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 ca.1926–ca.1989

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. From the age of five, he was known in his town as "Billy J. Shirley", a boy soprano and singing/acting prodigy. Billy was a very popular boy soloist with the Ogden Chorale choir. The members of this group used to sing songs at Christmas and Easter on the steps of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.[1] He performed with the Meglin Kiddies and was an active member of the Children's Civic Theater and the Irvington Playhouse. At the age of eleven, he traveled with his family to California and was introduced to Sid Grauman. Grauman listened to Billy's singing and the "boy with the golden voice" was signed up with 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Paramount Studios. The family 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.[2]

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 "As The Devil Commands". Some press reports list the latter film's name as "Acquitted", which was the same name of a previous Columbia film from 1929.[3][4]

Bill attended George W. Julian Elementary during his grade school years and attended Shortridge High School in his teens. Among other things, 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. In 1940, 19-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, the famous Andrés de Segurola, would accept Shirley as a pupil for no less than six months. Mrs. Shirley would live with her son in Hollywood for sixteen years, and the two would go back to Indiana to visit family and friends quite often. (Sources: Indianapolis Star Magazine, May 3, 1959; Indianapolis Times, 12-25-1941)

In early 1941, a mutual friend at Republic Studios introduced Bill to Herbert Yates, president of the studio. The friend remembered that Bill used to sing as a child and persuaded Yates to listen to him. Shirley sang a few numbers for Yates, and was immediately signed up for a seven-year contract.[5]

Bill's roles in these Republic films 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 other rare and usually 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. Shirley and Beers, however, are not credited; it is probable that press reports were mistaken, or their scenes were 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. His end-of-service rank is unknown.

Career/Personal Life[edit]

In late 1948, a singer[6][7] was to perform at the Mocambo for Darryl Zanuck's Man-Of-The-Year ceremony, but was unable to make it, so he asked Shirley to substitute for him. Darryl Zanuck listened to Shirley's singing and promptly put him under contract. So during the late 1940s, 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.[8]

He was good friends with several well-known motion picture actors. He had a brief relationship with former actress Colleen Townsend.[9][10][11]

Although he had occasional vocal work, Shirley sometimes had a difficult time with furthering his career. After his time in the Army, he took his act to radio and Broadway. He found work for the KFI radio station, The Railroad Hour, and Ronald Colman's "Favorite Story". In 1947, Bill had a part in the musical "Look Ma I'm Dancin'!" as the character Shauny O'Shay. But during the tryout his part was cut severely, prompting him to voluntarily leave the show.[12] However, recordings of the production's soundtrack are still available, including songs with Shirley's vocals. He dubbed Mark Stevens' singing voice for the film "Oh You Beautiful Doll" (1949).

For a while Shirley performed often with singing actress Gale Robbins. In 1949, he starred with Robbins in a short-lived Broadway revue known as "A La Carte". He performed with her on an episode of Movietown Radio Theater (also known as Skippy Hollywood Theater) entitled "Show Business".[13] In 1950, the pair performed as themselves on an episode of the Ed Wynn Show.[14]

In 1952, Bill 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, although actor Ray Middleton received the top billing. In late 1952, he joined members of a Hollywood USO troupe to entertain soldiers in Korea for the holidays.[15] He did the same thing constantly, and performing with those such as Debbie Reynolds and Keenan Wynn. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Bill regularly performed on stage, nightclubs, summer stock, and television.[16] In November 1955, he appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show and won.[17] 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, including the Copacabana in 1947,[18][19] 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 1950s, 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.[20] 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"[21] 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".[22]

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[edit]

Another famous vocal role of his, for which he again remained uncredited as a ghost singer, was providing the singing voice of the character Freddy Eynsford-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".[23] 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.[24] Even a decade earlier, Bill, along with Bill Lee, had provided part of the singing vocals for dancer Richard Allan. As the notes were too high for Lee to sing, Shirley sang the first two lines of the titular song. Bill Lee takes over afterward.[25]

Shirley performed in several Starlight Musical Theater Company productions, such as "The Great Waltz" (1953), which featured Florence Henderson, and became exceptionally popular with Sacramento's Music Circus, as reported by such news items as the Sacramento Bee. He took his act to Broadway several times throughout the decades, 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.[26] It is very probable that Shirley's credits are innumerable, but yet unknown because he often received little or no credit for his work.


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.[27][28] 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.



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1. (Great information, but yet unseen. One must pay and subscribe to GenealogyBank to view articles, or even the website itself.)