Talking with Julie Andrews - She'll be in Memphis on Friday doing one of her favorite things: raising money for cancer research
Mary Poppins was perhaps more qualified as a disciplinarian, educator and magic-maker than as a pharmacist. But if a spoonful of sugar is not always enough to make the medicine go down, there's still wisdom in the message of the nanny's famous song.
In recent years, Julie Andrews -- Mary Poppins herself -- has essentially functioned as that spoonful of sugar, lending her name, celebrity and positivity to the promotion of worthy causes involving subjects that many people would just as soon not think about: cancer, childhood disease, and so on.
Friday, Andrews will be the guest speaker at the Fifth Annual Methodist Healthcare Cancer Center Luncheon at The Peabody. The fund-raiser will benefit the education and research efforts at the Methodist University Hospital-based center, which treats all forms of cancer and provides services for the physical and emotional needs of cancer patients and their families.
"It's never far away, the concern about cancer, the fact that so many families suffer from it in one way or another," Andrews said in a recent phone interview from the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband of almost 37 years, Blake Edwards, director of the original "Pink Panther" films.
But Andrews said her talk Friday will be entertaining, not solemn. She will show film clips to illustrate her career (including humorous bloopers), and tell "some lovely tales of the silly things and the crazy things that have happened to me along the way. And I'll talk a little bit about the things that I'm passionate about."
A few of her favorite things include, of course, music in general and singing specifically. "Music is my passion, but once I got to Broadway and began to branch out in things like 'My Fair Lady' and 'Camelot,' I think I developed as an actress. So now I say I'm a singer who acts or an actress who sings."
Growing up in England, Andrews was "a vaudeville child brat," she says. Her mother and stepfather were in vaudeville, and "they discovered I had this sort of freak soprano voice with a great range. I started training when I was about 8, and I was singing professionally by age 12.
"I think it was a gift," Andrews says of her voice. "I do believe that. I've been unbelievably fortunate and lucky, and obviously a lot of hard work went into cultivating that voice."
By 18, Andrews was a star-in-the-making in America, preparing for the lead in her first Broadway musical, "The Boy Friend"; she turned 19 the day after the hit play opened in 1954. Two years later, she was Eliza Doolittle in the smash "My Fair Lady," which became the longest-running play in Broadway history at that time. Its soundtrack album sold 3 million copies, making it the most successful album of its era. Andrews followed "Lady" with another triumph, the role of Guinevere in "Camelot."
When she lost the lead in the 1964 film version of "My Fair Lady" to Audrey Hepburn, she agreed to star in "Mary Poppins" for Walt Disney. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. (Hepburn wasn't nominated.) The next year she cemented her status as America's most beloved family-friendly star in "The Sound of Music," the biggest box-office hit since "Gone with the Wind."
Dramatic movie roles (Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain"), expensive flops (the musicals "Star!" and "Darling Lili") and hits (she earned her third Best Actress nomination for her husband's "Victor/Victoria" in 1982) followed. She also became a familiar face on television, often appearing with her good friend Carol Burnett.
Because of that friendship, Andrews helped launch Pasadena Playhouse's Carrie Hamilton Theatre, named for Burnett's daughter, who died at age 38 in 2002 after a struggle with drug addiction and lung and brain cancer.
"It was a terrible tragedy for Carol and her daughter," Andrews said of Hamilton's illness. "To be honest with you, something like cancer is close to all our hearts."
She said she usually only accepts six to eight speaking engagements a year, but she is no stranger to Memphis, thanks to the city's importance as a medical center. In fact, Andrews was in town two years ago for an event in support of Target House, the home-away-from-home for the families of children receiving treatment at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She said she was deeply touched by her meetings at Target House with "children who desperately need help and care."
Andrews herself has rarely sung since an operation 10 years ago to remove (non-cancerous) nodes from her famous vocal cords. (She later sued the surgeons, reaching an out-of-court settlement rumored to be in the millions.) However, she now runs a publishing imprint dedicated to children's books, The Julie Andrews Collection, which "in a way has allowed me to employ a different voice."
The books in the collection -- which can be viewed at julieandrewscollection.com -- are written by various authors (including Andrews herself) and include such titles as "The Great American Mousical," about a troupe of theatrical mice that lives beneath Broadway.
Andrews -- who renewed her popularity recently with appearances in the two "Princess Diaries" movies -- said she tries to keep up with the latest Broadway plays as much as possible.
"I think we're in an upswing now, with wonderful, joyous musicals like 'Spamalot' and 'The Producers' -- musicals that are a lot of fun."
Finally, because Andrews is coming to Memphis, it seemed appropriate to ask: Did she ever meet that famous musical star whose career roughly paralleled her own, Elvis Presley?
"No -- I wish," she said. "My husband did. But, of course, we all felt like we knew him intimately."
Tickets to the 11:45 a.m. fund-raiser with Julie Andrews are $100 each. Tables also can be purchased. The event includes a fall fashion show, presented by Laurelwood Shopping Center.
For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Methodist Healthcare Foundation at 516-0500.
Julie Andrews in Memphis
What: Fifth Annual Methodist Healthcare Cancer Center Luncheon with guest speaker Julie Andrews
When: 11:45 a.m. Friday
Where: Grand Ballroom, The Peabody
Tickets: $100 each; tables also can be purchased
Call: Methodist Healthcare Foundation, 516-0500.