The Sherman Brothers' Computer Song

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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When Robert Sherman died in March 2012, I did not write a column because I had nothing to say, other than express my appreciation for his work with his brother that resulted in so many memorable songs. I feel that the Sherman Brothers are the contemporary equivalent of two other brothers who wrote memorable songs that changed how stories were told with music: George and Ira Gershwin.

I only met Robert Sherman twice and, both times, while he was friendly, I found him much quieter and less forthcoming in conversation than his more flamboyant brother Richard. Even Disney Historian Scott Wolf couldn’t coax much from Robert in an interview.

Robert Sherman once said, “Walt Disney understood that a song is what people carry away with them. People can go to a Disney picture or park and be enchanted by it, but when they go home, the song is what they keep.”

While all of us can sing (in my case, badly) many of the Sherman Brothers’ memorable tunes composed for Disney films, I think we often forget that those beloved songs were composed amazingly as just part of a regular day job for the two songsmiths. While they were on staff at the Disney Studios for almost a decade, an out-of-the-ordinary situation for songwriters, they were called upon to write for a variety of Disney projects that are, for the most part, forgotten today.

In addition to those film song classics we treasure, as part of their duties, the Sherman Brothers also composed "Swiss Family Robinson Calypso" (Escape to Paradise - Behind the Scenes of Swiss Family Robinson), "Como Esta Usted?" (Zorro), "Come Light the Lovelight" (Texas John Slaughter), "Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae" (Moon Pilot), Rutabaga Rag (Symposium on Popular Songs) and Just Say “Auf Wiedersehen” (Miracle of the White Stallions). When was the last time you hummed any of those songs?

The Sherman Brothers were responsible for many memorable songs composed for Disney theme park attractions. From their first contribution of "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room," to "it’s a small world" to "There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" to "Magic Journeys," their work is an important part of the Disney Theme Park Songbook.

However, just like their film work, they wrote songs for the Disney theme parks that are unsung today including the “Oh There’s No Place Like World Showcase On The Face Of The Whole Wide World” (World Showcase March), "Miracles from Molecules" (Adventure Thru Inner Space) and "Meet the World" (for Tokyo Disneyland).

The wide variety of assignments given to the Sherman Brothers was more than just songwriting.

“It’s more like troubleshooting, which is what a lot of our assignments were,” recalled Richard Sherman.

Inspiration was less of a motivation than filling a needed hole in a film or park project.

Imagineer Marty Sklar called the brothers to return briefly to the Disney Company to compose songs for some of the Epcot pavilions that were being built for the new theme park to help tell the story of the pavilion. Perhaps one of the brothers’ most obscure songs was to extol the virtues of a new—fairly unknown to the general public—thing called a “computer.”

In 1969, an RCA press release stated that for their planned involvement in the Walt Disney World project the “focal point of WEDCOMM (Walter E. Disney Communications Oriented Monitoring and Management System) would be the RCA System Communication Center, open to the public as a highlight of the Tomorrowland area of the new Theme Park.”

Basically, RCA was planning to create an innovative computer and communications infrastructure. To help WDW guests understand about computers, RCA was going to produce a show designed by Imagineer John Hench tentatively titled Alice in Computer Land. However when RCA sold its computer division to Sperry Univac (which later became UNISYS), it decided to sponsor a different attraction, Space Mountain.

Sperry Univac went on to sponsor another attraction based on a revised version of Hench’s concept that would help WDW guests understand about the use of computers to run the Walt Disney World theme park. The attraction was the infamous Astuter Computer Revue, that premiered with the opening of Epcot on October 1, 1982, in the CommuniCore East building.

The Astuter Computer Revue was just one part of Epcot Computer Central area that also included SMRT-1 (Smart One), an interactive robot who would play guessing games with guests, Compute-a-Coaster that allowed guests to virtually assemble and ride a 3-D roller coaster, Great American Census Quiz, and other exhibits that have long faded into the mists of memory. The Communicore buildings were re-themed with new exhibits and re-named Innoventions in July 1994.

