Mary Poppins Fun Facts

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As some of you know, over the July 12 weekend I was in Detroit, Michigan, as a special presenter for the re-opening of the old movie palace, The Redford Theater (opened January 1928), that had been closed so the balcony could be restored.

As part of the celebration, there was a fundraiser for the Detroit chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation with three showings of Mary Poppins on a big screen preceded by a concert on the old, original Barton Pipe Theater organ (only 250 ever made between 1918-1931 and only a handful exist today).

I spoke before the film and at intermission. No, there is no official intermission for the film, but when it was first released in 1964, several theaters put one in after Mary Poppins sings Stay Awake to sell more concessions. Patrons accepted this because other films at the time had intermissions and special scores written to be played at intermission.

I shared some of the stories of P. L. Travers that I wrote about two weeks ago. Stories that will serve as the basis for the December film, Saving Mr. Banks.

For those who have expressed some reservations about Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, did Jimmy Stewart look and sound like aviator Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) or did Cary Grant look and sound like songwriter Cole Porter in Night and Day (1946) or did Don Ameche look and sound like inventor Alexander Graham Bell in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)?

Bell actually had a Scottish accent that Ameche didn't even attempt to duplicate for the film. I am reserving judgment until the film is actually released.

Is no one concerned that actress Emma Thompson doesn't look and sound exactly like P. L. Travers?

I know for a fact that Tom Hanks made a sincere and extensive effort to contact everyone from Diane Disney Miller to studying films at the Disney Archives to talking to people who are still alive (like Disney Legend Floyd Norman) who actually saw and heard Walt to try to capture the spirit of Walt.

I am looking forward to the film and if I am disappointed it won't be because the filmmakers and performers didn't make every effort to tell as best they could a very interesting story.

We raised $3,000 to donate to Make-A-Wish so the SE Michigan Chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club (who were the hosts who brought me up, housed me and overfed me) bought me a seat in the theater. That's right. My birthday is tomorrow (August 15) so I considered it the best early birthday present I have ever received. It was totally unexpected.

In the second row, seat number B201, right near the theater organ, there is a brass plaque on the top of the seat with the name "Jim Korkis." As I told the audience when I was presented with this great honor, "You now know the answer to the question that over 90 percent of you had when you showed up tonight. Who is Jim Korkis? Jim Korkis is a seat in the Redford Theater."

On the Friday morning I arrived (at 3:30 a.m. after a seven-hour flight delay on Spirit Airlines for the direct flight), I started bright and early at 8 a.m. with three back-to-back radio interviews on local stations to promote the event, followed by a short segment on the Channel 7 Action News.

Obviously, I couldn't share the entire P.L. Travers story since the media want quick, snappy sound bites. So I had some fun facts up my sleeve and, while I am still trying to catch up from my trips over July, as well as presentations for a Youth Leadership Conference and a presentation at a local library after I returned, I thought MousePlanet readers might enjoy a peek at some of my notes filled with a few Mary Poppins fun facts:

Double Your Pleasure

Larri Thomas was Julie Andrews' stand-in as Mary Poppins. She has a small part as the beautiful lady in the carriage who blows a kiss to Bert the chimney sweep. Director Robert Wise asked Walt Disney if he could view some of the daily footage of Mary Poppins that was in the process of being filmed and, after seeing some of the scenes, he immediately offered Andrews the role of Maria Von Trapp in his movie The Sound of Music.

Thomas was also Andrews' stand-in for that film, notably the scene where the Captain and the Baroness are driving down the lane toward the villa. The Maria dangling out of a tree with the children is Thomas.

Don't Tell The Children

In order to get honest responses from the child actors, they were often not told what was about to happen. They were not told that the medicine that Mary Poppins pours would change color, so notice Karen Dotrice's surprise. They were not told that Mary would be pulling such an odd assortment of items out of her carpetbag. They were not told that it was Dick Van Dyke in makeup as the senior Mr. Dawes and they feared for the old man's health.

Who's That Voice?

Comic actor Don Barclay plays the role of "Binnacle," the first mate to Admiral Boom who lives next door to the Banks' family. Barclay was in his early 70swhen he did the role and had supplied his voice to several Disney animated features. He was the live action reference model for the character of Mr. Smee in the Disney animated feature Peter Pan although the character's voice was supplied by Bill Thompson, best known as the voice of J. Audubon Woodlore, the little ranger of Brownstone National Park.

His voice in Mary Poppins is supplied by David Tomlinson who played the father, Mr. George Banks. Tomlinson also did the voice of the parrot head handle on Mary Poppins' umbrella and several of the animated characters in the "Jolly Holiday" sequence, like a penguin waiter and the jockey who allows Mary Poppins to pass him in the race.

