The Sound of Magic

I was a lover of movies so it stands to reason I would love movie music as well. When I was a kid I began to assemble an impressive collection of movie soundtracks and when I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios I brought my collection to the job knowing I would be spending a good deal of time at the drawing board. It turns out I was correct and I logged many hours on the feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” One of the things that helped the long hours go by was listening to motion picture soundtracks. Back in the fifties, a select group of movie composers ruled Hollywood film music. Guys such as Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman. Max Steiner was the sound of Warner Bros. and Alfred Newman and Hugo Friedhoffer provided the musical soundtrack for 20th Century Fox. For this film music lover it was a magical time.

When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios as a kid there was little doubt I would be seeking out Walt’s film composers as quickly as possible. In time, I met the venerable, Oliver Wallace and Paul J. Smith’s brother, Art Smith just happened to be my brother’s music teacher. Film composer, George Bruns looked more like a football line backer than a musician. George was finishing up on “Sleeping Beauty” but in time we would work together on Walt’s final film, “The Jungle Book.” The studio had hired a couple of brothers who were rock and roll song writers. However, the Old Maestro’s insights would soon prove they were much more than that. Soon, film assignments were to come for the Sherman Brothers and before long the prolific songwriters would be the “go to guys” when a new song was needed for a motion picture. However, Walt Disney had bigger plans in store. Robert and Richard Sherman would be Disney’s choice to compose the score for the live-action-animated musical, “Mary Poppins.” I didn’t know the Sherman Brothers all that well back in the sixties because we hadn’t yet worked together. In spite of that, I still showed up on Stage A on Monday morning to begin the prerecords for the new motion picture. I had already met musical director, Irwin Kostal, and we all laughed as Dick Van Dyke made his comic entrance onto the recording stage. Of course, we had a full studio orchestra onstage and the sounds filling Stage A were magical.

Some years later, as we worked to complete “The Jungle Book,” Walt Disney had a special request. The Old Maestro had enjoyed the sequence we put on the storyboards. It was funny and entertaining but he felt something was missing. What was missing was a Sherman Brothers song. It was as though Walt Disney had waved a magic wand because before we knew it, the completed song was ready to be recorded. My story partner, Vance Gerry and I headed over to Stage A once again. We had the opportunity to watch and listen as actor, Sterling Holloway recorded the song. Once again, Robert and Richard Sherman had delivered the goods. Hardly a surprise, the talented, prolific song writing team had brought some additional Disney magic to our little sequence, and the animated movie was made that much better.

Sadly, with the passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio began looking for younger songwriters. Contemporary tunesmiths more in line with the musical sensibility of the day. The Sherman Brothers were practically forgotten as the “New Disney” moved forward. As luck would have it, a new animated motion picture was being developed that would feature the music of Robert and Richard Sherman. I had returned from an assignment at Pixar Animation Studios and I would soon join my old collaborators on a new animated movie called, “The Tigger Movie.” The musical score demonstrated a charm and sweetness seldom heard today. It was music Walt Disney would have probably enjoyed. It was simple, heartfelt and totally unaffected. It was the sound of music from another time. A time I doubt we’ll ever see again.

However, my magical musical journey continued as my career pushed past fifty, then sixty years. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting composer, James Newton Howard while working on Disney’s “Dinosaur.” A few years later I shared a Legends Ceremony with Randy Newman. Newman scored practically all of the early Pixar movies and his musical contributions helped give the films their unique sensibility. Finally, only weeks ago while attending a meeting at the Motion Picture Academy I was lucky enough to chat with composer, Michael Giacchino. Giacchino had the thankless job of having to follow the master, John Williams on a Star Wars movie, “Rogue One.” Williams was not available to score the Star Wars film, so the job fell to Michael. Yet, there was another challenge. Giacchino had to score the motion picture in only a month. Finally, what could be more magical to a movie music lover than having one’s own life set to music. When production moved toward completion on my documentary I was delighted to learn the film would be scored by Ryan Shore. When I was a kid I grew up on the Hollywood soundtracks of the forties and fifties. Now, suddenly my life and career would be enriched and enhanced by music. Even better, I would be given my own theme. As an old movie music lover I can’t think of a higher compliment.

The scoring stage. The truly magical component of movie making. There's no better place I'd rather be.

The scoring stage. The truly magical component of movie making. There's no better place I'd rather be.

Summer of 1960

What’s this vintage black & white photograph on my desktop? And, who are these two guys sharing sunflower seeds during break time at the Walt Disney Studios? I took this photograph in the summer of 1960 after we had completed the latest Walt Disney feature animated film, “101 Dalmatians.” It was hardly my intention to document history this day. Mainly, I was testing my new Nikon 35mm camera that I had purchased on a recent trip to Japan. Break time at the Walt Disney Studios seemed a good a time as any.