Along the back wall of Epcot Computer Central was a long ramp which led up to a second-floor terraced theater that overlooked a huge room where the park’s computers were housed behind large panes of glass. Guests stood to watch the show. The singing and dancing host for the show, who tried to explain the function of these computers in running Epcot, was performer Ken Jennings.

Ken Jennings (not the same Ken Jennings who became famous recently on the game show Jeopardy) is an actor who in 1979 originated the role of Tobias Ragg in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He received the 1979 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his role.

He eventually did seven Broadway shows, numerous Off Broadway shows, regional theater and more. However, with the opening of Epcot in 1982, Jennings was performing as “Earlie the Pearlie,” a Cockney pearly busker from the United Kingdom pavilion.

This was not the first time that the Sherman Brothers had to write a song for such a character. Originally, the “Supercalifragilistic” song from Mary Poppins was to be called “The Pearly Song” since Poppins is introducing the children to some pearly buskers in the animated sequences.

“When we first wrote it we thought it was such a crazy nonsense thing that we wanted to call it ‘The Pearly Song.’ We were afraid of the other title,” Richard Sherman said. "It was Walt who insisted the title remain ‘Supercalifragilistic.’”

At the Epcot show, guests were shown Jennings performing in the Rose and Crown Pub in the United Kingdom Pavilion with a trained monkey and then being electronically transported into the computer room where he was shrunk down to roughly a foot high. He was able to strut across the top of the computers without interrupting the cast members working in the location.

Actually, this was done through an effect known as “Pepper’s Ghost” (the same “trick” used in the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion attaction) where his image looked like he was in the computer room. Most guests assumed he was some type of hologram and Disney did nothing to dissuade them from thinking it was this more elaborate effect

“We used the same effect (as in the Haunted Mansion), and it was very effective for the little dancing person on the computers," Imagineer George McGinnis explained to Disney enthusiast Lou Mongello. "But Tom Fitzgerald secured the people for the parts and all. I laid out the area underneath the guests where the monitors and all the special effects were moving around, unseen by the guests.”

During the course of the show (and its successor Backstage Magic), an Audio-Animatronics figure of Mr. Eggz from the Kitchen Kabaret was used (with the same Pepper's Ghost effect) to demonstrate how Audio-Animatronics figures were programmed and operated.

At the end of the show, Jennings was returned to full size and transported back to the United Kingdom pavilion.

Here are the lyrics of the “forgotten” Sherman Brothers song that Jennings sang.

“The Computer Song” by Robert and Richard Sherman (1982)

You see my friends, the computer makes life easier.
Saves me time and headaches too.
He sorts things out, analyzes in a shake.
My enormous problem, to him's a piece of cake!

He's got a great big memory like an elephant.
Utilizes knowledge without end.
That's why I'm a rooter, for me computer.
Everybody needs a friend!

When my work piles up, and I'm seein' red,
'cause I need five arms and an extra head,
I find the computer, becomes me trouble shooter.
He keeps miles and miles of facts on file.
My wish is his command.

Nothing is astuter than a computer, when I need a helping hand.
Let me explain:

They keep on top of accommodations,
record and update reservations.
Coordinate telephone operations,
and help plan energy conservation.
They're really a great financial device,
payroll service is kept precise.
They protect attendance then give advice,
on personnel, food and merchandise.
They're constantly focusing all their attention,
on matters of safety and fire prevention.
They've given efficiency new dimension,
with numerous examples, too many to mention!

And that's why I'm a rooter, for me computer.
Everybody needs a friend!

You see my friends, the computer does the drudgery,
leaves me free for better things.
I push some buttons, and in a half a mo',
What was a sticky wicket, becomes an easy go!

He's got a great big memory like an elephant.
How he works is hard to comprehend.
Complicated computations take him just a tick.
He coordinates and tabulates, and does it double quick!

And that's why I'm a rooter, for me computer.
Everybody needs a friend!

