Over Walt Disney’s long and storied career, he has left the World more memorable characters, both cartoon and human, that any other artist. Mickey Mouse, his most famous is what launched his company into stardom. But in addition to those lovable cartoon folks, there are also hundreds of artists and performers just as famous. One such person is Julia Elizabeth Wells. You might recognize her more famous name…Julie Andrews. She was born on October 1st, 1935 in Surry England. However, her early childhood was not as magical as her career would be later in life. Her Mother was Barbara Ward Wells and was married to Edward Charles Wells. But Julia was a product of an affair her mother had with a friend.
When World Word II began, Barbara and Edward soon separated. Thanks to an organization called the Entertainments National Service Association, Barbara was entertaining the troops along with Ted Andrews, another artist. As soon as the Edward and Barbara divorced, she married Ted Andrews. Little Julia lived with her father for a time and the little girl was extremely talented. Because of her voice, her father sent her to live with her mother and step-father, because he knew they had the means to pay for Julia’s singing voice lessons. Even so, the family was considered poor. They lived in a slum area of London. When the careers of Barbara and Ted Andrews started to climb, so did their social standing. As their fortunes improved, Julia’s step-father Ted began lessons for her; first at the Cone-Ripman School and then later with the famous Lilian Stiles-Allen, a famous soprano and voice instructor. Julie Andrews would later say that…”she was my third Mother”, “She had an enormous influence on me.” And Lilian would later say of Julie…”The range, accuracy and tone of Julie’s voice amazed me” “She possessed the rare gift of Absolute Pitch.”
Young Julie Andrews began her career performing onstage with her parents for two years starting in 1945. Her big break came when British TV producer Val Parnell met her through her step-father. Her professional debut was in the London Hippodrome on October 22nd, 1947. On November 1st, 1948 Julie became the youngest performer at the annual Royal Command Variety Performance which played at the London Palladium, Great Britain’s most prestigious theater. Soon Julie began performing in radio and television with her parents. As her fame grew, she attracted the attention of theaters in America.
Andrews made her American stage debut on September 30th, 1954 in the London musical “The Boy Friend” She played the character of Polly Browne. She was a hit with the audience and the critics, who considered her a stand-out performer. But the most important break for Julie was at the end of The Boy Friend, she was asked to audition for the Play “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Learner and Frederick Loewe, and got the part. She also auditioned for a part it the musical “Pipe Dream” by Richard Rogers. Rogers wanted her for the part, but advised her to take the part in My Fair Lady if still available. This was the vehicle that Andrews rode to stardom. The Play premiered on March 15th, 1956 at New York’s Mark Hellinger theater, then over to the Broadhurst and finally the Broadway Theater. Julie played the part of Eliza Doolittle until March 3rd, 1958 when Sally Ann Howes, another British actor, took over. Rodgers was so impressed with Andrews that he featured her in a live television musical, “Cinderella” on March 31st, 1957
Andrews married on May 10th, 1959 to Tony Walton, a set designer, in Weybridge, Surry England. The follow year, 1960, the team of Learner and Loewe cast her in another musical, “Camelot.” She played the part of Queen Guinevere alongside such notables as Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. It was this musical that brought her to the attention of Mr. Walt Disney.
Walt Disney had been very interested in the book “Mary Poppins” by P.L. Travers as early as 1943. Walt asked his brother Roy to contact her directly instead of going through an agent, to acquire the rights to the book so he could make the book into a film. She was living in New York at the time, and during the talks, Roy saw she was curious, but with the war on, did not want to make a commitment at the time. He left Travers with the notion that Walt was “intrigued” with the book. It was not until after the war in 1946 that the studio and Travers made an agreement for the rights to Poppins for $10,000.00. But the deal fell through when Travers insisted on complete script approval. Walt would not grant this to anyone.
Thirteen years would pass before an agreement was reached between Walt and Travers. But she proved difficult in every way through-out the entire production, changing her mind on many items, even the way the script was written, even to the actors playing the parts. In March of 1961, Walt and Lillian saw the stage musical “The Sound of Music” starring Mary Martin. Walt decided he wanted Martin for the Role of Mary Poppins. But Travers objected to her also. It was in August when Walt saw the musical “Camelot” in New York. He was so taken with Julie Andrews’s talent; he decided that she, not Mary Martin would play Poppins. Andrews was still a relative “Unknown” at the time, but had starred in the Broadway Play “My Fair Lady”
For a year Walt stayed in contact with Andrews, offering her the role. He invited her to the studio so he could present the whole production to her, hoping that would help her make the decision. Andrews and her husband spent the weekend with Walt in June of 1962, but Julie was pregnant at this time, and Walt said they would wait. But Andrews was hesitant to commit to this, her first film. But what helped her decide was the fact that Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers studios had recently bypassed her for the role of Eliza Doolittle in the screen version of “My Fair Lady” because he thought since nobody has heard of her, the film would fail. Poppins was the perfect vehicle to build her image. The film turned out to be on of Walt Disney’s very best and beloved works. It incorporated both animation and live action. The film cost $5.2 million, but grossed nearly $50 Million around the world and $30 million in the US alone. The film was nominated for thirteen Oscars, including best picture. It won five, best special visual effects, best score, best song (Chim Chim Cher-ee, best editing and best actress (Julie Andrews). In 1965 she won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. During her acceptance speech, she said “And, finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place, Mr. Jack Warner.” That was probably a dig to Warner who passed her over in the film version of My Fair Lady.
Julie Andrews went on with many other memorable roles in her career. “The Americanization of Emily”, “The Sound of Music” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” By 1967 she was the world’s most successful film star. She appeared in Universal’s biggest and second biggest films, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Tom Curtain.” Broadways, biggest Musical, “My Fair Lady”, the most-watched TV special, “Cinderella”, the biggest film in 20th Century Fox’s history, “The Sound of Music”, and one of the top hits in Disney History… “Mary Poppins.”
It would be another 37 years before Julie would work in a Disney film. She appeared as Queen Clarisse Renaldi in “The Princess Diaries and again in 2004 in the “Princess Diaries 2” Royal Engagement. Other Disney works were two Television movies based on the Eloise Books, in “Eloise at the Plaza” and “Eloise at Christmastime.” She also appeared on the “Grand Opening of Walt Disney World “a television special in 1971. She was the company spokesman for Disneyland during its 50th anniversary in 2005. Her final Disney honor…She was named a Disney Legend in 1991.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.