UPON A STAR: Oscar-winning alumnus shines at Disney
“When a star is born, they possess a gift or two. One of them is this: They have the power to make a wish come true.”
So read the little-known first lines of the iconic Disney song “When You Wish upon a Star.” It is a verse that serves as a fitting tribute to legendary College of Idaho musician Paul J. Smith ’27.
Like Smith, the lines are virtually unknown outside of music circles, overshadowed by more famous stanzas that followed.
Like Smith, the words mark the beginning of something special—a timeless song that has enchanted and inspired worldwide millions.
And, fittingly, the song first appeared in the Walt Disney animated classic Pinocchio, the film for which Smith received the 1940 Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Smith was a star who indeed possessed many gifts. His magical compositions remain beloved around the globe, undimmed by the passing decades. And though he worked in a profession—and during an era—where his fame would never match his talent, he remains one of the most gifted composers of his time, and an icon of The College of Idaho’s proud musical tradition.
This is his story.
COLLEGE OF IDAHO ROOTS
Paul J. Smith was born October 30, 1906 in Calumet, Michigan. Paul’s musical talent was apparent from an early age—he began playing piano at age 4, and he learned to play violin at age 7. By the time he reached his teens, Paul had added viola, bass drum, trumpet and banjo to his repertoire.
Smith’s daughter, Theresa Louise Powers, remembers her father’s uncanny mind for music.
“He was able to compose his scores without even touching the piano,” Powers recalled. “He had perfect pitch. He would compose sitting at a card table in our living room, next to the piano.”
Paul’s prodigious abilities were inherited from and nurtured by his father, Joseph John Smith. The elder Smith, a member of The College of Idaho Music Hall of Fame, had four sons (Paul, Jerome, Arthur and George), and all four had magnificent musical talent.
In 1919, J.J. Smith moved his young family to Caldwell, Idaho, and began directing local bands. Smith started teaching at the C of I in 1921, and his name and musicianship would be associated with the College for the rest of his days. The late C of I alumnus and ace musician Bill Rankin ’41 called J.J. Smith “the father of instrumental music in the Boise Valley.”
“J.J. Smith was incredible,” C of I archivist Jan Boles ’65 said. “In addition to the absolute excellence of his musicianship, he had this passionate belief that music was an essential part of a complete, fulfilling life. He left that legacy. And for he and his family to wind up in Caldwell…you couldn’t write something like that.”
Paul Smith was J.J.’s oldest son. Upon graduating from high school, Paul enrolled at The College of Idaho, where he studied music from 1923-1925. He went on to attend the Bush Conservatory of Music in Chicago and later continued his education at UCLA.
While Smith’s time as a C of I student was brief, he remained close to the College throughout his life. In 1955, the College invited him back to campus to accept an honorary degree during commencement festivities.
“I am delighted that the College is doing this fine thing for me,” Smith wrote in a letter to then-C of I President Tom Shearer. “Whenever I think of it, which is very often, I feel like a happy kid again.”
Smith also opened doors for his alma mater at Disney. On at least one occasion, he organized a C of I choir tour of Walt Disney Studios, alluding in another letter to Shearer that Walt Disney himself had made special arrangements to accommodate such a large group.
“What an amazing experience that must have been,” said recent graduate Katy Lootens ’14, a music major and choir standout. “It would be so inspiring to tour the Disney facilities with an alumnus who was creating some of the most popular music of his time.”
Paul’s brothers, Jerome Smith ’25 and Art Smith, also attended the College, as did several of J.J. Smith’s grandchildren. Jerome Smith became an engineer at RCA and helped invent one of the first car radios. The College honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984.
Art Smith, who founded the C of I Pep Band, finished his education at USC and went on to a successful career as a studio musician in Hollywood, including stops at Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney Productions.
The Smith legacy remains strong at the C of I. From J.J. Smith’s Hall of Fame plaque hanging in the Langroise Center for Performing and Fine Arts to Paul Smith’s original scores housed by Boles in the Robert E. Smylie Archives, the College continues to celebrate the Smith name.
“It’s pretty jaw-dropping that our little College produced this fellow who went on to change the world,” current C of I music professor Dr. Paul Moulton said. “Being a small school creates opportunities. Our students grow and take initiative in ways that wouldn’t present themselves at larger institutions. I think that helped prepare [Paul Smith] for who he ultimately became.”
A DISNEY LEGEND
After college, Paul Smith married Theresa Allen. The couple had a son, Jerome, and Paul adopted Allen’s daughter, Theresa Louise. In 1934, Paul Smith auditioned at Disney and was contracted as an arranger of music. Smith quickly learned to score animated scenes, a talent he would use to complete dozens of films during his career.
Writing music for an animated scene was complex, requiring strong collaboration between the composer and the animator. Smith worked directly with Disney animators to ensure synchronicity on screen. He described this process in a three-part series of articles he wrote for the American Society of Music Arrangers’ newsletter, Score, in 1944.
“The music of a cartoon follows in extreme detail the action on the screen,” Smith wrote. “Heightening its detail, keeping out of the way of dialogue, emphasizing the drama of the situation, and pointing the comedy, always keeping in step with the characters emotionally and rhythmically.
“The score, good or bad, ultimately fits the animation like a glove.”
