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03/30/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Howard Ashman Remembered: The Tragic AIDS Death Behind Disney Love Songs

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - APRIL 05:  In this handout photo provided by Disney, the sunrise over Cinderella Castle in the Magic K
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - APRIL 05: In this handout photo provided by Disney, the sunrise over Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom creates a multi-colored effect in the sky as the sun shines through the trail left after Space Shuttle Discovery launched from nearby Cape Canaveral on April 5, 2010 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. At 6:21 a.m. EDT, Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from Cape Canveral, Florida with the crew of STS-131. (Photo by Kent Phillips/Disney via Getty Images)

The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company's new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.

As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then, in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.

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