Today in Yiddishkayt… August 1
Birthday of Walter Scharf, American film composer
Walter Scharf was born to Yiddish theater comic, Bessie Zwerling, on August 1, 1910, in New York. He began playing the piano when he was 4 years old, and by the age of 16, orchestrated “Manhattan” for Richard Rodgers. When he was 20 years old, he orchestrated “Girl Crazy” for George Gershwin, and became singer Helen Morgan’s accompanist. He also began working as pianist and arranger for Rudy Valle’s radio show.
Scharf moved to California in 1934 and began his career in the Hollywood film industry. He first arranged for Al Jolson at Warner Bros., and then Alice Faye at 20th Century-Fox. In 1942 he was nominated for his first Oscar for the score of Mercy Island, a melodrama set in the Florida Keys. In 1945, Scharf’s composed “The Palestine Suite”, a concert piece which was performed at the Hollywood Bowl under Leopold Stokowski. From 1942 to 1946 he served as head of music for Republic Pictures. While running the department, he still managed to score well over a dozen features including some with John Wayne and Roy Rogers. Scharf eventually left for Universal Studios, where he worked on a variety of films, starring the likes of Abbott and Costello and Francis the Talking Mule. From 1948 to 1954, Scharf also worked as arranger-conductor for the Phil Harris-Alice Faye radio show.
In 1952 Scharf composed the score for Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. He then moved to Paramount, where he working on films starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. He also worked on three Elvis Presley pictures including Loving You (1957) and King Creole (1958). In the early 1960s, he was approached by Harold Lloyd to provide new scores for his silent film compilations. Scharf’s ability to mix comedy themes with big, dramatic orchestral touches were ideal for his brand of ‘thrill’ comedy. Scharf implemented a similar style for the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy The Nutty Professor, and over time worked on more than a dozen Lewis comedies.
Watch the trailer for The Nutty Professor, featuring original music by Walter Scharf:
In the 1960s, Scharf collaborated with Jule Styne on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood and the film version of Funny Girl. He also composed music for dozens of 1960s television dramas including Ben Casey, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. In 1971, Scharf orchestrated and arranged the music for Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In 1972, Scharf co-wrote, with lyricist Don Black, the hit Michael Jackson single from the film Ben, which won him a Golden Globe. In 1973, he and Don Black wrote the music and lyrics for the London musical Maybe That’s Your Problem (book by Lionel Chetwynd).
Scharf became best known for his music for the National Geographic Society and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, which he scored between 1965 and 1975. He received two Emmys for the Cousteau series, in 1970 and 1974, and composed an original symphonic work, “The Legend of the Living Sea”, for a Cousteau museum exhibit aboard the RMS Queen Mary. After retiring from films and TV in the 1980s, he returned to concert writing, notably with “The Tree Still Stands: A Symphonic Portrait of the Stages of a Hebraic Man”, commissioned by the Stephen S. Wise Temple and first performed in 1989. Scharf wrote an unproduced opera based on Norman Corwin’s The Plot to Overthrow Christmas and received the Golden Score Award from the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers in 1997. Over his long career, Scharf was nominated 10 times for an Oscar, won 4 Emmys, 2 Radio awards and 1 Golden Globe. He died on February 24, 2003.