Frank Churchill and His Work
Born in Maine in 1901, Frank Churchill became the man behind the iconic music that has come to define Disney. At 15, he began playing piano in early cinemas for silent movies, and after beginning medical school at UCLA, dropped out to pursue a career in music. Churchill’s resume included playing piano at a resort in Tijuana, Mexico, performing with the Hollywood Orchestra, and working with the orchestra for the Los Angeles-area radio station KNX. He began work at Disney in 1937 and worked there until his death.
“Little April Showers” was actually the last piece of music Churchill ever wrote; he passed away in 1942. His work, which he both wrote and co-wrote, includes:
- The score for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
- The score for Peter Pan and the deleted song “Never Smile at a Crocodile”
- The score for Bambi
- “Baby Mine” from Dumbo
He earned several Oscar® nominations, including one for “Love is a Song” and won an Oscar for his score for Dumbo.
Frank Churchill, Disney, and the Great Depression
Churchill’s first full score was for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. His first piece composed for Disney, however, was a song he co-wrote with Ann Ronell for a Disney short.
The song was a first: music written specifically for a single cartoon. Before that point, studios, including Disney, had either bought the rights for pieces or used music in the public domain. But Disney had a different idea—to write music for a cartoon. This was the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from the Three Little Pigs.
The song, and the cartoon, were an absolute hit—Disney’s first! In November 14th, 1933, a reporter wrote: “Believe it or not… my ‘Three Little Pigs’ have ended the depression,” Walt Disney confided to me yesterday…” The biggest hit of any cartoon comedy ever made… if the fact that the picture has cleaned a cool million means anything…” (Copyright, 1933, Publisher’s Syndicate). Sheet music from the short became popular and the song itself created demand for a record number of recordings.
Frank Churchill’s name, however, was never given a byline. Although the reporter mentions his given name, he was only given a passing reference. And according to an Oakland Tribune columnist in 1935, Frank Churchill was “puzzled over the popularity of his hit song”. Still, he went on to work with Larry Morey for Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, yet another ground-breaking hit for Disney. This job earned Churchill the role of Supervisor of Music for Disney.
Although largely unknown, Frank Churchill helped create cartoons and cartoon music as we know it today. His songs have endured and become some of the most iconic and well-known music of not just the world of Disney, but of the 21st century.
So join us all month long here at Minnich Music in Albuquerque, New Mexico and on the Minnich Music Facebook as we share music and facts about Frank Churchill.