What if I told you that some of the world's sunniest songs of love, hope and brotherhood - songs that filled Walt Disney movie musicals for a generation - were written by two brothers whose own families did not speak for 40 years?
Meet Robert and Richard Sherman, two Jewish boys from Los Angeles who parlayed their talent into the most prolific and successful movie song-writing career in American history.
Their stunning list of credits includes the music for 28 movies, among them Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte's Web and Winnie the Pooh , as well as It's a Small World , a tune originally written for the 1964 World's Fair in New York and now the almost unforgettable theme song for Disneyland and its other parks.
Ironically, although the brothers lived seven blocks apart in Los Angeles and spent their days together at the Walt Disney Studios, their families barely knew one another. When they attended movie premieres together, they sat on opposite sides of the theatre, and never exchanged a word. And when their father died, in 1973, they held separate shivas.
Only now, decades later, has a tentative rapprochement been effected, courtesy of peacemakers Jeff and Gregg Sherman, the adult sons of Bob and Dick respectively.
Burying years of friction, the first cousins - both active in TV and film production in L.A. - met in 2002, when the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in London. During the next few months, they talked several times and decided to make The Boys (as the Sherman brothers were known at Disney), a $1.5-million (U.S.) documentary film chronicling their fathers' extraordinary contribution to popular music. After premiering at the San Francisco Film Festival earlier this year, it had a limited commercial release in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
"Our dads are very humble," said Gregg, in Toronto recently to promote the film's Canadian opening. "As a result, everyone thinks that Walt Disney wrote all those songs," among them Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious , Chim-Chim Cher-ee , A Spoonful of Sugar and Feed the Birds (Walt Disney's favourite song). "We wanted them to get the credit they're due while they're still around."
The project, they knew, would be an emotional minefield. Although the Sherman brothers gave their blessing, other family members on both sides remained opposed. "But who better to go into that minefield than the people directly involved," says Gregg "Neither of our fathers are bad guys. They're just two very, very different people."
The brothers came by their musical gifts honestly. Their grandfather, Sam Schermann, fled pogroms in Czarist Russia and became a concertmaster, first violinist and court composer in the Royal Court of Emperor Franz Josef in Prague. Their father, Al, had been a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. Working with the likes of George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans, he co-wrote dozens of songs, including You've Gotta Be a Football Hero and Potatoes are Cheaper .
It was Al who suggested his sons, as adults, become a song-writing team - until the early 1950s, they'd been working and struggling separately - and persuaded them to stay together when tensions threatened to sever the partnership. (Decades earlier, Al had also played matchmaker for the Gershwins, persuading George to let his brother Ira, then a practising accountant, write song lyrics.)
The Shermans' first collaboration was Tall Paul , a song (inspired by nothing more romantic than the word "tall" printed on an L.A. billboard) that became a Top 10 hit for then-Mouseketeer heartthrob Annette Funicello. Soon, they were working for Walt Disney full time.
For public consumption, the brothers appeared to get along famously. But backstage, they were not compatible. Somehow, it was precisely that tension that seemed to catalyze their creativity. Some of these are immortalized in cartoons drawn by Disney animator Roy Williams, who had an office next door, and would slide them under the Sherman brothers' door. Small differences - over whether to send out professionally made or mimeographed Christmas cards - grew into major issues.
Another factor was the brothers' two wives, who did not get along. The Boys touches on this, but does not dwell on it. Says Gregg Sherman: "We're very respectful of the family feelings. We just didn't feel that needed to be explored so much."
Despite the antagonism, the brothers maintained their creative relationship for more than five decades, much longer than most song-writing teams.
The Boy s includes snippets from some of the 88 interviews that were conducted for the film, including cameo appearances from Funicello, Roy Disney (Walt's nephew), film composers John Williams, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, Kenny Loggins, film critic Leonard Maltin, and Ben Stiller (probably because he offered to help the Sherman sons make the film and became its executive producer).
Both Sherman brothers are still alive and still writing music, although Robert, now 83, lives in London and mainly devotes his talent to painting. But there's an archive of hundreds of unpublished Sherman songs and a new musical, Busker Alley , which they've been working on since 1963.
In Toronto with his son and nephew, Richard Sherman said his songwriting talent was a gift from God. "But of course it's what you do with that gift that distinguishes the amateur from the professional."
Of their fraternal friction, Sherman said, "we left our personal issues outside the door and became one, very focused on solving the problem at hand. Success kept us together. We knew we were good."
The Boys screens in Toronto at AMC Yonge & Dundas on Friday.