Father Knows Best

Many people know that the character of Mr. Banks was loosely based on P.L. Travers' memories of her father who worked in a bank and died from alcoholism when Travers was 7 years old. Walt was considering offering the father part to a host of different performers, including David Niven, Terry Thomas, James Mason, Richard Harris and George Sanders, among others. Writer Bill Walsh said he "put a little bit of Walt" into his interpretation of the father in the story, especially a father who struggled to spend enough time with his two children while handling business concerns.

Cherry Tree Lane

Cherry Tree Lane was built in Soundstage No. 3 at the Disney Studios in Burbank from the designs of art director William Tuntke. Tuntke told writer John G. West Jr., "I had to design the Banks' house as well as the entire street it was on. Where Mary Poppins made her entrance and all the way up to the Banks' house, I built the set full-scale. The Banks' house itself was 7/8ths scale. The next house was 3/4th scale. The next house was half scale. And the next one was 1/4th scale. And you would see these houses all receding.

"I got real cherry trees to line the street, and I had all the greensmen to put twigs on them and paper cherry blossoms. There were 18 trees in all, and they were decreasing scale, as well….in the background we used a couple of smaller people that would walk from one house to another."

Using those same designs that authentically captured the Edwardian era homes, Disney Imagineers duplicated some of the section for the Upper Regency Street area directly opposite the gazebo at the United Kingdom pavilion at Epcot's World Showcase. When Imagineer Marty Sklar first saw the section completed, he remarked, "That's wrong." The Imagineers struggled to figure out what was wrong until Marty finally pointed out, "If people are living there, there would be soot on the chimneys." Imagineering soot was added and has remained there for more than 30 y years.

Bird Lady

The song "Feed the Birds" was the first song written for the film and it was the last scene filmed. Walt Disney felt that the perfect actress to portray the role was Jane Darwell, who had retired from acting in 1959 and was living at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.

She had received an Academy Award for her role as the mother in the film The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Walt personally visited her to persuade her to perform one final time on screen, despite the fact that she was 83 years old and in frail health because of a heart problem.

Walt promised her it would be only one day of shooting and he sent a limo to pick up her and take her to the Disney Studios and then ferry her back after the scene. Her voice was so weak that her only two lines had to be enhanced by the voice of co-producer/writer Bill Walsh. Darwell died of a heart attack in 1967, ironically outliving Walt by half a year.

To make her more comfortable, a hole was cut into the steps of the Disney version of St. Paul's Cathedral and filled with pillows so that she would not have to sit on a hard surface.

By the way, it is now illegal to feed the birds at St. Paul's Cathedral because of the increase of the flock and its tendency to poop on everything making it a health hazard.

Bert's Accent

Over the years, actor Dick Van Dyke has been given a hard time, unfairly, for his somewhat unorthodox Cockney accent. The Disney Studios gave him a voice coach, actor J. Pat O'Malley, who besides portraying the butler in the Spin and Marty serials on the original Mickey Mouse Club did several voices for Disney animated cartoons including Cyril Proudbottom in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Colonel Hathi the leader of the elephants in Jungle Book (1967) and the Colonel and Jasper in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).

However, O'Malley was not Cockney. While he was born in England, his ancestry was Irish. So basically, an Irishman was trying to teach an American to speak Cockney. If you listen to O'Malley's attempts at Cockney in his animated voice-overs for Disney, Dick Van Dyke sounds very similar. Walt had originally considered offering the role to Anthony Newley, Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire or Tommy Steele among others. After he was shown an episode of the Dick Van Dyke television show, he was convinced that Van Dyke was the man for the job. Mary Poppins was filmed during the summer hiatus of Van Dyke's television show that was still in production.

Director Robert Stevenson

Stevenson had previously directed Disney films like Old Yeller (1957) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961). As a boy, he had grown up with an English nanny in an upper-middleclass in Edwardian England. Disney Legend Bill Walsh credited the director's attention to detail which often frustrated actor Dick Van Dyke when he was trying to perform, especially as a one-man band.

Walsh once said, "With Bob, you were always sure when the film finished that you had everything you needed; he covered it from all angles, so it was a cinch to cut together." In 1977, Variety called Stevenson "the most commercially successful director in the history of films" with 19 of his features making a list of all-time top grossing movies. He was nominated for a Directing Oscar for his work on the film but didn't win.

Peter Ellenshaw, who was responsible for doing roughly 100 matte paintings for the film, was also born in England and raised by a nanny and clashed with Emile Kuri who did set decoration for Mary Poppins because Ellenshaw felt that the interiors didn't look English enough. Walt backed Kuri.

Tony Walton, Julie Andrews' husband at the time, did some of interiors, as well, in addition to some of the costumes.

For The Birds

Disney Historian Scott Wolf did a wonderful interview with Imagineer Harriet Burns about creating the robins for Mary Poppins at this link.

I am going to summarize some of that story and add some additional information.

In the film, outside the Banks' house, is a nest with two robins. Walt felt that this would be a wonderful opportunity to include bird Audio-Animatronics into the film, especially after all the success of the Disneyland attraction, The Enchanted Tiki Room, which had opened in 1963, as the film was beginning production.

