Tuesday, March 20, 2007

der Fuehrer's Face - part 2 - Oliver G. Wallace

Early portrait of Oliver G. Wallace, taken while he was a theater organist, circa 1912.


Oliver G. Wallace was born in London, England, on August 6th, 1887. At some early point in his life, Wallace and his family journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in Canada. The family travelled across the continent and eventually settled on the west coast.
Wallace began his musical career playing the piano for live vaudeville shows. As a teenager Wallace moved to Washington State, where he found work playing the piano during the showing of silent films.
In 1908 the Dream Theatre in Seattle, Washington, became the first theatre in the United States to have an organ. The opening day organist was none other than Oliver G. Wallace.

Oliver Wallace sits in front of the Dream Theatre organ, circa 1908.
Wallace's reputation as an organist became legendary and the young musician played at several different theatres in the Pacific Northwest, including the Clemmer Columbia Theater in Seattle. On April 7th, 1912, the Seattle Times reported:
"On either side of the proscenium arch...will be placed the pipes of the massive organ, which will be one of the finest on the coast. Oliver G. Wallace, recognized as a genius in the interpretation of photoplays on the pipe organ, will be the player."
Wallace also played the Broadway Theatre in Portland, Orgeon, before being transferred back to Seattle where he played a Hope-Jones "unit orchestra" organ at the Liberty Theatre. During his time as a theatre organist, Wallace teamed-up with Harold Weeks to write Hindustan, a love song that became one of his first successes as a composer. Click here to listen to a YouTube clip of Hindustan. In the 1930s Wallace moved to Hollywood, California where he wrote musical scores for motion pictures at Columbia and later Universal Studios.
Caricature of Oliver Wallace by Disney artist T.Hee. This illustration appeared in the 1943 Studio newsletter Dispatch From Disney's.
Wallace began his career at The Walt Disney Studio, circa 1936, joining the likes of Frank Churchill as a Studio composer. A 1955 Studio biography quoted Wallace as saying: "I got my first job playing for vaudeville and single reels in 1906. Believe me, you had to be snappy with your invention to keep up with the shadows in those early flickers." The earliest Disney film Wallace worked on was the Mickey Mouse short Mickey's Amateurs, which was released on April 17th, 1937. Wallace worked for over 26 years at Disney's, composing music for almost 150 short cartoons between 1937 and 1956. He also wrote music for several of Disney's animated features, including Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and dozens of Disney television specials. Wallace was nominated for five Academy Awards during his tenure at Disney's. In 1941 Wallace, along with fellow composer Frank Churchill, won the Oscar for Best Scoring of Musical Picture for their work on Dumbo. Wallace and fellow musician Paul J. Smith assumed the responsibilities of composing the majority of music at the Studio in 1942, when Frank Churchill committed suicide and Leigh Harline left to sign an exclusive contract with RKO. Perhaps the most interesting song Wallace wrote at Disney's was der Fuehrer's Face. According to a short article published in the 1943 (and only issue) of the Studio newsletter, Dispatch From Disney's, Wallace remembered being asked by Walt Disney to compose a song for the film:

"Walt encountered me in the hall and gave me a rush order. 'Ollie, I want a serious song, but it's got to be funny.' The further information that is was going to be for a picture telling Donald Duck's adventures in Naziland didn't help very much. 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'Suppose the Germans are singing it,' Walt offered. 'To them it's serious. To us it's funny.' Walt walked away. I stood in the hall. Once more I was on the spot."
Wallace said he wrote the chorus while riding his bicycle to the grocery store with his wife. Half an hour later, the song was finished. At the Studio the next day Wallace recalled:
"I sang it all over the place. The sound brought Walt out into the hall. 'Let's hear it,' Walt said. I stalled. 'Orchestration...there's a funny sound in it...can't be made without an instrument...has to be practised.' The truth is, I didn't know what Walt would think of a highly robust Bronx cheer. Could such a sound be used in a Disney picture? 'Let's hear it,' Walt said. I let loose. Walt laughed. The rest is history."
According to the film's campaign manual, Wallace had two daughters: "They are typical high school youngsters, more interested in Boogie Woogie than Bach...they are Wallace's worst critics. He tried the song on them and they got such a bang out of it that Wallace knew the song was a hit." The song went on to become one of the most popular tunes of the year. Disney artist Frank Thomas once said of Wallace:
"Ollie was a madman, funny, eccentric...and loved by everyone. He was...satiric [and] looked like a little Bantam rooster. He was...an improvising musician with a great sense of music and from his years of playing organ to silent movies, he was able to match music to any piece of animation."
Wallace died on September 15th, 1963, in Los Angeles, California. His impact on Disney music is immeasurable. My thanks to the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society for providing some of the background info used in this post.

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