So, what was life like back in the nineteen sixties? And what was the mood of the Walt Disney Studios after the completion of the latest animated film and another painful employee downsizing? Those of us who had managed to dodge a bullet and once again escape another round of layoffs could thank our lucky stars. This recent cutback sent a number of Walt Disney Studio veterans packing, and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of guilt that I had somehow survived. Many of the talented gentlemen were friends and all had contributed to the Disney classics. Now, because of economic issues in the industry and belt-tightening at the studio they were without a job.

The gentleman on the left is Art Stevens, a talented animator and a veteran of many Disney motion pictures. That’s his assistant on the right dipping into the bag of sunflower seeds. His name is Chuck Williams. All of us had recently wrapped up our chores on the latest animated feature, and were busy at work completing a short animated cartoon before moving on to our next feature assignment. I had been working over in 1-A where I shared an office with my pal, Burny Mattinson. Chuck had already moved to 1-B where he would begin his new assignment in a few weeks. It was a quiet weekday morning, and Art and Chuck pondered the future as they munched sunflower seeds and enjoyed the fifteen minute break.

We didn’t have email in those days, so we waited patiently for the telephone to ring. The expected call would more than likely be our boss, Andy Engman who would inform us concerning our next Disney assignment. Not long after this picture was taken I received my call and my next assignment. Hardly a surprise, I learned the next motion picture would be the Bill Peet adaptation of T.H. White’s novel, “The Sword in the Stone.” However, the following bit of information was unexpected. Andy Engman said I would be moving to D-wing where I would be assisting the legendary directing animator, Milt Kahl. Apparently, Andy didn’t anticipate the silence on the other end of the line and he thought the connection had been lost. That was not the reason, however. You see, after learning that I would now be assisting one of Disney’s “scariest animators,” I was speechless. In time, I mumbled a few words, hung up the phone and began to pack up my office. It was the summer of 1960 and a new adventure was about to begin.

Animator, Art Stevens and Chuck Williams share sunflower seeds at the sixties Walt Disney Studios.

Animator, Art Stevens and Chuck Williams share sunflower seeds at the sixties Walt Disney Studios.

Next!

Top level managers seem to have found a popular new word in today’s business jargon. The word is, “Disruption,” and big shot senior VPs love to continually speak of disruption as though it were an end in itself. They don’t take into account disrupting things hardly guarantees moving forward. You don’t simply destroy old conventions and think all will be well. You still have work to do. You have to evolve. You have to consider what’s next. Back in early nineteen sixties, the Old Maestro, Walt Disney was focused on what was next and he called a meeting with some of his staffers. For the majority of the team, meetings with the boss were rare. Disney usually met with his top story guys, animators and department heads. However, this day was different. We met in a sweatbox on the second floor of the Animation Building because Walt Disney decided to address a number of his team. He wanted to share some very important news. And, what was that news, you might ask? It wasn’t about disruption…it was about what was next.

What indeed was next? If anything characterized Walt Disney it would have been his attitude of looking forward. Walt was a visionary always focused on the future and what was to come. He gave scant thought to past successes and achievements. On the other hand, Walt was never deterred by failures or missteps. These things were all part of his creative process and Disney was well known for embracing the future and sharing his exciting views with all who would listen. The fifties had been a creative and productive time for Walt Disney Productions. Walt had moved forward with his plan to continue making animated feature films, yet he also continued his new love for live-action storytelling. Disney had taken the bold step of plunging headlong into the new medium of television and taken the biggest risk of his career by building a sizable theme park in nearby Anaheim. Things could not have looked better for Walt when he held an armload of Academy Awards at a fifties Oscar ceremony. No doubt about it, the fifties had been amazing for the little Burbank cartoon studio. Yet, in the words of Al Jolson’s jazz singer in the Warner Bros. “Talkie,” Walt was eager to tell all, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

A hush fell over the crowed space as the Old Maestro stepped to the front of the room. Attired as always in a grey business suit, shirt and tie, Walt’s avuncular manner put everyone at ease and he immediately had our attention. Without the use of flashy powerpoint graphics or dazzling displays, the boss captivated the crowd by allowing us to share his vision of the upcoming decade. First of all, a new slate of animated and live-action films would add to Disney already profitable film library. That media treasure trove would be strengthen by the new medium of television and would allow new opportunities for creative storytelling. But wait, there’s more! Walt Disney Productions agreed to partner with the Worlds Fair to be held in New York City in 1964-65, where several brand new attractions would be created especially for the world famous exposition. What else? Walt Disney’s Imagineers were already hard at work creating concepts for a new ski resort to be constructed in California’s High Sierras. The mountain top vacation mecca would be dubbed, “Mineral King,” and would offer winter vacationeers the finest in ski slopes and other family attractions. Truly a winter wonderland, Walt could envision millions flocking to his snow covered paradise. A Walt Disney theme park in the high Sierras.

