Chim chiminey . . . My Interview with Pete Menefee, Chimney Sweep, from Mary Poppins

Disclosure: This event and trip to LA was an all expense paid journey sponsored by Disney. All thoughts, ideas, and ramblings are 100% my own!

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My interview with Pete Menefee started with him telling us about his life in the movies:

I turned 21 the same year we shot Mary Poppins so I’m not gonna lie to anybody. I’m 71 now. I started working as a dancer professionally when I was fourteen and I was in Wes Side by the time I was 17. Doing the movie of Bye Bye Birdie by the time I was 18. It was my first film here in Hollywood. I played Harvey Johnson in the movie and Poppins was two years after we shot Birdie. I, I had worked in television. I did a lot of beach party movies. I did five movies with Elvis.

I was assistant choreographer on two of them and by the time I got to be in mid 20s I, uh, it dawned on me finally that this was a young person’s racking. That you know, you weren’t gonna be jumping down chimneys when you were 37 years old and I decided to try something else and I could always draw. I’ve always been able to draw since I was a very, very small child before school really.

At fourteen, I bought my first car. I put myself through college or two years out of it, anyway. And, even in school, in college my major was Slavics and my minor was political science. I wanted to be a diplomatic interpreter. You can see how well that turned out.

I am always a person who believes that you have to understand where a person came from. Pete Menefee definitely has led an interesting life. A few of things he has worked on:

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I started out as a sketch artist right across the street at NBC as a staff sketch artist and became a costume designer. Poppins was shot in 63. In 73, ten years later, I was dressing Julie for the opening special at Walt Disney World in Florida. I opened Walt Disney World for Walt.

I’m retired now for a year but I’ve designed for 44 years and one of the things that is still running is Jubilee in Vegas which is a Cabaret show. The last thing I did was redesign Titanic for these folks two years ago on a 30 second anniversary of the show which was really thrilling. A lot of the shows that I’ve done, I’ve done for a very, very long time. I did a series of TV specials called Circus of the Stars for 18 years. I did Miss Universe for 19 years. I’ve done three Olympics.

I’ve done a lot of rock and roll. I did all the Motown stuff. I’ve done Diana. I did the Pips, the Tops, the Jackson Five, Michael, everybody and this was my favorite, favorite group to work on.

I’ve won three Emmys. I’ve been nominated for five of them.

His work on Mary Poppins:

They had auditions here in New York. Walt was there every day, every single day. Walt, he knew everybody’s name. We had to wear the name tags but we were allowed to rehearse in swim trunks because it was blazing hot back there.

The brooms (that you see in the movie) were made them specially for us. They’re metal and the end of them have a rubber tip on it so that you can do walkovers and tricks.

Three guys really did do flip flops between two buildings. It means that you’re throwing yourself over and catching yourself on your hands three times with a 15 foot drop below you. (Note from me: this just gives me heart palpitations just thinking about it.)

The section jumping into the chimney puffs was done with a technical person underneath each of our chimneys and the chimney was solid with a cutout. You would do the section and jump split and do, do the section again and jump split and the third time you jump split and then you tuck in and pull your knees up. The guy would trip the chimney and you’d fall into it and you’d fall and hit a mattress on the door front roll. I used to have nightmares about it. It was like eight feet. It was like eight feet which is a long. That wasn’t the bad part. The bar part was the chimney opening wasn’t that big.

On some of the sound work:

The second number that we did was Jolly Holiday. It’s the number where Dick was on the sidewalk and they (the penguins) jump into it. We would try to tap dance with flippers and it didn’t work. We broke for lunch and we came back. I was standing in front of the mike with Bruce Hoy and I said, god their food is so terrific here and Bruce pulled his shirt up and he said, [TAPS STOMACH] it’s great. Somebody went who made that noise near the microphone? So, when you see the penguins, think of five dancers with their shirts up going [TAPS STOMACH]. That’s how all the tap dancing was done.

His thoughts on the film itself:

For most of us it was a job. It was your gig that summer but it was — we knew that it was special when we were doing it. You don’t get choreography that good every day.

I loved this interview. You don’t often get the behind the scenes look at such a classic like Mary Poppins. I can honestly say I will never watch this movie the same again!

What did you learn from my interview that you didn’t know before?

Comments

  1. says

    What a cool character. Pete Menefee has lived an amazing life. I love that he changed his career, but stayed with Disney. You are so lucky you got to interview such a cool character.

  2. says

    Oh wow! This was a brilliant read. I have always adored Mary Poppins, and I played roles and studied in some of these musicals he describes. As a dancer, it is amazing for me to read such in depth discussions regarding how they worked things back then, in dance made for film. Although I have to say, I am 37 and still dancing … though I don’t see myself jumping chimney tops anytime soon! Perhaps that’s a self-induced challenge…

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