Bill Shirley

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Bill Shirley
Bill Shirley, Actor in a black and white portrait.jpg
Born William Jay Shirley
(1921-07-06)July 6, 1921
Indianapolis, Indiana
Died August 27, 1989(1989-08-27) (aged 68)
Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Occupation Actor, singer, entertainer
Years active 1940–1963

William Jay "Bill" Shirley (July 6, 1921 – August 27, 1989) was an American actor and tenor/lyric baritone singer, who later became a Broadway theatre producer. He is perhaps best known for providing the speaking and singing voice for Prince Phillip in Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic; Sleeping Beauty.

Early years[edit]

William J. Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 6, 1921. His father, Luther J. Shirley, was a funeral director for Shirley Brothers Mortuaries. His mother, Inez Shirley (née Baldwin) was a professional pianist. He attended George W. Julian Elementary during grade school, and attended Shortridge High School in his teens. He became a member of its student council along with such prominent figures as Madelyn Pugh and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; he graduated in 1939 at the age of seventeen. As a very young child, he was known in his town as "Billy J. Shirley", a boy soprano and singing/acting prodigy. Until his voice changed, young Billy was a boy soloist with the Ogden Chorale choir, which used to sing songs at Christmas and Easter on the steps of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.[1] He was an active member of the Children's Civic Theater and the Irvington Playhouse. At the age of eleven, he was introduced to Sid Grauman and was signed up by 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Paramount Studios. He owned a dog, a Boston terrier named Buddy. During the time he stayed in California, little Billy often wrote letters home requesting news about his pet. Some of the boy's first acting roles were in rare or hard-to-find films, such as "The Phantom President" (1932) and "As The Devil Commands" (1933). He sang Christmas carols in the Columbia Pictures film "Acquitted" (1929). In 1940, 20-year old Bill and his mother left their Indianapolis hometown and moved to Hollywood, California where he went on to study voice and music at the Herbert Wall School of Music. His singing teacher there, Andrés de Segurola, would accept Shirley as a pupil for no less than six months. Inez Shirley would live with her son in Hollywood for sixteen years, although they would often go back to Indiana to visit family and friends. (Indianapolis Star Magazine, May 3, 1959) (Indianapolis Times, 12-25-1941)

In early 1941, a friend at Republic Studios had introduced Bill to Herbert Yates. He sang for Yates, and was immediately signed for a seven-year contract. Bill's parts in these pictures were usually very small or supporting. He had a small, yet somewhat important, part in the film Flying Tigers, in which he plays a very young pilot who is mortally wounded during his first mission. He appeared in several rare B-list films, such as "Doctors Don't Tell" (1941), "Rookies on Parade" (1941), Hi Neighbor (1942), "Ice-Capades Revue" (1942), and "Sailors on Leave" (1941). He was said to have had a part in "Sleepytime Gal" (1942) with Judy Canova and Bobby Beers, but he and Beers were not credited, and it is probable that their scenes may have been cut.

In early 1942, before he had completed his contract, Shirley entered the Army, enlisting as a private, and served in recruiting. He also served with the Quartermaster Corps, the Signal Corps, and the Radio section of the Special Services branch.

In late 1948, George Jessel was to perform at the Mocambo for Darryl Zanuck's Man-Of-The-Year ceremony, but was unwell. Jessel asked Shirley to substitute for him. Darryl Zanuck listened to Shirley's singing and promptly put him under contract. So during the late 1940's, Shirley was employed as a ghost singer under contract for 20th Century-Fox, dubbing vocals for films such as "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" (1949) and "Dancing In The Dark" (1949) before the studio released him for no known reason.

Although he had occasional vocal work, Shirley constantly had a difficult time restarting his career. In the late 40's, he took his act to Broadway and performed often with Gale Robbins. In 1952, he played the role of Bruce Martingale, a singer at a local tavern, in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd. Earlier that year he'd gotten his only leading role onscreen: as Stephen Foster in I Dream of Jeanie, but actor Ray Middleton received the top billing. In December 1952, he joined members of a Hollywood USO troupe to entertain soldiers in Korea for the holidays. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, Bill regularly performed on stage, nightclubs, summer stock, and television.[2] After 1956, Shirley often did promotional shows for various sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Ford Motor Co. and General Electric Company. Amongst his television work, he would perform on the radio and at various nightclubs across the country over the years, including the Copacabana in 1947, the Latin Quarter in New York , the Mocambo, and the Tropicana and Riviera in Las Vegas.

