Granite High Greats: Leigh Harline

Granite High’s greatest legacy is the wonderful and accomplished people she has sent out into the world. You probably know some – maybe even personally, but others you may never have heard of.  American Grandpa wants to share some of their stories. 

One of the most accomplished Farmers was Hollywood composer Leigh Harline. You may not know his name, but you know his music. He composed one of the most recognizable tunes in the whole world.

But I am getting ahead of my story. And before I go on, I would like to give credit to a couple of hardworking historians.

I first heard Leigh’s story in 2006 when a speaker told it at my daughter’s graduation from Granite High.  I have been fascinated by the story and have recounted it many times. When I decided to start my series on famous Farmers, my research led me to a wonderful article by a mother/daughter team of historians published in the Utah Historical Quarterly. It was so well done and I learned so much. 

To be honest, this article is very much a retelling of their story in my own words. And most of the photographs were also collected as part of their research.  I want to make sure Sandra Dawn Brimhall and Dawn Retta Brimhall receive the credit they deserve and that you consider reading their original article.

Leigh was born to Swedish immigrants Carl and Johanna Harline, who arrived in Utah in 1891, poor and not speaking a word of English. One of 13 children in a family building a new life, Leigh learned how to work hard. This quality paid off for him in his long career in Hollywood. 

The family moved ten times before buying a 5-acre parcel in 1905 and building a substantial home. It was located at 3405 South 1100 East. It was in that home that Leigh was born in 1907.

Harline family home built around 1905. Photo Courtesy Jo-An Harline Lyman.
This home currently standing at the address of the original Harline home looks very similar to the family photo of the original. I suppose it could be the same home remodeled. Photo Credit: Vincent Bath (American Cowboy)

Leigh showed a love and aptitude for music at a very young age. At age 6, he started piano and by the end of the first grade was accompanying his fellow students as they marched in school programs. Although he claimed to hate practicing, his niece says he had to be pulled from the piano and told to go outside to play. 

By the time he was a teenager, Leigh had already become quite a musician, making a name for himself as a local celebrity. At 14 he started his own dance band. At 15 was giving concerts on KDYL radio.

Leigh’s dance band (the Collegians) circa 1925. Photo courtesy of Jo-An Harline Lyman

It was about this time (1921-23) that Leigh attended Granite High. He was a solid B student in all of his classes except for music (band, orchestra and Advanced Placement Music), where he excelled.

Leigh’s life changed drastically in 1922 when his mother died from a stroke.  Her death hit the family hard, but especially Leigh.  Over the next school year his grades (in non-music classes) dropped to Cs before he left high school in 1923 without a diploma. He threw himself into his music, playing concerts, taking his dance band to the professional level and composing. 

In 1926 Leigh enrolled as a student at the University of Utah, excelling in graduate music classes and paying his tuition from the proceeds of his dance band. College provided him with experience, knowledge and networking. By the time he left the U (again without a diploma) he was ready to be a professional musician and composer. 

He moved to San Francisco in 1928, following and marrying a beautiful girl he said had stolen his heart. But California had more to offer than romance. The talented musician and composer had wandered into the prefect situation. The new mediums of radio and motion pictures offered abundant opportunities and the moguls of those industries soon recognized, used and rewarded his talent.

Leigh about the time he left Utah for California. Photo Courtesy of Jo-An Harline Lyman

Leigh soon caught the ear of Walt Disney and was hired to compose music for Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney recognized Leigh’s talent and work ethic and entrusted him with projects that required broader musical talents. He was on the team that composed the music for Disney’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That music was nominated for Academy Awards. 

Leigh Harline (left) with Walt Disney (center). Photo credit D23.com

Disney’s next full-length animation was Pinocchio. Although the music was a team effort, Harline was considered the composer on the film. Leigh and his team won the Academy Award for best musical score for Pinocchio and Leigh and lyricist Ned Washington won the Academy Award for best original song for When You Wish Upon a Star – the beloved tune which became Disney’s personal and corporate theme song.

Leigh receiving Emmy for When You Wish Upon a Star. Photo credit: D23.com

Many believe this is where the story ends – boy from podunk Salt Lake get’s lucky and makes it big in Hollywood. No, this is just where the story begins. Leigh’s life and career became even more fascinating.

In 1941 Leigh left Disney and began freelancing for the other major movie studios. In addition, Leigh composed for radio, requiring him to write whole new arrangements weekly. He was noted for the variety and originality of his work and his ability to mix musical genres. In addition to composing, Leigh conducted studio orchestras as they recorded soundtracks.

Success brought the Harlines into contact with the Hollywood elite. Leigh and Catherine hosted parties at their home attended by actors, film producers and musicians. His daughters (Karen and Gretchen) would lie awake at night listening to the music and laughter from downstairs. When Cary Grant showed up his girls made such a fuss that Leigh was embarrassed. Once while on a train trip from New York to Los Angeles, Gretchen met and danced with Fred Astaire in the club car. 

Catherine Harline with daughters Gretchen and Karen. Photo Courtesy Jo-An Harline Lyman

Leigh’s career spanned into the 1960’s. He worked on over 150 movies and wrote over 400 songs. He was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won twice.

With all of his success, Leigh never forgot his family or his roots.

Although his first marriage ended in divorce in 1942, with Catherine moving to New York with the girls, Leigh continued to be a loving and supportive father and tried to be involved in their lives. As a teenager, Karen asked her father to come to her parties and play the piano. His daughter remembers him as a very calm, loving and funny guy (and he never swore).

Leigh made frequent personal and professional visits to Utah. He always attended family reunions and, although he was no longer a practicing member, worked on several projects for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1947 he composed the score for a concert about the founding of the Church and the pioneers. In 1964 he helped compose the music for the Church’s World’s Fair film, Man’s Search for Happiness

 Hear a Great Cover of Harline’s Most Famous Song

Leigh died 1969, leaving an amazing musical legacy, but his most endearing is that song he wrote so early in his career. When You Wish Upon A Star has been ranked seventh in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Songs in Film History. It’s been covered by hundreds of artists and is not only the Disney theme song, but an inspiration for people in all walks of life. And has been for generations.

See Brimhall article on Leigh Harline

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