The robins needed to look real on the large screen but they were federally protected, so obtaining skins and feathers posed a challenge. Walt wrote to Washington, D.C. to get special permission, but never heard back.

It was discovered that a Los Angeles museum had drawers filled with bird skins preserved in arsenic, including robins from 1893.

Walt was desperate and the film was nearly half-completed, so how much was he willing to pay to get a precious robin skin? Walt actually got the skin at the cost of a handful of free Disneyland tickets.

If Julie Andrews' hand looks awkward in that scene, it is because she is wearing a ring to support the robin that connects to a wire that runs down her sleeve and to the floor where there were yards of wiring necessary for early Audio-Animatronics to perform movements, from flipping a tail to opening a beak to turning a head.

Andrews herself supplied the whistling for the bird (and the voice of the bird repeating a lyric from the song that was cut from the final film).

Walt had been impressed with her whistling during the song What Do The Simple Folk Do" in the Broadway production of the musical Camelot that he had seen and had convinced him to offer her the part of Mary Poppins.

These special robins survived the film and were incorporated into the 1964 New York World's Fair Disney attraction, The Carousel of Progress, in the first scene. However, Clarence "Ducky" Nash supplied the whistles for the birds in their new show.

One thing that few if any fans notice is that the robins are clearly American robins in terms of size and coloring, and not the European robins that are common in the United Kingdom.

Mary Poppins Attraction

Planned in 1971 for Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland at Walt Disney World Resort was a Mary Poppins attraction that would take the place of the popular Peter Pan Flight ride. Roy O. Disney himself cancelled those plans, feeling that the East Coast guests would want some of the same Disneyland park experiences.

One version of the attraction would have had guests on colorful carousel horse ride vehicles hopping through Bert's chalk drawings to be immersed in fanciful tableaus. Another version had flying umbrellas taking guests over the rooftops of London. Walt Disney Imagineering has dozens of Mary Poppins attractions concepts on its shelves, including one from Imagineer Tony Baxter that would have incorporated carousel horses.

Step In Time, Hal

Stanley Kubrick was said to have seen Mary Poppins three times while prepping 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ghost Voice

Marni Nixon supplied the singing voices for the three geese in the "Jolly Holiday" animated section. She also supplied the vocals for actress Audrey Hepburn in the film My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle sings. Julie Andrews originated the role on Broadway but was not cast by producer Jack Warner because he felt she was not well-enough known and apparently disliked her screen test so much that he destroyed it. Nixon taught classes at California Institute of the Arts from 1969–1971. She also dubbed Natalie Wood's singing in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I.

Caricatured Horses

The carousel horses were sculpted by Disney Legend Blaine Gibson, who may be best known for his "Partners" sculpture, as well as his work on Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and The Hall of Presidents. The faces of each horse were sculpted to be caricatures of their riders with Dick Van Dyke's horse's chin being especially prominent.

There were several other fun facts that I had in my bag of tricks, but I might just save those for next year, when the film celebrates its 50th anniversary.



  1. By The Blue Parrot

    Add another little item related to the Sound of Music. Marni Nixon appeared as Sister Sophia. She and Julie Andrews got on just fine together.

  2. By safmouse

    One of the most fascinating stories involve the links between Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, both of which came out in the same year and were nominated for Best Picture. There are lots of fun anecdotes, such as Andrews cussing out at Warner Bros while passing by their lot on the way to filming Mary Poppins, and her thanking Jack Warner when she won the Golden Globe Award. Andrews of course got her ultimate revenge at the Academy Awards that year.

    I think Andrews (not to mention us as the audience) got robbed by not getting cast as Eliza for My Fair Lady, given she defined the role on Broadway. What's especially galling is that they had to dub almost all of Hepburn's singing (Hepburn herself said she wouldn't have accepted the role had she known about this) when Andrews was at the height of her vocal powers. I also think Andrews fits the character better than Hepburn. But admittedly Mary Poppins is as nice a consolation prize as you can get!

    That story could be a good movie in itself!

  3. By carolinakid

    Marni Nixon also voiced Grandmother Fa in Mulan. Ms Nixon's bio is well worth reading, "I Could Have Sung All Night".

  4. By LtPowers

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    Marni Nixon also voiced Grandmother Fa in Mulan. Ms Nixon's bio is well worth reading, "I Could Have Sung All Night".

    Her singing voice, you mean? Grandmother Fa's speech was voiced by the legendary (and unmistakable) June Foray.

    Powers &8^]

  5. By carolinakid

    Yes, I should have specified her singing voice. Gracias!

  6. By davidgra

    I would have LOVED an attraction in which you rode on a carousel horse that jumped into the various chalk drawings!

  7. By zenifrax

    The Audio-Animatronic robin from the "Spoonful of Sugar" sequence in "Mary Poppins" later appeared in the Carousel of Progress show at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair (not "It's a Small World").

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