With Saving Mr. Banks in theaters and the original Mary Poppins just released on home video, Disney’s beloved 1964 musical is enjoying something of a renaissance. In celebration of the new 50th anniversary edition release on home video, I was invited to participate in a special afternoon tea with actress Karen Dotrice, who played young Jane Banks in the original film. She’s all grown up now, with kids of her own, but her memories of that time are still fresh and fascinating. Imagine hearing stories about Walt Disney over tea and scones, from someone who knew him as kind of a father figure.
It’s not an opportunity that comes around often, so as you can imagine, we all peppered her with questions about the making of Mary Poppins, working with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, and, of course, her encounters with Disney himself. She took it all in stride, with typical British humor and humility.
Though Dotrice comes from a family of actors, she told us that traveling from her native England to Los Angeles to make the film was a bit of a shock. “Arriving here, a little girl from the Cotswolds of England, and suddenly just being in Los Angeles, everything seem[ed] huge and exciting and bright and sunny and everybody was just pleasant,” she recalls. “It was so amazing to come here and it’s such a different world. It really was like finding Oz or something.”
During the filming, Dotrice became accustomed to her Southern California surroundings and grew close to her co-stars. She has fond recollections of Julie Andrews coaching her on the songs and Dick Van Dyke making her laugh in-between takes.
But there was one cast member for whom she had no love–Matthew Garber, who played her brother Michael (and starred alongside her in two other films as well): “He was a real ounce of trouble-and-a-half,” she says of her fellow actor, who died in 1977. “It’s terrible because I wish I had a bunch of nice things to say about him, but we were kids. And I couldn’t stand him and he couldn’t stand me. That’s the truth of it. I was raised to be prim and proper and he was a naughty boy.”
But, let’s be honest, what we all really wanted to hear about was what it was like to hang out with Walt Disney. In a word, awesome. We’re talking flying-on-a-private-jet-with-an-on board-candy-store awesome. Dotrice did three films in a row for Disney, and during that time he took a parental interest in her, inviting her family on weekend jaunts to Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, and visiting her at home when she was sick and couldn’t work. The famous studio head may have had his faults, but to a young child actress far away from home, they weren’t readily apparent. “He was just so kind and nice to me, and very encouraging,” Dotrice says of the legendary studio head. “He really liked me and I was really, really lucky.”
One of my favorite anecdotes she shared demonstrates that Disney wasn’t just a shrewd businessman, he had a sense of humor too.
“One time I was in Walt’s office, just sitting on his desk or what have you, chewing the fat,” she says. “And I said, ‘Uncle Walt, I’ve got an idea. Your desk. It’s so far away from the door. Let’s get somebody to come and I’ll help and we can move the desk closer to the door.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Oh, Karen, let me explain something to you.’ He said, ‘I keep my desk over here because by the time those cigar-chewing executives have crossed the room to ask me what they wanted to ask me, they’ve changed their mind.'”
After production wrapped on Mary Poppins Dotrice says that she stayed in contact with many of the friends she made on the production. Van Dyke is still her neighbor, and Andrews used to live around the corner. She often has composer Richard Sherman over for dinner, which typically ends with everyone standing around the piano listening to his famous tunes.
“I can’t say that about any other projects,” she says of the camaraderie she experienced on Mary Poppins. “There was something so magical about that project that everybody stayed together. It wasn’t even so much because it became well known; it was just, you know, they made us a family at the time, and treated us like family.”
But over the years, Dotrice has shifted her focus from her Hollywood family to her real-life one. She quit acting professionally in the early 1980s to devote more time to what she still considers her proudest role–devoted mother.
“I just revere being a mom,” she says. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had, including Mary Poppins.”