(Computers applaud and make comical noises)

No need to stand! No need to stand!
Thank you! Thank you one and all!

You can hear the entire two minute Sherman Brothers song at this link.

You can also see a brief video of Jennings (in a frightening costume and awkward yellow wig) performing part of the song at the dedication of CommuniCore.

One of the reasons for this Sherman Brothers’ song to be so forgotten is that the Astuter Computer Revue was the first attraction to officially close at Epcot. It lasted from October 1, 1982 to January 2, 1984, when it was replaced a month later by a similar but less musical show entitled Backstage Magic. That show had a perky female hostess named “Julie” (who through the magic of the Pepper’s Ghost effect was also shrunk to a foot high and walked on top of the computers) and her little electronic companion I/O (Input/Output). That version closed in October 1993.

Concerning the Astuter Computer Revue, Tom Fitzgerald, who at the time was an Imagineering show writer and producer (who rewrote Ray Bradbury’s original poetic script for Spaceship Earth into a more straightforward approach narrated by Walter Cronkite), remembered, “This is the show that taught us that the future is a moving target, something we learned the hard way early on. We had been working on a presentation about computers, using the many ways we use them at Disney to ‘soften’ what at the time was a mainframe story. But by opening day, the personal computer entered the scene, and our story was already obsolete! We went back to the drawing board to re-tell the show.”

Since then, the Epcot computer operation has become much smaller and decentralized and as people joke, the function of all those big mainframes when Epcot opened could probably today be handled on a laptop.

The sentiment was echoed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., an American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner who may be best known as the special assistant and "court historian” to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. He wrote something in the 1980s that I completely agree with: “Nearly every amenity of life has declined in my lifetime. Only technology has improved, and even technology disappoints, breaks down, and is impossible to get repaired.”

The Sherman Brothers’ song for an Epcot pavilion that I truly miss is “Makin’ Memories.” Why the Disney Company never considered doing some rewriting of a few of the lyrics to use in their “making memories” theme park campaign is a mystery to me. Unlike “The Computer Song,” I do indeed sometimes sing this song to cheer me up:

“Makin’ Memories” was used for the pre-show of Magic Journeys at the Imagination pavilion as guests waited to enter the Magic Eye Theater (you can also catch a modified version of it on the Disneyland Fun Sing Along Songs DVD).

“Kodak’s business is all about taking pictures and taking pictures is all about making memories," said Richard Sherman. "And with that thought in place, our song was on its way. ‘Makin’ Memories’ accompanied a slide show featuring images that ranged from the earliest black and white snapshots to the latest innovations in color photography. Basically, our song was a subliminal commercial pitch for Kodak—no doubt the ‘softest sell’ in the history of singing commercials!,”

Long before the Old Model T
Round about The Turn of the Century
Folks discovered a barrel of fun
Taking pictures by the light Of The sun

Smile! Hug! Look at the camera!
Hold your breath and say “Cheese”
Little did they realize back then, they were Makin’ Memories

Makin’ Memories, Makin’ Memories, takin’ pictures is Makin’ Memories
Catchin’ little pieces of time…makin’ ‘em yours, and makin’ ‘em mine
Birthday faces and happy places we love to hold near and dear
And when we’re makin’ memories, happy days can reappear!

Here is a link to an extensive interview with both Sherman Brothers that most people don’t realize exists.

 

Comments

  1. By schnebs

    Good article as always, Jim, and great to hear about a topic near and dear to my heart - Disney music.

    Just in case you or anyone reading this article doesn't have the boys' music on CD already, I'd recommend picking up a copy of "The Sherman Brothers Songbook", which Disney released in 2011; it has many of the the brothers' most famous works for Disney and many of the more obscure ones, including most of the songs you mentioned. Alas, the tune from the Astuter Computer Revue isn't one of them, but maybe someday...

  2. By LtPowers

    I daresay "The Computer Song" may not be their best work. In particular, the lyrics are not well fit to the melody.


    Powers &8^]

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