Robert B. Sherman Through the Eyes of His Son Robbieby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Most of us have grown up loving the music of the Sherman Brothers, Richard M. and Robert B.
In fact, when a song comes to our lips when we are driving or in the shower or just want to smile, it is often a Sherman Brothers song from their vast songbook that included music for live-action films, animated films, stage productions, theme park attractions, pop tunes and more.
However, when we think of the Sherman Brothers, it is usually the image of Richard that first springs to mind, because he is more outgoing, talkative and theatrical and never seems to mind telling the same stories over and over with great enthusiasm. So our impressions of the Sherman Brothers often seem to be filtered through Richard’s presentations and interviews.
His older-by-three-years brother Robert always appeared more shy and reserved and always just off to the side. His smile was not as frequent or broad and bright as his younger brother’s eager wide grin and animated face.
When Robert did talk, it was only after some thoughtful deliberation, and was usually brief and right to the point. In addition, Robert preferred to only tell a story once and did not suffer fools who kept prodding away at him to repeat things that he had already said.
Regrettably, because of his “Eeyore-like” personality when it came to public functions, many of us have a tendency to underestimate Robert or are not completely clear on what he exactly contributed to the partnership.
Yet, of the pair, Robert was truly the Renaissance man.
For example, Robert had many skills that none of us really knew of until he died. He was an accomplished professional oil and acrylic painter whose works were exhibited. He had graduated from Bard College in upstate New York with a double major in English literature and painting.
For decades, beginning in 1941, he pursued painting, but felt no compulsion to publicize it outside of his family and friends. He was also a metal sculptor, published poet and short-story author.
He was an avid reader of books on innumerable topics (sometimes reading three or four books at once, shifting to a different book when he found his attention wavering and then later back again to it) and an intellectual who could easily quote another intellectual, like T.S. Elliot, in a conversation.
As an adult, he studied archaeology at UCLA and participated in many digs in the United States and other countries.
All of this was in addition to composing some of the most memorable songs of all time, not just for Disney but a host of other clients.
“You could never second-guess my father,” his youngest son, Robbie, told me when I introduced him at a Disneyana Fan Club event on March 15 in Orlando, where he sang songs and told stories about the Sherman family for more than an hour. “He was never predictable. I would describe him as ‘quietly social’. He never told the same story more than once."
Robbie is “Robert J. Sherman.” He was named after his father, Robert, and his mother, Joyce. So the “J” stands for “Jason” or more accurately “J’s son”.
“I remember once at a party he started talking about an adventure he had had during World War II and I just stood there quietly enraptured because he had never told that story before and I knew he would never tell it again," Robbie Sherman said. “He never liked to talk about his time during the war which I guess was common for many veterans. Sometimes when we went out to dinner together in his later years, we would both brings books to read rather than converse. It never seemed odd to me because that is just how dad was.”
He and I shared the same table at the event with famed Disney musicologist and author Greg Ehrbar and Robbie generously shared many stories and insights that he didn’t from the stage spurred on by our many questions.
Robbie is doing a lot of touring, because he spent the last decade or so of his dad’s life with him in England editing his memoirs titled Moose: Chapters From My Life (AuthorHouse, 2013). The book is a collection of 54 autobiographical short stories organized to tell a larger narrative. Interestingly, Robert B. rejected including stories about him and his brother that had previously appeared in another book, Walt’s Time: From Before To Beyond (Camphor Tree Publishers, 1998). Again, this was in keeping with his belief that it wasn’t necessary to repeat a story.
Robbie is also putting together a touring cabaret show with professional singers and an accompanist called A Spoonful of Sherman based on a special show he performed in January 2014 at the St. James Theater in London that received outstanding notices.
Robbie shared the following story with me:
“Here’s a story my dad told me only once back in 2007. We were talking about something else and he launched into a story of how Walt Disney was taking a corporate big-wig through the studio showing him all the things that were being done. Walt poked his head into the Sherman Brothers room and looked at my dad, smiled and said, ‘Bob’s the poet’ and then continued on the tour.
“I once asked my dad what his first impression was of meeting with Walt Disney, and he said that the first thing he thought was ‘He looks just like him.’ Walt looked exactly the way that my dad had seen him on television. I think that demonstrates how my dad thought, as well as a bit of his dry humor.
