer and fewer people around anymore with that direct connection to Walt. It's disheartening each time another one passes.

I have never met Jeff Kurtti in person, but he is among a generous group of Disney insiders who connect with fellow Disney enthusiasts through social networking. I'm very pleased to include the likes of archivist Dave Smith, historian Paula Sigman Lowery, animator Floyd Norman and producer Don Hahn in my group of Facebook friends. There are others, but these people stand out to me for their accessibility and support. I've chatted with Jeff and Paula online about Disney history. Dave has answered questions for me about Walt. Floyd let me use one of his cartoons in a story I wrote about John Lasseter. Don gave me some encouraging words on a piece I wrote about The Lion King. To an amateur Disney blogger, these things matter. It's very easy to take for granted our present age of electronic interaction, but for those of us who are old enough to remember a world before the Internet, it really is something to marvel at.

As a kid in the early 1970s, I sent a letter to the quarterly magazine Disney News. I asked them exactly what it was Jolly Roger said on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride just before you took the first waterfall plunge ("Dead men tell no tales"). It took three months, but the response finally came in a Disneyland envelope that contained a partial copy of the working script for Pirates from the loading at Lafitte's Landing to the complete words uttered by Jolly Roger. I was giddy with excitement receiving an actual response from Disneyland--AND IT ONLY TOOK THREE MONTHS!

Last year, I sent a Facebook message to Dave Smith regarding a trip Walt Disney made to Las Vegas (my hometown) in the mid-1950s. About an hour later, Dave responded with the information I needed (Thank you, Dave). Ahh, progress.

In August, I reached out to Robert Sherman's son, Robbie, about a campaign he was championing to have the Sherman Brothers recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors. By e-mail, Robbie answered a list of questions for me about the campaign, but most importantly offered some very personal insight about his father. Robbie didn't share much about Bob Sherman the songwriter, but plenty about Bob Sherman the painter, model plane-builder and problem-solver. It was a pleasant reminder that to we Disney fans who perceive our heroes in terms of their professional output, there's a personal side we seldom consider because we rarely get to see it up close. Robert Sherman may have delighted the world with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but to his children, he was Dad.

Robbie Sherman and his father in 2003.
Robbie moderates a Sherman Brothers group page on Facebook, and over the months he's used it to promote the Kennedy Center Honors campagn, share recollections of his dad and post the occasional Sherman Brothers "Song of the Day." When his father died, the page became a virtual memorial with dozens of messages posted by fans and well-wishers offering condolences over the family's loss. There were links to numerous tributes paid by others ranging from the BBC to CBS's Diane Sawyer. Robbie's brother Jeff, who co-produced and directed the heartfelt documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, offered his thoughts as well:
He wanted to bring happiness to the world and, unquestionably, he succeeded. His love and his prayers, his philosophy and his poetry will live on forever. Forever his songs and his genius will bring hope, joy and love to this small, small world.
Family photos of Robert over the years were shared. One fan posted a lovely picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London, forever associated with the Brothers' poignant "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins. Robbie posted this touching video of his father's acceptance speech played at the unveiling of the Sherman Brothers' window on Disneyland's Main Street:

All of these stories and videos were shared in real time, spontaneous and sincere. We've come to expect this as the norm of today's technology, bringing people together at times of joy and times of tragedy to share their thoughts and fears, their hopes and dreams. And yes, we often do take it for granted. But, it's important to pause every now and then to appreciate how remarkable the online community is. I'm grateful for the continually growing circle of Disney artists and professionals, fans and friends I've come to know--in-person and virtually--over the years. The Shermans were right. It truly is a small world, after all.

I never met you, Bob, but through this amazing group of people who've loved and admired you, I've gotten to know you just a little bit better. I will miss you. Rest in peace.

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