Pete Menefee, who was one of the fabulous, dancing, chimney sweeps in the Disney Classic Mary Poppins, and who has had a fabulous life and career both before and since, sat down for an interview while I was at the red carpet event for the premiere of Disney’s Frozen last month. This is the 50th anniversary of the film “Mary Poppins” (available for the first time in Blu-ray December 10) and Mr Menefee generously shared about his time working on the film. I enjoyed the interview tremendously and I think you will, too.
Here is some of what he said in his own words.
[Please note: Everything he said was fascinating and I wish I could print it all here, but it would be the equivalent of 27 pages long. So if any of it doesn’t make sense, it’s my fault, not his. Stuff in parenthesis is mine for clarification.]
The Chimney Scene
“There were 12 of us and everybody that’s on it is a really good trained dancer and … everybody had to be able to tumble. (In) the section jumping into the chimney puffs…(you would) jump-split and then you tuck in and pull your knees up and the (technical) guy (below) would trip the chimney and you’d fall into it…and hit a mattress …I used to have nightmares about it.
…It was like eight feet …That wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was the chimney opening wasn’t that big. And I don’t have a big chin but I used to have nightmares that I had tucked and I would clip my chin… I mean I used to literally wake up sweating about it. …we came in the second day and Didi said I want everybody before we get into makeup to sit down….she said ‘there’s a scratch (on the film) on all of the stuff from yesterday.’ We have to do it all over again…you’d gone home that first day and gone, oh, man I never have to jump in another chimney for the rest of my life… when you’re tumbling, even if you’re young and even if you’re 21 and even if you’re good at it, there’s just so many times you can do it safely.
…So the second day was a copy of the first day. It was all the rough stuff….the first time … we went in too fast and somebody didn’t tuck and roll fast enough and we ended up with like five of us in the chimney
….But it was a great job to work on. …We knew the dance number was special because ….Walt would come (and) the number got longer and that doesn’t happen in movies. …Didi and Mark would say…look at the guys going into the chimneys and he’d go that’s great. That’s gotta be in the number. I don’t know how they dealt with it… as far as time and budget …(but) Walt was… fabulous about it…you don’t get choreography that good every day.”
“…I came back and I was part of the crew that did the folly work on the movie. Folly work is dubbing the feet, the sounds of the feet …The second number we did was Jolly Holiday….we came in and we started doing the penguins and the sound people have flippers for us, swim fins.
And so we would try to tap dance with flippers and, you know, they weren’t happy, we weren’t happy. So they said, well let’s get the floor wet. It doesn’t sound like penguins. So they wet the floor and we danced with flippers on a wet floor and we danced on sawdust …
….we broke for lunch and we came back from lunch and I was standing in front of the mike with Bruce Hoy and I said,…their food is so terrific here and Bruce pulled his shirt up and he said, it’s great. And somebody went “who made that noise near the microphone?” So, when you see the penguins, think of five dancers with their shirts up going . That’s how all the tap dancing was done.”
Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and Saving Mr. Banks
“Wonderful people. Julie is funny. Just the funniest, funniest, funniest woman. Wonderful sense of humor and Dick was charming, … I’m so glad they did the movie and are captured in it ‘cause it’s really terrific. I didn’t know that there had been any fuss with the lady who wrote Mary Poppins so I’m anxious to see the new movie (Saving Mr. Banks) ‘cause as gypsies we were kicking and clapping on the rooftops. Nobody said, she’s having a problem with chimney sweeps and pictures in the cement and stuff, but, it was great. It was terrific….”
Thank you, Pete, for taking the time to share your wonderful stories.