“My dad had a picture of the Sherman Brothers at the Disney Studios posing with Walt and some Mariachi band. The official publicity picture was more of a close-up, but dad had the long shot and it clearly shows Walt standing on his tiptoes to be taller so he was even with others in the photo.
“He chuckled when he told me that driving with Walt was always an ‘adventure’ because I guess Walt could be a bit of a madman behind the wheel.”
Robert and his wife, Joyce, had four children: Laurie (born in 1955), Jeffrey (1957), Andrea (1960), and the youngest of the family, Robbie (1968).
“Growing up my father’s son was a wonderful experience. I remember when I was celebrating my 9th birthday, Jack Wrather [the owner of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim] gave us his own special suite at the hotel, and as we entered, there was a birthday cake in the shape of the Disneyland Matterhorn attraction and I think I ate the whole thing,” Robbie said with a smile.
Robert B. Sherman was born in 1925 and Richard M. in 1928. Their father was a popular and successful songwriter named Al Sherman, and the family moved around for several years before finally settling down in Beverly Hills, California, in late 1937.
“Our first impression of Hollywood when we arrived as youngsters in 1937 had been the street in front of the Carthay Circle Theater,” Robert Sherman said. “It was resplendent with Disney characters for the premiere of ‘Snow White.’ What a way to see Hollywood for the first time!”
Another misconception about the Sherman Brothers was that one must have written the lyrics while the other wrote the music, like other songwriting teams, including Gilbert and Sullivan, George and Ira Gershwin or even Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The Sherman Brothers were unique and used an approach that was called “Shermanizing,” where each one contributed ideas, phrases, and bits of melody in a sort of ping-pong approach that resulted in something greater than the sum of the individual parts. Robert had studied violin and piano, for those who think his primary contribution was just the words.
In the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013) that used Robert’s unpublished manuscript of his autobiography as a major reference, supposedly author P. L. Travers saw Robert using a cane to walk and when told that he was shot in the knee, insensitively commented, “I am not surprised.” That wound took place during World War II. Robert got permission from his parents to join up when he was just 17.
“During World War II, I was the first GI to enter the Dachau prison camp after the Germans fled,” recalled Robert to the authors of the book Walt’s Time, and he actually saw the Nazis leaving the place that he thought was just another work camp. “As soon as some more American troops arrived, my men and I returned to our regular unit. And a few days later [April 12, 1945] I took a bullet to the left knee. It was quite a week!
“The Army doctors patched up my knee as best they could at the time, but, from then on, I would be walking with a cane. In the 1960s, the Mayo Clinic fixed me up even better and then, in 1973, I returned to Mayo for a brand new, state-of-the-art knee.”
Robert had a collection of interesting canes, including one that once belonged to magician Harry Houdini (a gift from Milt Larsen of the Magic Castle), moviemaker Samuel Goldwyn’s cane (a gift from Goldwyn’s son), a gift cane from entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and even a parrot-headed cane just like Mary Poppins famous umbrella that was once owned by actor Clark Gable.
Robbie continued telling me about his father's leg.
“My dad never complained about his knee, but I knew he had difficulties especially as he got older. I remember when we would go on vacation, he would get in a wheelchair but had the biggest smile. For him, his vacation really started when he didn’t have to walk.
“That’s one of the reasons he moved to London. Of course, he was depressed after the death of my mom and wanted a different environment and he had loved England since he spent time there recuperating from having been shot in the knee.
“However, he was having more of a challenge getting his legs to work even doing things like walking distances or standing for a long period of time or driving which is a necessity in Los Angeles.
“So it was logical for him to move to London. It wasn’t because he hated Southern California or wanted to become a hermit.
“Unfortunately, he stopped getting invited to events because of the travel issue and the false assumption that he wouldn’t be able to get around. He was not the type of person to rush out to red carpet events like my uncle but the bottom line is he was not given the choice because he was sometimes just never asked and we only found out about something after the event.
“There were things he would have loved to attend, like some of the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins, but people never thought to ask, just assuming he wouldn’t be interested.
“My dad didn’t care for the documentary The Boys (2009) for a couple of reasons. One of them was it seemed to depict him as fragile and reclusive and not able to attend special events. One image that he was told they were not going to use but is prominent in the final film is him standing up all hunched over looking much older than his actual age and unwell.
“Dad definitely got around. One thing most people don’t know is he was the greatest gambler. He never lost. He had this lucky streak that never ended. He would go out to all of these places to gamble and they would hope he would lose and they would get some of their money back but they never did.
