Practically perfect in every way, Walt Disney’s mega-hit, Mary Poppins, retains its full luster even now, upon its 50th anniversary. One of the unforgettable film’s choreographers, Dee Dee Wood, sat down with Guardian Liberty Voice for a look back at the ground-breaking film and her singular career.
As viewed today, the heart, warmth, smiles and sentiment of Mary Poppins remain intact and, well, perfect. Based on the lead character in a series of eight children’s books by P.L. Travers, the jewel of a film brings viewers into the mystical world of an angel-faced nanny with a most peculiar name (played by Julie Andrews) who improves the health of the dysfunctional Banks family in Edwardian London through the enchanting and profound introduction of song and magic into their life.
Meeting at her favorite coffee joint in her adopted hometown of Cave Creek, Arizona, the Emmy Award winner spoke of Mary Poppins, her work and friendships with top-tier talents like Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, John Denver and Sammy Davis, Jr. It was her previous work with Van Dyke that prompted the uber-likable comic actor to recommend Wood and her husband Marc Breaux to “Uncle Walt” Disney to design and coach the memorable dance numbers in the film.
Early in pre-production of Mary Poppins, Wood and Breaux were brainstorming possibilities for the film’s innovative combined live-action and animation sequence. In it, Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Mary Poppins, and the two Banks children sing, dance and frolic in a world of color and fantasy. Blocking through the choreography, Wood declared what a delight it would be to see Bert’s walking cane and Mary Poppins’ umbrella mimic their owners’ dance moves. Remarking “if only” such a thing were possible she was told “Dee Dee, never say anything can’t be done at Disney.”
As if being deep in the creation of some of the most memorable moments in film history were not enough, Wood and Breaux adopted their first child while deep in rehearsals. Breaux received exciting news early one morning and wanted to share it with his wife in a very creative way. Upon her arrival on a sound stage one morning she saw a stork painted by a Disney artist on an enormous mirrored wall. Painted next to it was “It’s A Boy!” This is how Dee Dee Wood learned of the birth of her first son, Michael.
Wood confirmed the accurate depiction of book author P.L. Travers in the film Saving Mr. Banks. “We were working through the live-action animation sequence,” she said, when Travers and “Uncle Walt” arrived. Wood, in a proper British accent, impersonated the appalled Travers with “Dancing Penguins? I don’t think so.”
Wood’s breakout work came in 1959’s Lil’ Abner, which landed her exuberant self on the cover of Life Magazine. After Mary Poppins, Wood and Breaux choreographed more monumental films, such as The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Dee Dee Wood recounts another memorable moment, this during the shooting of The Sound of Music. She and the film crew were waiting on a mountaintop in Austria to shoot Julie Andrews’ iconic mountaintop scene, singing and dancing to the title song, The Sound of Music. “We were waiting for the clouds below us to lift!” she gushed. “It was really, really, really beautiful.”
Dee Dee Wood and Marc Breaux first discovered the rural desert enclave that would eventually become home in 1960. While visiting Arizona in the early 1970s, Dick Van Dyke and his wife, Margerie, telephoned Wood and Breaux – who had not yet themselves moved to Arizona – to ask about the beloved village the couple retreated to so often. Cave Creek made an immediate impression and Van Dyke tendered an offer on a home there after only peering in its windows. CBS wanted Van Dyke back on the air so badly that it renovated a nearby television studio to accommodate the comic actor’s requirement to stay put in his new desert home. It was from Southwestern Studio, in neighboring Carefree, Arizona, that The New Dick Van Dyke Show emanated.
Wood’s best friend remains Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Chita Rivera. Wood choreographed three Superbowl halftime shows and, in 1984, the opening and closing ceremonies of Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Two years later came an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography. Dee Dee Wood is also known for her work on ABC Television’s critically-acclaimed Liberty Weekend celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Today, in addition to Mary Poppins and all else, Dee Dee Wood is well-known as an Emmy Award judge in current choreography.
Opinion by Gregory Baskin
Interview with Dee Dee Wood