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The late, great Walt Disney certainly knew how to put on — and effectively market — a show, and so, too, does the studio that bears his name.
On Friday evening, Walt Disney Pictures promoted its new film Saving Mr. Banks — which is about the making of the Disney classic Mary Poppins (1964) and had its U.S. premiere in Hollywood on Thursday night as part of the 27th AFI Fest — by hosting a dinner and “sing-along” with Richard Sherman, the legendary Disney songwriter who co-wrote the music for Poppins with his late brother Robert Sherman. The charming 85-year-old spent much of the evening behind a piano that was set up in the courtyard of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel (which is featured in Banks), surrounded by awestruck guests who crowded around to hear his wonderful music and anecdotes.
Among those in attendance were all of the film’s principal talent except for Tom Hanks — actors Emma Thompson, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak and Bradley Whitford, writer Kelly Marcel, producer Alison Owen and director John Lee Hancock — as well as a considerable number of Academy members, including Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Seymour, Mary Kay Place and Nastassja Kinski, accompanied by Academy holdout/Thompson pal Sean Penn.
Many — maybe even most — actually sang along to some of the tunes (including Penn, who sat beside Thompson), and a significant number had tears in their eyes by the time Sherman came to a close with his performance of “Walt’s favorite song,” the moving Poppins number “Feed the Birds.”
The evening kicked off with remarks from Alan Horn, the studio chair of Disney. Horn pointed out, “50 years ago, P.L. Travers [the author of the Poppins novel, who is played in Banks by Thompson] stayed at this hotel. She went down the red carpet and took her car down to Disney Studios. And 50 years ago, Richard Sherman and his brother were coming up with the music for Mary Poppins.” He also noted that Thursday night’s premiere took place at the same Chinese Theatre at which Poppins premiered 49 years ago, and wondered aloud, “What was it like for Richard to sit in this theater to watch a movie about the making of a movie to which he was so instrumental?”
Sherman rose, gave Horn a hug, and sat down at the piano before answering, “It’s surreal. It’s so surreal to relive something that meant to much to us.” He then took the audience on a trip through Sherman brothers’ history, describing the backstory of — and then performing — many of the songs that he and his brother co-wrote, including some that preceded Poppins, such as “You’re Sixteen,” a hit rock ditty from 1960 that Johnny Burnette performed; “Let’s Get Together,” a song from The Parent Trap (1961) that was performed by the late Annette Funicello, for whom the Shermans wrote several songs; and others.
When the Shermans arrived at Disney shortly thereafter, he recalled, they were knocked as “the rock and roll boys” on the Disney lot, but that was precisely what they wanted to get away from. “We wanted to tell stories,” he said, and then performed “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers,” plus songs from The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocrats (1970) and the most frequently played song in history, “It’s a Small World (After All)” (1964).
Then came a slew of songs from Mary Poppins, for which Sherman was joined by Thompson, Schwartzman, Novak, Whitford, Marcel and Owen. (Thompson, it turns out, can sing!) The playlist included “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Supercalifragislisticexpialidocious,” as well as “Feed the Birds,” the song that landed the Shermans their job on the picture and changed their lives.
Sherman remembered that he and his brother had been called in for a 10-minute meeting with Disney to discuss the project, but the meeting ended up running for two hours because they discussed in great detail the chapters of the Poppins novel. At one point they played some notes from a song that would become “Feed the Birds” — which, in turn, would became Disney’s personal favorite song — “and he gave us our job,” Sherman said, guaranteeing him and his brother a career in music away from rock and roll and TV shows. Every once in a while for the rest of Disney’s life thereafter, the mogul would periodically stop by the Shermans’ office and ask them to “play that bird lady song” again,” which often left him very moved.
It had the same effect on the attendees at the Polo Lounge, one of whom thanked a Disney rep for providing her and her guest with “one of the great nights of our lives.”
But will that sort of sentiment translate into Oscar votes for Banks? Only time will tell.
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