Walter Scharf was a prominent Hollywood and television composer and conductor for more than half a century. Born in New York City, he began his career in the early 1930s as a Broadway arranger—where he orchestrated Girl Crazy for George Gershwin. He went to Los Angeles in 1934 as an arranger for the orchestra of the popular crooner Rudy Vallee. During his early years there under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, he received six Academy Award nominations for such film scores such as Mercy Island (1941) and the Hit Parade series (1940–43)—with others to come in succeeding years for Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Funny Girl (1968), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971); and his title song for the film Ben (1972) won a Golden Globe award and became a hit for singer Michael Jackson. Scharf became equally known for his work for television with the popular series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and he received an Emmy award for his score for an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. His work on more than 200 film and television scores—as composer, arranger, and orchestrator—included twenty-eight hours for the Cousteau series; five films with Elvis Presley (starting in 1957 with Loving You); Holiday Inn (1942); and many other well-remembered as well as now-forgotten films. Scharf also wrote two books: Composed and Conducted (1988) and The History of Film Scoring (1988). After his retirement from Hollywood, he composed a large-scale choral and orchestral work on commission from Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles—The Tree Still Stands (1989), about the development of a Jew through five stages of his life, from adolescence through adulthood, beginning with his bar mitzvah. That work drew on Hebrew texts from the Bible, supplemented by contemporary lyrics. His plan to write an opera on the life of Maurice Ravel, the classical composer he most admired, was unfulfilled at his death.
By: Neil W. Levin