Mary Poppins' Soundtrack

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Once again, I was invited to be a guest speaker the first week of November at Hurricane Who, a three-day Orlando, Florida convention devoted to the popular BBC character, Dr. Who.

Everyone, from guests to attendees to dealers, had a great time and what better recommendation than that for any convention? Actor Colin Baker who was the Sixth Doctor, gave a closing-night speech praising the uniqueness and warmth of this particular Dr. Who event. (Personally, I am happy that the newest Doctor is a man of a "certain age" and I think that will bring a different perspective to the new adventures.)

Like last year, I was the "alternative" speaker to provide programming for spouses and friends who were dragged to the convention by someone more fanatical about Dr. Who. It was for the attendees who they didn't necessarily want to find out the answers to how to get more mileage out of the Tardis or whether Companions should wear nail polish.

I spoke about the challenges faced when Walt Disney and author P. L. Travers faced off against each other during the making of the movie Mary Poppins, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this coming year.

Looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer this holiday season? Of course, I would recommend one of my books so that it would be a Merry Christmas for me, as well, but there are some other inexpensive treasures out there that are relatively unknown, but deserve a place in your Disney library.

Because of the upcoming releases of Saving Mr. Banks and the Mary Poppins special BluRay, in this column I am going to focus on the two-disc Mary Poppins CD Soundtrack  available for less than $10. It was released a decade ago for the 40th anniversary of Mary Poppins, but can still be purchased brand new right now at a bargain price.

This little two-disc CD gem has a proud place in my collection and, if you like the film, you should really consider adding it to your collection, as well.

The first disc is a re-mastered version of the original soundtrack that also includes a number of expanded or previously unreleased pieces of the Irwin Kostal-arranged underscore that were truncated in editing the film, making this the most complete version of the music for the film.

The second disc contains approximately 41 minutes from the original hours long meetings of P. L. Travers, author of the original book, who insisted her thoughts be recorded so that the Disney staff was "very clear" how she wanted Mary Poppins to be portrayed.

In the background are storyman Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers trying to explain and placate her. And if you listen closely, you will be able to hear Mrs. Travers singing along softly as the Sherman Brothers play the song "Feed The Birds," despite her well-known dislike for any of the songs.

I've written about that situation with Mrs. Travers before in this column.

The second disc also includes a 17-minute interview (from 1964 when the film was first released) with the two main stars—Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews—the Sherman brothers, and musical director Irwin Kostal.

In this interview, they discuss Andrews' perfect pitch, Van Dyke's not-so-perfect pitch and his Cockney accent, and Kostal's orchestrating for a Pearlie Band in the midst of a full orchestra.

The last track on the second disc is the Sherman brothers (from 1989 recorded in Richard Sherman's home) reminiscing for about 16 minutes on their work for the picture. Oh, and there is also a 40-page booklet included, as well with all the lyrics to the songs, interesting historical notes and beautiful photos and illustrations.

Who was responsible for this bargain? Randy Thornton.

Thornton is a Grammy Award-winning music producer and supervising producer at Walt Disney Records. Disney music fans might recognize his name for his outstanding work in preserving Disney musical history. He's been responsible for the restoration and re-release of many classic Disney soundtracks and albums, from animation soundtracks to Theme-Park favorites.

Thornton really is a hidden treasure in the Disney Company and his research and restoration work have enriched Disney history for fans as yet unborn in addition to the rest of us.

He started as a department clerk in Product Development at Walt Disney Records in 1987. One of his duties was to maintain the Master Tape vault. As he went through the tapes, he would occasionally discover an unusually marked tape or one that was mi-labelled, a very common occurrence, even in the Disney Archives when Dave Smith was in charge.

He found a tape labeled "Mary Poppins Pre-Demo" and, when he played it, he heard not only the songs from the film, but songs that never made it into the final film. They were all sung by the Sherman Brothers with only a piano for accompaniment.

He returned the tape to the shelf because there was no commercial market for it.

Two years later, Ron Kidd, director of Product Development, was talking with Thornton when Randy suggested digitally restoring the Mary Poppins soundtrack for compact disc. Kidd was enthusiastic, but hesitant, because the previous release of the soundtrack on vinyl had not done well—so something extra was needed.

Thornton pulled out the "Mary Poppins Pre-Demo" from the shelf. A call to the Sherman Brothers revealed that they thought the tape had been lost 20 years ago. That first CD release done by Thornton had some items that were still missing, for financial reasons.

