Composer Frank Churchill’s toe-tapping “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” featured in Disney’s 1933 animated short Three Little Pigs, raised the spirits of countless Depression-weary audiences who adopted the song as a resilient national anthem of hope. Shortly after the release of the Academy Award®-winning cartoon, Frank spoke of the song’s surprising success when more than 39,000 copies of sheet music sold within three days of publication in New York City alone.
Quoted in Photoplay magazine, Frank said, “It seems to be on every phonograph record … and practically every orchestra in the country is featuring this number.”
Inspired by the film’s success, Walt Disney entrusted Frank to compose music for his first feature-length animated motion picture Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, along with Disney Legend Leigh Harline. Ultimately, it was the composer’s musical genius that helped bridge the Studio’s daring transition from animated shorts to features in 1937.
Born October 20, 1901, in Rumford, Maine, Frank moved to Southern California with his family when he was four years old. An instinctive musician, inspired by classical music and composer Franz Schubert, Frank won his first professional job as a pianist at 15 accompanying silent movies at a local theater in Ventura, California.
At his parents’ behest, he began pre-med studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, but soon dropped out of school to pursue a career in music. For a time he played piano for honky-tonks in Tijuana, Mexico, followed by an orchestra in Tucson, Arizona. He returned to Hollywood in 1924, and, despite his lack of formal musical education, Frank won a contract as an accompanist and soloist with radio station KNX. He later recorded for RKO Radio Pictures.
In December 1930, Frank joined The Walt Disney Studios where he scored nearly 65 animated shorts, including Mickey’s Gala Premiere, Funny Little Bunnies, and Who Killed Cock Robin? He also wrote music for the famous sticky flypaper sequence featured in Playful Pluto.
Tall, slender, quiet, and reserved, Frank worked from a mere idea, story sequence, or character to develop such classic Disney songs as “Whistle While You Work,” “Heigh-Ho,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His work earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Music, Score in 1938.
He was subsequently elevated to supervisor of music and went on to contribute to The Reluctant Dragon, starring humorist Robert Benchley. Frank can even be seen in the film, during the Studio tour sequence. In 1942, he received two Academy Award nominations for his work on Dumbo, including Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Song for “Baby Mine,” co-written with fellow Legend Ned Washington. A year later, his work on Bambi, including the ballad “Love Is a Song,” co-written with Lyricist Larry Morey, received similar dual nominations.
Frank Churchill passed away on May 14, 1942, in Newhall, California.