Sleeping Beauty[edit]

Bill Shirley and Mary Costa rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty (1959)

During the early 1950's, Shirley was approached by the Walt Disney Company to provide both the speaking and singing voice for the character of Prince Phillip in their animated version of Sleeping Beauty. Shirley's singing style was tenor/high baritone, which gave his singing a youthful quality that was ideal for the voice of the young Prince Phillip. Before they were cast as the voices of Aurora and Phillip, Mary Costa and Shirley were asked to audition together to make sure their voices complimented each other. During the film's production, Shirley and actor Ed Kemmer were used by the Disney animators as live action reference models for Prince Phillip and used both of them to perform many of the sequences from the movie in front of them whilst they drew the animated character. He had many rehearsals with the actress, who was also providing the singing voice of Princess Aurora, Mary Costa.

They acted out their parts just as if they were to appear personally in the finished production. The two even kissed before the sound-track cameras. After their voices were recorded, the animators drew every motion of the characters' lips to fit each enunciated syllable from the actors' mouths, so that viewers would be able to "see" the voice as well as hear it. The animators would draw sixteen drawings for each syllable formed by the lips. Bill would remember later on that he said, "Woah, Samson!" to a non-existent horse for a whole day before the sound engineers were satisfied with the inflection. And at that point, Samson had not even been sketched as a horse! (Indianapolis Star Magazine, May 3, 1959)

Shortly before the film was released, Bill and Mary performed together at the Hollywood Bowl on a Disney themed night in 1958.[3] In an interview Costa mentions that both her and the actresses playing the fairy godmothers (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy) were endeared to Shirley and his shyness, mentioning that "we all had our crushes on him"[4] and "...he was so shy and we all had just genuine crushes on that Prince. He was really cute". In another interview she goes on to say, "We loved to tease him. Verna Felton who played Flora would always creep up behind him with a pencil and act like it was a baton [wand]. She'd do some fairy work on him and say he was going to be the greatest, handsomest, and all of this".[5]

Shirley and Costa sang the iconic song of the film; Once Upon a Dream. Alongside the original, there is a version that was unused and unpublished for the film and contains rare vocals from both performers slightly different from that in the film; this can easily be found on the internet.

Additional work/Personal life[edit]

Another famous vocal role of his, for which he again remained uncredited as a ghost singer, was when he provided the singing voice of the character Freddy Einsford-Hill (played by Jeremy Brett) of Warner Bros. My Fair Lady singing one of the film's most memorable songs; On the Street Where You Live. Brett had long claimed that it was he who had sung the song and that Mr. Shirley merely "sweetened the high tones".[6] It was not until 1994 that Brett admitted that it was Shirley who sung the iconic song and not he, although Brett claimed that he knew nothing about it until the opening night.[7]

Shirley performed in several Starlight Musical Theater Company productions, such as "The Great Waltz" (1953), which featured Florence Henderson, and in summer stock with Music Circus. He took his act to Broadway several times, where he performed in numerous plays such as "Pardon Our French". He is often stated to have retired from the acting industry in 1963. However, he was a member of the Actors' Equity Association and performed in many productions after 1963, especially in industrial shows, and performed in Music Circus productions as late as 1975.

Death[edit]

For the last ten years of his life, he worked with Litton Industries in the real estate department, primarily in Beverly Hills. It is unknown when he was diagnosed, but he retired from the company, likely due to illness, in May 1989 - just three months before his early death.[8][9] He died of lung cancer Sunday, August 27, 1989 at the Guardian Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles at the age of 68. The service was held at the family run, Shirley Brothers Irving Hill Chapel. He was interred in Crown Hill Cemetery's mausoleum, back home in Indianapolis.

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

10.http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/?lname=&fname=&kwinc=%22Bill+Shirley%22+singer&kwexc=&dateType=range&formDate=&formDateFlex=10&rgfromDate=1941&rgtoDate=2014&processingtime=&group=&context=fed-alt (Great information, but yet unseen. One must pay and subscribe to GenealogyBank to view articles, or even the website itself.)

11. http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/hollywoodfilmogr12holl_0554