In 2000, when Thornton was working on a special restoration project for the Disney family, Richard Sherman showed up in his office with six quarter-inch tapes (more than seven hours of recordings) that were of the Mary Poppins story meetings. Amusingly, Richard had labeled the tapes "The Poppins Trials." With the 40th anniversary of the film just around the corner, Thornton went to work producing this two-disc edition.

The Disney Studio still had the original studio sessions from the film which was a rare occurrence, since the company often discarded those recordings after the soundtrack was released, just as cels were casually tossed away after they were filmed.

On those original studio sessions were Richard Sherman's kazoo solo from the penguin waiter sequence, Irwin Kostal playing part of "A Spoonful of Sugar" on actual spoons, Julie Andrews whistling the robin's tune in that same song, and the Pearlie Band without the accompaniment of the full orchestra. There is even a flub or two by the orchestra. These tracks, unfortunately, are not on the soundtrack and I doubt they will appear on the new BluRay either.

"By going back to the original recording sessions, I was able to include sections of score that were edited out of the film for timing reasons,"  Thornton said. "For instance, there was more carousel music recorded than was ultimately used in the film. There are instances like this throughout this new soundtrack. In all, this version of the Mary Poppins soundtrack is the most complete edition that has ever been released."

There are many new discoveries in the CD itself, including that at one time there was a sequence where the Pearlie Band and the penguin waiters faced off against each other in a battle of the bands scenario. The first storyline had Uncle Albert (who at that time was called Uncle Wigg) floating up to the ceiling, but only because it was his birthday and it was a Tuesday. The kite-flying finale was to be accompanied by a reprise of the song "I Love to Laugh," but featuring many of the characters encountered earlier in the film.

Once again, I give this CD my highest recommendation, especially as a last minute, inexpensive stocking stuffer for the Disney fan or Mary Poppins fan in your life.

I also hope that Thornton continues to produce these gems for all of us.

By the way, his latest project is The Lost Chords, and you can read about that in this terrific article by Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar who writes a ton of great things for Disney publications like Mickey Monitor and Disney Insider, but rarely gets a well-deserved credit line:

I am also going to suggest that for free you can sign up to receive the quarterly Ellenshaw Newsletter.

Peter Ellenshaw received an Oscar for his special effects work on the film, Mary Poppins, and his son, Harrison, is a talented Disney artist, as well. In addition to showcasing their art (and offering discounts), the newsletter often includes private photos and some interesting stories.

In the latest edition, Harrison writes a wonderful article titled "David Tomlinson: An Englishman Comes To Hollywood" about his dad and Tomlinson (who portrayed Mr. Banks in the movie) during the time Mary Poppins was being made and Harrison was working as a summer intern.

To encourage you to think about signing up, here is just one of those stories that I had never heard before:

"One day, during the production of Mary Poppins, I [Harrison Ellenshaw] joined my father and David for lunch at The Smoke House, the classic 'Hollywood' restaurant near the studios in Burbank, a real hangout for 'movie people' and famous for its garlic bread. (The restaurant remains there to this day.)

David had arrived directly from the set, still in make-up. Putting on his best Mr. Banks British attitude, he began asking the waitress a myriad of questions.

"Do you have fish and chips?"

"Yes sir."

"What kind of fish? Not haddock I hope."

"Oh, I don't know sir."

"You don't know? What kind of waitress doesn't know about the fish and chips?"

The poor girl didn't really know how to respond and just stared at David.

"Is something the matter?" he asked.

She continued to stare, nonplussed.

"Does my mustache, bother you?"

"Oh, no sir," she replied.

"Well, if it does, I'll just take it off then." And with that he unpeeled his glued on mustache from his upper lip.

She reacted with shock and then delight.

And, he still had the fish and chips, even though, no one knew if it was haddock or cod.

I'm sure that waitress never forgot David Tomlinson."

I am also happy the newsletter linked to this MousePlanet column.

The two times I got to sit down and interview Peter Ellenshaw at length while working at the Disney Institute, I was greatly impressed with him as a person, and as an authentic English gentleman with a sly twist of mischief in him. All of that is in addition to his amazing talent that I think remains unmatched to this day.

Oh heck, since Christmas is around the corner, I am also going to plug my newest book The Book of Mouse. It is filled with almost everything you ever wanted to know about Mickey Mouse and tons of stuff you can't find anywhere else.