Unsung Music Man Walter Scharf

Walter Scharf is one of the great, unsung composers & arrangers in film history. Anyone who finds themselves humming Pure Imagination from the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) is likely to recall, along with the melody itself, the raindrop-like, bell figure from the number’s introduction. This integral facet of the song is not the touch of the song’s composers, Bricusse and Newley, but Scharf ’s, whose signature touch graced films since the early days of sound pictures in the ‘30s, among them Holiday Inn (1942), The Nutty Professor (1963), Funny Girl (1968), and many, many more.

Born in Manhattan in 1910, he was the son of longtime studio musician Henry Scharf and Bessie Zwerling, who was among the most popular comediennes starting in the New York Yiddish Theater. Son Walter began playing music at an early age, helping his uncle play the piano in theaters for silent films.

After a brief career as a pianist and arranger for various dance bands, Walter Scharf came to Hollywood in 1935, to work with Rudy Vallee’s orchestra when the pop crooner was at the height of his fame. Warner Brothers soon noticed Scharf and hired him on. He then cycled through 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Republic Studios, and Universal International until deciding in 1950 to sever all studio affiliations and become an independent composer and arranger. According to his 1976 professional biography, this move signified that he was now “a complete musician”.

Walter Scharf shown at his piano, ca. 1975. Box 4, Walter Scharf papers, Collection No. 7194, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Much of his music was composed on a deck chair of his boat, the Lady Betty, that he berthed at Marina del Rey in California. “Some composers work in mountain cabins deep in the forest. Others have quiet places in the desert. For me, I am able to get some of my best work done on my boat,” he explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1971. And while many artists require undisturbed spaces for their work, Scharf was in his best form composing while half listening to orchestration emanating from a nearby stereo. “I leave the radio on while I work,” he also stated to the Times. “I’m oblivious to what’s being played, but the tonality is important for me.”1

One of his most challenging assignments was that of musical supervisor for Columbia Pictures’ adaptation of Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. The task stretched over a 17-month period during which he personally supervised every note of the two hours and 20 minutes of music, worked daily with Miss Streisand for some 38 weeks, and did the majority of the arrangements. Critics of the day lauded the result as perhaps the finest Broadway-musical-to-motion picture translation ever achieved.2

In an unpublished autobiography held in his papers, Scharf recounts working with Streisand on Funny Girl:

…there’s an extraordinary story about the recording of ‘People.’ Of course by that time the word had gotten out that a sort of musical history was being made and the requests were vast and numerous for people to come and watch and listen to Barbra to record. Some of them were executives and I couldn’t stop them from coming on the stage. This annoyed her very, very much and the matter of temperament started to show itself. I had to convince her that there was going to be an audience and many people watching her when she was shooting and she had to block out of her mind that anyone else were there other than what she was doing. I still couldn’t stop her from showing her temperament. Finally, I had to get very bold about the whole situation and after 40 some odd takes and I advised her that if we weren’t finished in fifteen minutes, I would release the orchestra and I would pick one of the earlier takes. She settled down and we eventually got a good take.

Box 4, Walter Scharf papers, Collection No. 7194, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Despite difficulties Funny Girl presented for Scharf, it wasn’t his biggest challenge. As he told International Musician columnist and fellow musician Leonard Feather in an early 1970s interview, “Hans Christian Anderson in [1952] was much more complex. We had well over two hours of music and four ballets, one of which was the most extensive ever seen in a motion picture, 17½ minutes long. At that time we didn’t have the improvements that we can work with today. There have been so many advances during the last decade in putting sound on film that I wish we could do that film again now. Evidently we were rather successful, because it has become a standard.” Indeed, the film was a success. It was one of the top ten grossing films of 1952 in North America and was nominated for six Academy Awards.

A surprising hit song composed by Walter Scharf along with colleague Don Black was “Ben,” which the pair wrote for the 1972 drama-thriller film of the same name featuring, of all things, a large vengeful rat. The song was originally written for Donny Osmond, but he was on tour at the time and unavailable for recording, so Black and Scharf offered the song to Michael Jackson instead. The song became a number one hit. Many listeners were moved by the poignant lyrics, never knowing it’s about a rat. Scharf and Black won a Golden Globe for the song, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Scharf’s career always seemed at the precipice of greater recognition – ten Oscar nominations, yet no wins; the great respect of his peers in the industry, yet today he is hardly a household name, even among film music fans. Except for Funny Girl, his music is sadly under-recognized.

His papers at the AHC contains many musical scores from the early days of the Hollywood studio system in the ‘30s and 40’s (he was head of Republic’s music dept.), as there were many uncredited arrangers and orchestrators whose names remain but a footnote in the history books despite having had such a large impact on the medium. Furthermore, many scores of this era have been destroyed or lost, making these resources invaluable to the understanding of the workings of film music departments in these glory days.

Scharf’s papers also include his TV work for series such as Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.LE., and after his retirement from films-concert works (which have been performed by the University of Wyoming’s student orchestra under his baton), all necessary ingredients to present a full portrait of the composer.

Post submitted by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener with contribution from 2021 AHC Travel Grant recipient Benjamin Rice.


[1] Charles Hillinger. “Music Man: He Composes in Lap of Sea,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1971.

[2] Leonard Feather’s “From Pen to Screen” column, International Musician, ca. 1970.

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