“We nicknamed him ‘Emperor Eeyore’ because he was always in deep concentration when he gambled, never revealing what he was feeling.
“In addition, in the documentary, he felt the estrangement with my uncle was overplayed for the sake of dramatic impact. All brothers have issues, but look at the facts; they continued to collaborative right up to his death especially on the stage play Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang: The Stage Musical. They had different personalities, lifestyles and were separated on different continents but they loved and respected each other and continued to work together.”
Robert Sherman received many honors during the course of his military service, including the Purple Heart (for that knee injury when in combat), Combat Infantryman Badge, Two Battle Stars for his Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory Medal and many others, including a Sharpshooter badge (with bars for both rifle and submachine gun), a Marksman Badge for carbine, and an Expert Badge for rifle and grenade. Typically, he never talked about any of those accolades.
I think it is especially significant that Robert Sherman always said that his favorite song that he wrote for Disney was “On the Front Porch” from the 1963 live-action Hayley Mills musical film Summer Magic. The film is filled with some wonderful tunes by the Sherman Brothers, including “Flitterin’” and “Beautiful Beulah,” as well as the hit “The Ugly Bug Ball” sung by Burl Ives.
“Walt didn’t like the negative connotation of the word ‘ugly’ so we had to work hard to convince him that one bug doesn’t think of another bug as ugly,” Robert said.
Yet, Robert chose “On the Front Porch” as his favorite. It is a soothing song hidden in the film with no choreography or special effects or animation. The song simply says that after a long hard day, it is nice to sit on the front porch with friends and family and sing a little and maybe share a story or two.
“Of the hundreds of songs we wrote for Walt Disney, I really love that one,” wrote Robert in his autobiography.
The first copy of the published sheet music was sent to the Sherman Brothers’ mom and dad with the inscription: “To Mom & Dad—This is the 1st copy and it’s for you, with all our love, for all the years of magic—summer & winter—that you performed on us—because at times, only magic would work! Love Bob & Dick.”
While they referred to themselves as Bob and Dick, professionally they were always known by their more formal names.
“In our early published music, we were credited as ‘Bob Sherman and Dick Sherman.’ Walt took us aside one day and suggested we become Robert and Richard. ‘It's got more dignity’ he assured us. We added the middle initial, and on our bylines that’s who we’ve been ever since,” Richard told the authors of Walt’s Time.
It was always clear that the biggest fan of the Sherman Brothers were not their mom and dad, but Walt Disney himself.
In a radio interview from September 24, 1966, a little more than two months before he died, Walt Disney said, “The Sherman Brothers, they’re really a very important part of our organization here. They’re wonderful. Well, they go for the ‘team play,’ you know. That’s the way we work here. It’s the team that gets together and builds these things. The Sherman Brothers are not only very talented, but very cooperative.”
The last time the Sherman Brothers saw Walt Disney was the last week of November at a rough cut screening of the film The Happiest Millionaire”. After Walt had completed his usual monologue after the film pointing out things that needed to be changed, he walked over to the Sherman Brothers who had been standing at a distance and smiled “Keep up the good work, fellas.”
It was the only time he had ever paid them a direct compliment and it was the last time they would ever see him.
One final story that Robbie shared was that the Disney Company (through Imagineer Tony Baxter) contacted Robert to write a third verse to the popular song “It’s A Small World” decades after it was first written to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the attraction.
Robert didn’t want to do a third verse feeling that “you don’t put a mustache on the Mona Lisa” because it is perfect as it is. However, he was convinced that if he didn’t do it, Disney would get someone else to do it.
Twenty minutes later, he showed Robbie what he had written:
“It’s a world of wonder, a world of worth
And in years to come, we’ll know peace on earth.
We’ll open our eyes and we’ll all realize
It’s a small world after all.”
“It was difficult to read his handwriting but I said it was perfect and it was,” Robbie said. “My dad always felt the song was an anthem, a call to action, for people to be aware. It was written during a difficult time when it seemed like the cold war would heat up into a nuclear conflict with Russia. That’s why there are words like ‘tears’ and ‘fears”. People were scared. Children were scared. That’s what the song is trying to say. It really is a small world so let’s not blow it up. It was the very last lyric my dad ever wrote before he passed away March 6, 2012.”