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Norman Baker, 84; Longtime Composer for Disney

July 31, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Norman "Buddy" Baker, who composed scores for about 200 Disney films, television shows and theme park attractions, ranging from music for television's beloved "Davy Crockett" to the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, has died. He was 84.

Baker died Friday of natural causes at his home in Sherman Oaks.

Generations who probably never knew his name know and love his music from "The Mickey Mouse Club," the original animated "Winnie the Pooh" films, the animated feature "Fox and the Hound," the international themes of Epcot at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. and "Grim Grinning Ghosts" and other music from "The Haunted Mansion" at Disneyland.

Baker also composed the music for Disneyland's "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" in honor of the president who spent much of his adult life in Baker's childhood home of Springfield, Ill.

In 1999, the composer, performer, conductor and arranger earned the ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on nearly 50 movies and 140 television programs. That year, ASCAP and New York University established the Buddy Baker Film Scoring Workshop in his honor.

Baker was nominated for an Academy Award for his score on the 1972 Disney film "Napoleon and Samantha," starring a young Jodie Foster and Michael Douglas.

The composer also earned four Southern California Motion Picture Council awards and the National Film Advisory Board award. He also was nominated for Grammys for his work on an album of songs from television's "The Electric Company" in 1973 and for "America Sings" featuring Burl Ives in 1974. Disney Studios, for which he composed and served as musical director for 28 years, designated him a "Disney legend."

He was the director of USC's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program since 1987.

As a child in Illinois, Baker learned to read music before words, studied piano at age 4 and trumpet at 11 and formed his own band as a teenager. He earned a doctorate in music at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., and moved to Los Angeles in 1938.

A big-band arranger and musician, Baker soon began working for "The Bob Hope Show" on radio and, after World War II began, became the show's musical director. He brought band leader Stan Kenton to the program and arranged Kenton's first big hit, "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." Baker also did work for the radio variety shows of Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor.

A gifted educator and mentor, Baker taught arranging and orchestration at Los Angeles City College until 1954, when a former student named George Bruns asked him to help with his heavy workload at Walt Disney Studio. Baker began with music for the frontier television series starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and remained with Disney until his retirement in 1983.

Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of Walt Disney Co., called Baker "a terrific guy and a major contributor to the films, television shows and theme park attractions."

"I had the privilege of working with Buddy on scores for several projects that I produced, and he always came through with something original and appropriate," Disney said. "I remember one time I asked him to create a 'funny' score for a comedy we were making, and he had the orchestra in stitches while they were recording it. He was a great person and an enormous talent."

As musical director for "The Mickey Mouse Club," the quick-minded Baker composed fresh music daily throughout its five-day-a-week, four-year run.

His first feature film score was for Disney's 1960 "Toby Tyler." Among those that followed were "Rascal," "Run, Cougar, Run," "The Monkey's Uncle," "The Gnome-Mobile" and "$1,000,000 Duck."

In the mid-1960s, Baker began concentrating on theme park attractions, creating not only music for Disneyland and later Epcot and Disney World, but also for "The Carousel of Progress" at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. At Epcot, he personally arranged the music for seven attractions, including "Impressions de France" and for "The American Adventure" as well as supervising all music for the park.

Although he retired from Disney in 1983 and began teaching at USC two years later, Baker frequently returned to the studio to add new music for theme parks in Anaheim, Orlando and Tokyo.

A renowned conductor, composer and arranger, Baker conducted such groups as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London and the Graunke Symphony Orchestra of Munich, and in such venues as the Hollywood Bowl.

Baker is survived by his wife of 26 years, Charlotte; a daughter from a previous marriage, Catherine "CiCi" Baker of Lake Tahoe, Nev.; a sister, Noreene Doss of Springfield, Ill.; a stepson, Scott Keene; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

The funeral will be private. A celebration of Baker's life will be scheduled.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, memorial donations be made to USC's Flora Thornton School of Music for the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program.

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