It was the phone call that Walt Disney had never expected to receive.
Tony & Emmy Award-winner Julie Harris was on the line. She had just portrayed Queen Victoria in a very well-received Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Laurence Housman's "Victoria Regina." And the morning after this TV special aired, Julie got a call from P.L. Travers, the author of the "Mary Poppins" books .
Julie Harris as Queen Victoria and James Donald as Prince Albert in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Laurence Housman's "Victoria Regina."
Based on the skillful way that Harris had handled the longest reigning monarch in UK history, Travers thought that this actress would be the perfect performer to portray her practically perfect nanny. And since Walt Disney Productions was just then in the process of mounting a film version of "Mary Poppins," P.L. urged Julie to give Walt a call. To let that movie mogul know that she was actively interested in the part and wished to audition for this role.
It then took every last bit of Walt Disney's charm to let Julie Harris down gently. You see, while it was true that his studio was making a movie version of P.L. Travers' books, they had already cast that film's title role. And it was 27 year-old Julie Andrews (who had charmed Walt with her whistling in the original Broadway production of Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot" ) who would be playing "Mary" in the movie.
Julie Andrews whistles with her "Camelot" co-stars, Richard Burton (L) and Robert Goulet (R).
An obviously embarrassed Ms. Harris quickly got off the phone. And after Walt put down the receiver at his end, his longtime secretary Tommie Wilck reportedly heard a steady stream of profanity coming from Disney's inner office. As Walt complained longly & loudly about how Pamela was at it again. How the author of "Mary Poppins" was once again messing with the movie musical that his studio had already spent years trying to make.
Isn't that a great story? Well, it's one that -- me personally -- I had never heard before. One which Jim Korkis shared with me while the two of us were out in Ohio earlier this month doing a guest speaker gig at Dayton Disneyana.
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In fact, in between meeting with members of the Plane Crazy chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club as well as selling copies of his two Disney history books (ie., "The Revised Vault of Walt: Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told " and "Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories "), we two baby boomers talked at length about "Mary Poppins."
I mean, I've been a fan of this Academy Award-winning motion picture since I saw it back during its original theatrical run (which -- yes, if you're working the math at your end -- makes me very, very old). And like so many other Disney fans out there, I had dug down deep into the production history of "Mary Poppins" to learn everything that I could about this movie. Which is how I already knew about how Walt had deliberately beefed up the role of Bert with the hope that he'd then be able to convince Cary Grant to come play that one-man-band / scriver / chimney sweep / kite salesman. (Sadly, Cary passed on the role. Though if it's any consolation, Grant also turned down Jack Warner. Who -- just about the same time that Walt was wooing Cary to come play Bert in "Mary Poppins" -- Warner was trying to convince Grant to portray Henry Higgins in the movie version of "My Fair Lady." )
Margaret Rutherford (L) as the White Queen opposite Peggy Cummins as Alice in the 1945 UK stage version of "Through the Looking Glass"
But as we talked over the course of that weekend, Jim kept pulling out story after story about "Mary Poppins" that I had never heard before. How -- for example -- P.L. Travers had wanted Academy Award-winner Margaret Rutherford to play the Bird Woman in the film version of her books. You see, P.L. was looking to pull a J.K. Rowling. She wanted an all-English cast for this motion picture.
Whereas Walt Disney had a very different idea when it came to the casting of the Bird Woman. You see, Walt felt that this part was the very heart & soul of "Mary Poppins." Which is why it was crucial to find just the right actress with just the right look to play this role.
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"
Which is why Walt then reached out to Academy Award-winner Jane Darwell. Best known these days for her heartbreaking performance as Ma Joad in John Ford's film version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath ," Disney knew that Darwell would be the perfect performer to portray the Bird Woman in "Mary Poppins." And though this part in the picture was a relatively small one, Jane would make it memorable.
The only problem was that -- due to some pretty severe heart problems -- Darwell had basically retired from show business just as work was getting underway on "Mary Poppins." But Walt would not be dissuaded. According to several studio insiders that I've spoken with over the years, Disney personally put in a call to Darwell to try and persuade her to take the part. Promising that she'd only need to be on-set for a single day of shooting. More to the point, befitting of a legendary Hollywood star of her status, the Studio would provide a limo that would ferry Jane from her home to the set and back.
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Flattered by all the fuss that Walt was making, Jane eventually said "Yes." And once Darwell was actually on-set shooting "Mary Poppins," the Disney production team made every effort to make this poor, old, frail woman comfortable. Even going so far as to cut a hole in the steps of that faux version of Saint Paul's Cathedral which the Studio used for this film so that they could hide a pillow for this 83 year-old performer to sit upon.
These are the sorts of stories that I know about "Mary Poppins." Whereas Jim Korkis ... He knows dozens & dozens that I have never heard before. Which is why I wish that I could be in Detroit this coming weekend. Which is when Jim will be appearing at the newly restored Motor City Theatre Organ Society's Redford Theatre at 17360 Lahser Road. Where -- before several screenings of that Academy Award-winner at this grand old movie palace -- Korkis will be giving a talk about "Mary Poppins." Sharing all sorts of tales that -- I'm sure -- will then enhance one's appreciation of this practically perfect motion picture.
Disney historian and "Mary Poppins" enthusiast Jim Korkis
The Southeast Michigan Chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club has arranged for Mr. Korkis to speak in front of three presentations of "Mary Poppins" (i.e., Friday, July 12th at 8:00 p.m. and then Saturday, July 13th at 2 & 8 p.m.). And after each screening of this Disney classic, Jim will be out in the lobby of the Redford to answer any additional "Poppins" -related questions that moviegoers may have. And -- if you ask nice -- I bet that he might even sell you an autographed copy of one of his Disney history books.
And did I mention that these three screenings will also be raising money for the Michigan Chapter of MAKE A WISH? So if you live in or around Detroit, don't miss out on this chance to help out a very worthy cause as well as get to see "Mary Poppins" back up on the big screen. Tickets are only $5 per person. And from your very comfortable seat in this genuine restored movie palace, you'll also get to hear Jim Korkis share some seldom-told tales about this Disney classic.
Interior of the MCTOS Redford Theatre in Detroit
The MCTOS Redford Theatre is located at 17360 Lahser Road in Detroit, MI on the east side of Lahser, just north of Grand River. For further information on this event or any upcoming screenings at the Redford, please give the theatre's 24-hour information line a call at 313-537-2560. MCTOS is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
Jim Korkis is awesome! Any fan of Disney would be wise to get their hands on anything he has written (books and web articles), and get their ears listening to any podcast he is a guest on.
Great article, especially ahead of the Saving Mr. Banks film.
Kinda glad that Cary Grant didn't get the part of Bert.
It was a true joy to hear from both of the Jims at the Dayton Disney event. They were both so captivating I could have listened to them talk about Disney for days! And this article was just like hearing part two of the conversations. I hope you guys work together again soon :)