Wednesday with Walt: Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale

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One of the most beautiful voices in Disney movie history, to me, was Ilene Woods who was the voice of Cinderella. I am writing about her today because Ilene was born on May 5, 1929.  There is an inspiring story between Walt and Ilene that not everyone knows and I wanted to share it with you.

We all know how extraordinary Walt’s creative genius was. He could envision things that had never existed before, and let his mind freely develop all of these extraordinary visions and concepts. One such incident happened as Walt listened to Ilene Woods during a recording in the sound booth. She was recording “Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale,” which accompanies a touching scene where Cinderella is scrubbing the floors and longing to be carried away from her life of labor. As Ilene sang, Walt listened with his eyes closed, head resting in his hands, visualizing the images that would accompany the song.

As Ilene finished, Walt looked at her and said, “Ilene, can you sing harmony with yourself?” Ilene was a bit confused. Walt was talking about multi-track recording, a technology invented by Disney sound engineers for Fantasia. It enabled a singer to record her own voice, then sing in harmony with that recording. Ilene had never tried it before.

“As I was listening to you sing,” Walt continued, “I got a picture in my mind. Cinderella is scrubbing the floor. As she sings, a soap bubble rises, and her image is reflected in that soap bubble. Her image in the bubble sings in two-part harmony with Cinderella. Then another soap bubble rises and we have three-part harmony. And another bubble, and Cinderella becomes a quartet, and eventually a choir. I see all of these images in the floating bubbles and I hear your sweet voice repeated again and again, and it all blends so beautifully.”

Ilene was excited to try Walt’s idea. So Walt had the song re-scored for multiple voices, Ilene recorded it, and the Disney animators created images for that scene that are among the most memorable in animation history. You can watch the scene here if you would like to see Walt’s finished product.

Months later, when Walt saw the finished sequence, he turned to Ilene and said, “How about that? I used to pay three salaries for the Andrew Sisters, when I could have paid for just one of you!”

I read about this story in Pat Williams’ book, How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life. Ilene Woods was a very sweet lady who was blessed with a beautiful voice and the privilege of meeting a truly gifted man who could give it wings!

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