How “It’s a Small World” Turned Into One of The World’s Most Played Songs

The National Recording Registry badge for “It’s a Small World.” Graphic: Ashley Jones.

The National Recording Registry has inducted plenty of popular songs over the years, but few come close to “It’s a Small World,” the theme song to the Disney theme park ride of the same name, as it has been played more than 50 million times since its 1964 debut.

One of 25 songs added to the NRR this year, the little song about world peace was likely the mostplayed song in global history until the advent of streaming services, where worldwide views and listens can soar into billions of plays. “Small,” though never a radio hit, has played constantly at the Disney theme park rides of the same name, over and over again, all day long, as just about every parent can attest.

“People either want to kill us or kiss us,” laughs co-writer Richard Sherman, now 93, in a recent phone interview from his California home. His brother and songwriting partner, Robert, died in 2012.

They pair didn’t intend for “Small” to become an earworm of historic proportions. The Oscar-winning pair wrote much of the Walt Disney songbook of the 1960s, turning out the music for film hits such as “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,”  “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Happiest Millionaire” and “Tom Sawyer,” as well as for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” For good measure, they wrote “You’re Sixteen,” a hit in 1960, which then went to No. 1 in 1974 for Ringo Starr.

The songs from their Disney movies, including “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” became almost universally known to children of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, “Be Like You,” from “The Jungle Book,” has been viewed more than 64 million times on YouTube alone. Disney eventually renamed its Soundstage A for the pair. When their sons filmed a documentary about them in 2009, “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story,” the list of stars and studio executives who turned out to be interviewed seemed endless: Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, John Landis and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., to name a few.

“We loved to write songs,” Sherman said. “Our father was a great songwriter. It was just a natural thing for us.”

Indeed, their father, Al, whose family had fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) had an impressive career in the first half of the 20th century. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs for Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and film.

Robert and Richard were born in the 1920s, growing up in the Los Angeles area. Urged by their father to work together in music, they began writing pop songs and were working directly for Walt Disney himself by the early 1960s.

Their film scores were immediate hits. But in 1964, “Small” was just a simple ditty the brothers banged out for what they thought was to be a short-term exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. The fair’s theme was “Peace Through Understanding” and the Disney exhibit was part of a salute to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The exhibit was a water ride that would take visitors through models of different nations. Animatronic dolls, portraying children from around the globe, would sing about world peace. The first idea for the music — the dolls singing different national anthems — didn’t work. So, while the project was still being designed, Disney assigned the Shermans to come up with a kids’ song for the ride.

“Just don’t preach,” Sherman remembers Disney telling them.

The context of the era, mostly lost on listeners today, was the Cold War. Threats of atomic bombings by the Soviet Union dominated the national mindset. Schoolchildren practiced duck-and-cover drills; the “Fallout Shelter” sign — orange-and-black with three inverted triangles set inside a black circle — became common on sturdy buildings. The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 elevated the situation to a fever pitch. (The second line of “Small” is, “It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears.”)

“It came pretty easily,” Sherman remembered. “We didn’t sweat blood over it.”

They previewed it for Disney, he liked it and that seemed that. Then, not knowing of Disney’s plans to create multiple theme parks (only one existed at the time) and that “Small” was going to be a theme park attraction after the World’s Fair was over, the pair mentioned during a brief car ride that they planned to donate the song’s copyright to UNICEF. It seemed like a symbolic gesture, Sherman said, as the World’s Fair would come and go and so would the song.

“He stopped the car, turned and said, ‘Don’t you give that away! That’s for your grandkids! It’ll put them through college!’ ” Sherman laughed. “He was right. It’s our biggest copyright by far.”

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