The technique of capturing cartoon characters’ action on screen—dubbed “Mickey Mousing” by Walt Disney—became a hallmark of Smith’s career. It continues to be used heavily by Disney and other animators to this day.
Smith was fortunate to join Disney during a time of great excitement and growth. The year he arrived at the company, Walt Disney announced his first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Smith worked alongside Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline to create the music for Snow White, which was a groundbreaking success. Among a multitude of records and accolades, the movie earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score and became the first American film to release a soundtrack album.
“Those films changed everything for a kid movie fan like me in the 1940s,” Boles said. “I remember watching the Academy Awards. When those categories would come up, you just knew Walt Disney was going to walk across the stage. The movies were so immensely popular, and the music was a big part of that.”
Next up for Smith was Pinocchio. Working alongside Harline and Ned Washington, Smith was once again nominated by the Academy, this time capturing the Oscar for Best Original Score. Pinocchio became the first animated feature to win an Academy Award in a competitive category, capturing both Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “When You Wish upon a Star.” Critics still consider it one of the greatest animated films of all time.
Powers remembers the excitement of sharing a roof with her Academy Award-winning dad.
“I knew it was special,” Powers said. “I grew up with the Oscar on a library shelf in our living room.”
As Disney’s popularity grew, Smith and his colleagues earned critical acclaim not only for the quality of their compositions, but also for their innovative use of instruments to create new effects. Smith explained the importance of musical effects in “The Music of the Walt Disney Cartoons,” an undated article he penned for The Etude magazine.
“One of the tricks of cartoon music is the exaggeration of normal emotions to match pace with the unreal reality of the art medium itself, which permits Mickey Mouse to dance, Donald Duck to sing and Geppetto to fry fish inside a whale,” Smith wrote. “You know it can not be true; yet it seems true, at least while you watch. Cartoon music must do the same, reaching subtly into effects that are not quite true, but deliciously believable all the same.”
After Pinocchio, Smith’s career continued to boom. He scored, orchestrated and performed music for more than 80 animated and live-action films, including Fantasia, Bambi, Cinderella and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His work earned eight Academy Award nominations overall.
“It takes a while to wrap your head around everything he accomplished,” Moulton said. “He was Disney’s music for a long time, and he was doing it during their golden years.”
One of Smith’s favorite projects was the True Life Adventure Series. A departure from classic Disney animation, the award-winning series was a collection of documentaries that focused on wildlife and nature.
While composing music for a nature documentary differs from scoring a cartoon, Smith relished the project’s creative freedom. His soundtracks for such films as Water Birds, The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie were a hit. While the animal “characters” already were alive on screen, Smith used music to tell their stories, such as the tale of Skinny, a brave ground squirrel who stood up to the villainous Gila monster in a memorable scene from The Living Desert.
In a passage from James Bohn’s forthcoming book, Music in Walt’s Animated Features: from ‘Snow White’ to ‘The Jungle Book,’ Smith described working on the documentaries.
“In the True Life series…the music attempts, in a stylistic way, to give the critters seemingly human characteristics that will be recognized by the audience,” Smith wrote. “The balance of the characters—the hero, the villain, the ingénue—is described in musical terms.”
Lootens, who wrote a senior research paper on Smith, was amazed after watching his work in The Living Desert.
“It was incredible to watch,” Lootens said. “He had this way of ‘Disneyfying’ the animals on screen. Without his music, it would just be a reel of a snake slithering across the desert, but the music gives the snake its own story and its own personality.”
Later in his career, Smith—who had separated from his wife—teamed up with lyricist Hazel “Gil” George. The duo collaborated on many popular songs, including the inaugural season of the Mickey Mouse Club. The two eventually became inseparable and lived together for the rest of Smith’s life.
Smith retired from Disney in 1962, capping a career that spanned nearly 30 years.
THE SMITH LEGACY
On January 25, 1985, Paul J. Smith died at the age of 78. His passing was mourned deeply by those who knew and loved him, but his true impact on modern music, film and culture is impossible to measure.
At The College of Idaho, the Smith family memory is alive and well. Paul Smith accepted Shearer’s 1955 invitation and received an honorary doctorate in music. In 2008, J.J. Smith was one of six inductees into the inaugural class of the C of I Music Hall of Fame. Currently, the C of I music department is planning a Paul J. Smith tribute concert, with plans to perform some of his original music.
“Amazing stories sometimes are forgotten in time, but those stories are what inspire us,” Moulton said. “We want celebrate the memory of Paul Smith and everything he accomplished.”
At Disney, Smith’s legacy is kept alive by the millions of fans who continue to enjoy his work. In 1994, he was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend.
Lootens, who interned at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida last summer through the Disney College Program, said Smith will always live on through the beloved music he created.
“He was such a versatile composer, and so creative,” Lootens said. “He wasn’t afraid to be different. But I think his biggest legacy is that he was involved in these huge motion pictures, but he remained a kind and humble person. He never got the recognition he deserved, but I think he was okay with that. His music spoke for itself.”
In the final scene of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sings “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme; when you wish upon a star as dreamers do.”
Paul J. Smith was a dreamer who put his heart into his music and shared his gifts with the world. He was and remains an icon of Disney, and of his industry.
He is The College of Idaho’s brightest star.