In the spring of 1992, the city of Scranton paid tribute to a kindly old musician who had relocated from Manhattan in the late 1950s. Sadly, it turned out to be a requiem. A few months later, Sammy Timberg was dead at the age of 89, and the accomplishments of a life deeply intertwined in the history of American popular entertainment seemed destined to be forgotten – until his daughter decided to do something about that.
“When my dad died I knew almost nothing about his work. None of us did, because he never really talked about it,” Pat Timberg said. “What I discovered was an amazing life and a lasting legacy. I’d like people to know what a wonderful composer he was, and that’s what I’ve been working on ever since.”
As a musical director for the New York City-based Fleischer Studios in the 1930s and early ‘40s, Sammy Timberg scored hundreds of theatrically released cartoons, breathing musical life into iconic characters like Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman. He also composed infectiously catchy songs for the two feature length cartoons Max Fleischer produced in his ultimately unsuccessful effort to compete with Walt Disney. Tonight, Turner Classic Movies and animation historian Jerry Beck offer a rare opportunity to enjoy Timberg’s work in those two films, with screenings of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939) at 8 p.m. (ET), followed by MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN (1941) at 9:30 p.m.
“Timberg is one of the unsung heroes, not only of the Fleischer cartoons, but of American pop culture,” film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin said in a phone interview. “The guys who worked at Fleischer were almost all New Yorkers. A lot of them were Jewish. They had a different sense of humor from Disney or even the Warner Bros cartoons, and a lot of it has to do with environment.”
Sammy Timberg was unquestionably a product of his environment. Born on Houston Street in 1903, the seventh child of Austrian immigrant parents, Timberg was groomed for a career as a concert pianist under the classical tutelage of Rubin Goldmark, famed instructor of Aaron Copland and George Gerswhin. But his studies were interrupted by the death of his father in 1918, when family finances forced young Sammy to join his brother Herman on the Vaudeville stage. For more than a decade he honed his craft in the creative crucible of the so-called Two-a-Day circuit, touring alongside – and often working with – the Marx Brothers and other national headliners of the day. And then, technology beckoned.
“When Talkies came in, New York City became the hub of production,” said film historian and preservationist Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project. “You had immediate access to all these actors and musical comedy stars. Anybody who could play or compose could make easy money at the studios.”
Sammy’s career in pictures began with Musical Justice, a 1931 short starring crooner Rudy Vallee and Mae Questel as a live-action Betty Boop. The highlight of the film is a Timberg ditty called Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away, which would be sung again by the cartoon version of Betty a few weeks later in Sammy’s first animated short. And with that, Timberg & Boop became a comedy team for the ages.
“More than anyone else, Sammy Timberg created that feeling that surrounds all the Betty Boop cartoons,” said Hutchinson. “It was the depths of the Depression, but the Timberg songs were always bright and peppy. A lot of his songs from these films were released on 78s by many of the top swing bands of the period.”
In 1933, Max and Dave Fleischer licensed newspaper cartoonist E.C. Segar’s Popeye the Sailor for a long-running series of surreal shorts, and Timberg’s music was once again front-and-center.
“A big part of the charm of both the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons is the fact that the characters are constantly bursting into song and singing wonderful, original tunes that are perfect expressions of who they are,” Leonard Maltin added. “They’re lively and catchy and fun to listen to.”
Timberg’s work with the Fleischer’s continued when the studio moved to union-free Miami in 1938, following a divisive animators’ strike. It was during this period that Timberg penned the bouncy marches It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day for the feature GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and Boy, Oh Boy! with lyricist Frank Loesser for MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN (later re-titled HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN). Unfortunately, in a masterstroke of poor timing, Hoppity hopped into theaters within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was crushed at the box office. But the clock had already run out for the innovative Fleischer brothers, as fraternal infighting and troubled finances had allowed Paramount to seize control of the company. Now known as Famous Studios, the operation moved back to New York and Sammy followed, along with wife Rosemarie Sinnot (a former Ziegfeld dancer) and son Bob. Back in his beloved Big Apple, Timberg trod new creative ground with innovative work on a series of Superman cartoons, continued with Popeye and contributed music to cartoons featuring Raggedy Ann and Andy, Little Lulu and other lesser lights. Then, after an unsuccessful move to the animation division of Columbia Pictures in California, Sammy’s days in the cartoon spotlight came to an end.
Timberg continued writing, partnering with lyricists Buddy Kaye and Sammy Cahn on a number of popular songs, including Frank Sinatra’s “Help Yourself to My Heart,” a melancholic, mid-life contrast to Sammy’s earlier, jauntier hits. And then new technology once again brought his talents to the fore. Television’s voracious appetite for inexpensive, existing content gave new life to classic black & white short subjects — but there was a catch.
“Growing up in the ‘50s, I watched the cartoons on TV and heard a lot of his music,” said Vince Giordano, musician, arranger and leader of the Nighthawks Orchestra. “But I had no idea it was him.”
Tragically, for most of the cartoon short subjects he scored, Timberg did not received on-screen credit, and he wasn’t the only creative artist slighted in that manner.
“The credits on those cartoons were terse, to put it mildly,” Maltin said. “They credited two animators and one director, always Dave Fleischer. The rest of the staff worked anonymously.”
Timberg returned to live performing with a jazz trio, did some work for television and managed the careers of entertainers like Jackie Gleason and Don Adams, but he never again achieved the renown that he had enjoyed in his Boop-Oop-A-Doop days. A road gig in Scranton led to an extended booking, a second marriage and the autumn of his years. For the countless friends he made and entertained there, every day became Sammy Timberg Day.
“We always thought that, at some point, things were going to break really big for him, but they never did,” Sammy’s son, journalist and author Bob Timberg said. “After he died my sister sort of moved in to the Library of Congress down here in Washington and we discovered an amazing amount of work. His output was staggering. He was so good and so fast it was almost as if, by virtue of being so agile, he undervalued the work.”
Honoring that work has become a Timberg family affair. In 2004 daughter Pat produced a CD of new recordings of her father’s early pop hits and cartoon themes, many of them featuring Boop-esque vocals by Sammy’s granddaughter Shannon Cullem. Mother and daughter are also developing a musical called Timberg Alley, based on the life and songs of their prolific paterfamilias. And live performances of Sammy’s compositions have been presented at theaters, colleges and animation festivals, entertaining yet another generation with his Depression-busting ditties.
“When we’d visit him in Scranton, when we’d knock on the door, he was always practicing,” Shannon Cullem said. “He was eighty-something years old and still practicing eight hours a day. He was happiest when he was playing, and making other people happy with his music.”
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the December 24, 2008 edition of The Villager. Photos courtesy of the Timberg family. For more information about Sammy Timberg visit timbergalley.com