The Disney staffers looked at each other incredulously. Was Walt really going to do all this, they wondered? Far from done, the Old Maestro continued his pitch. Soon, Disneyland would have a sister park in Orlando Florida where Walt’s imagineers would finally have the “elbow room” to practice their theme park magic. Not wanting to repeat the mistake he made with the Anaheim park, Walt was making sure his Orlando theme park would have a “canvas” large enough to showcase his magical ideas and theme park attractions. However, there was another reason for the expansive Florida property on the opposite coast. That exciting news was saved for last and Walt Disney eagerly let us know what was next. EPCOT was next. And, what is EPCOT? It was Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. No longer content creating entertainment venues, Walt Disney Productions would move from fun and fanciful attraction makers to City Planners. They would create a sustainable working city that would serve as a model for urban development. EPCOT would not only be for cities across this great nation — but cities around the world.

Now, we knew what was next, and we had gained a glimpse of the incredible future Walt Disney had planned for us. No doubt Walt’s ideas were audacious. Some critics might have viewed Disney’s vision of the future a tad arrogant. Such opinions mattered little to The Old Maestro as he focused on the future. Sadly, things don’t always go as planned and Walt Disney would never see the Orlando theme park he so meticulously planned. He would never realize EPCOT or play a meaningful role in the way modern cities evolve. Even as his life came to a close that Thursday evening in Saint Josephs Hospital, the modern day visionary stared at the ceiling above his hospital bed. He saw his beloved theme park and the city of the future. “This is where we’re headed,” Walt must have pondered that quiet winter evening. “This is next.”

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.

Filming Dr. King

The early sixties was a turbulent time. A time of social unrest along with a contentious war in South East Asia. Hippies railed against “The Man,” and racial tensions ran high. It was at this amazing time that a group of young black men decided to launch a Los Angeles film production company. We were not trying to settle social issues, we simply wanted to make movies. The sixties animation scene could hardly be called healthy. Even stable studios such as Disney saw the need to cut back. As our industry began to shrink, we saw even less opportunity for progress. This was not necessarily based on color, or ethnicity. There simply were not enough jobs for the few who worked in this odd, quickly business.

It was against this sixties backdrop we decided to launch our own company. It was called Vignette Films, Inc. and our mission hardly differed from the agenda of our colleagues. They were also bailing out of the few mainstream studios still around to go off on their own. Our white colleagues had an edge. In short time, they were able to obtain financing to launch their film business. We were not so fortunate. When presenting our business plan I do not joke when I say we were laughed out of every bank and loan company in Los Angeles. Back in the sixties the idea that four young black men would launch a movie company could only be called, ludicrous. Our fanciful dream probably would have come to an end, but a well to do investment banker in the La Canada area of the San Gabriel Valley came to our aid. He knew full well the challenges people of color faced in the sixties. Deciding to bypass his own financial institution, he loaned us the money from his personal funds. Call it white guilt or generosity, we soon had the money needed and Vignette Films launched in a suite of offices in what is now know as Korea Town near the Wilshire District of Los Angeles.

You’ve probably already heard the story of the 1965 Watts Riot and Roy Edward Disney’s 16mm Bolex movie camera. However, there’s another story and this one concerns a film trip to document a fiery young preacher who was stirring up the Pre Civil Rights American South by staging, Sit Ins and other acts of civil disobedience. Long denied their rights as American citizens, the Southern Blacks had finally had enough. I won’t bore you with the history here because you should already know it. If you don’t, I implore you to please learn it. We were a struggling young company and hardly able to afford flight tickets to the Southern States. Yet, there was no way we could pass on this history making opportunity. We decided to buy cameraman, Eddie Smith an airplane ticket. Armed with his cameras and a stack of Kodak film, Smith headed to Alabama to document what we already knew would someday be history. You probably already know the rest of the story. The sixties continued to rage on as a divided country grappled with social issues, a lost war in South East Asia and the bitterness between two Americas. Each side seemed convinced they would be proven right by history. Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? It would appear some things never change.

The nineteen sixties was a long time ago. Yet, when I look at issues today I wonder how much we’ve changed as a nation. In some ways we’ve grown a great deal. Yet, I look at the talented people I’ve worked with at Hollywood’s cartoon studios who may well be wearing jack boots and goose stepping down Cahuenga Boulevard. They truly believe our president is taking America in the right direction. It would appear we may not have grown as much as I thought.

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