With P.L. Travers on board, Walt Disney set about arranging his production team. Prior to Mary Poppins, Walt Disney and his animators would storyboard a feature and determine where the songs should go. At that point, the studio’s songwriters would be brought in to work on the music. They were told what the song should convey and how it should fit into the film.
For Mary Poppins, Walt Disney wanted to change the process. He wanted the songwriters to be involved from the very beginning so that the music would be fully integrated into the picture. This would involve the hiring of full time staff songwriters, which was becoming a rarity in Hollywood. After the collapse of the studio system, most of the studios had shed their full time staff. Walt Disney Productions, on the other hand, had so many musical projects in the hopper that it still had staff writers- Richard and Robert Sherman to be exact.
Richard and Robert Sherman were the sons of legendary song writer Al Sherman. Despite their father’s discouragement, they decided to join the family business and become song writers. They mostly wrote bubblegum songs, which caught the attention of Tutti Camarata, who hired them for DISNEYLAND Records. Tutti had been tasked with turning Annette Funicello into a pop star and he felt the Shermans could do the job, as well as write other songs that might be required for the label. Annette’s string of hits caught the attention of Walt Disney, who offered “the boys” the chance of a lifetime- to write the music and songs for Mary Poppins. The brothers were surprised; not only did Walt Disney apparently know who they were (they hadn’t had much direct contact with him up to this point) he also entrusted them with a massive film project that was near and dear to his heart. They had never undertaken such a project before, but they could hardly say no to Walt Disney. They eagerly accepted this new challenge.
When it came to scripting the action, Walt Disney selected the person at his studio who he felt was the best at script and story writing- Don DaGradi. Don was asked to work with the Sherman Brothers to craft a fully realized story that was completely integrated with the music and songs. While Don knew he was fully up to the challenge, he would have to do some on the job training with the Shermans to get them up to speed on what was required for a movie script and how their songs could become an indelible part of the final picture. The biggest challenge, however, would be working with the strong willed P.L. Travers. It would be an experience nobody involved would ever forget.
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Mary Poppins is considered to be one of Walt Disney’s greatest films, however the film didn’t have an easy path to production. When Walt Disney began his effort to make the film, his daughters were young children. By the time the picture was released, his daughters had children of their own. Along the way, Walt would face his biggest challenger yet- P.L. Travers, the author of the famed Mary Poppins books.
The saga began when Mr. Disney’s daughters were quite young. The book they loved to have read to them at bedtime was Mary Poppins and once they realized that their father was the Walt Disney, they asked him to turn their favorite book into a motion picture. Mr. Disney promised that he would and quickly made an offer to acquire the rights from the author of the book- P.L. Travers.
Despite the extremely British setting of her books, P.L. Travers was born and grew up in Australia, moving to England as an adult. Ms. Travers was known as a blunt perfectionist; a less kind version of Mary Poppins. When she was first approached by Mr. Disney, she quickly declined his offer. She didn’t want Mary to be a cartoon character and when he first approached her, Disney was only producing animated films. World War II would intervene and Walt Disney had other worries to deal with, so the project would take a long rest. After the war, England would try to rebuild itself by freezing foreign assets, including those of Walt Disney Productions. If Disney wanted to do anything with its British earnings it would have to make pictures in England. Walt figures this would be an excellent opportunity to ask Ms. Travers to purchase the film rights again.
Prior to this time, Disney hadn’t produced a fully live action film yet and Ms. Travers was still reluctant to entrust Mr. Disney with Mary Poppins. Walt Disney Productions would eventually begin producing live action pictures, but it would also find itself extremely busy throughout the 1950’s, with numerous television shows, DISNEYLAND and a full slate of pictures. By the end of the decade, fate would finally intervene; Walt Disney would be ready to make the film and Ms. Travers would find herself in diminished circumstances. She finally agreed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney provided that she be given unprecedented access to the pre-production process. Walt Disney enthusiastically agreed.
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I have always been a huge fan of Walt Disney, even before I knew that I was one. Mickey Mouse was one of my first friends and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know of him or anything Disney. I still have fond memories of going to Disney films as a child; I remember the first time I saw Cinderella and my all time favorite film Pinocchio. Walt Disney’s creations have always been a part of my life even before I knew who he was.
I still recall my first visit to his Magic Kingdom; as I entered the park through the right side tunnel with my parents and sister, I remember being in awe with this magical place. We stuck to the sidewalk and I still remember the moment we rounded the corner past the Disney Showcase and I got my first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty Castle. I instantly fell in love with DISNEYLAND. It was like one of my dreams had come to life and I could actually walk around it. This was where my Disney friends lived and where dreams could come true.
As a curious child, I wondered about who had built this place and why he did it. My parents bought a pictorial souvenir book for me that contained some of the answers. I recall looking at the pictures and reading the text over and over again to learn all that I could about DISNEYLAND and the man who built it. I gained a huge admiration for Mr. Disney and his many achievements and eventually got a larger book about his life to read. Imagine my surprise and delight upon learning that one of my heroes- Mr. Disney- was born on December 5th, 1901. I too was born on December 5th, though many years later, of course. I considered it to be an honor to share my special day with such a special person.
Since that time, I have learned so many things about Mr. Disney that I found inspiring. When first he arrived in California, he had just $40 and a suitcase full of dreams. The studio he founded would grow exponentially over the years and is currently worth over $70 Billion. Several of his groundbreaking achievements were originally derided as “Disney’s Folly”- the first one being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which naysayers insisted would fail and be forgotten. The second one was DISNEYLAND, which was predicted to go bankrupt six months after it was opened. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a massive success, still watched and loved by generations of children. And nearly 65 years later DISNEYLAND is still going strong.
Mr. Disney continues to be a huge inspiration to me years after his passing. Despite the fact that many people considered his ideas foolish and sure to fail, he persevered and made his dreams come true. I was especially honored when I discovered that I had been quoted in a book about Mr. Disney. It was even more exciting when I found the book for sale in DISNEYLAND, just steps away from the very spot where I fell in love with DISNEYLAND as a child.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Disney- and thank you. Your work and legacy has endured long after the naysayers have been forgotten. Generations of children still enjoy your creations and you truly made the world a better place.
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