One of the famous scenes in Mary Poppins is the one with all the chimney sweepers dancing on the rooftops and singing “Step In Time”. Have you ever thought about what it was really like to be a part of that number or what physical demands it required? Pete Menefee, one of the dancers, shed some light on what really went on with Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and more behind-the-scenes. The way he described it, I’m surprised there weren’t any loss of limbs on set!
Mary Poppins’ “Step In Time” Preparation & Choreography
Walt Disney was there every day during rehearsals and he knew everyone’s names. Well, they did wear name tags but, since it was so hot there in the valley, the guys were allowed to rehearse in just their swim trunks. Julie Andrews was described as ‘the funniest woman’ while Dick van Dyke was ‘charming’ and extremely talented.
A special set was built in the Disney back lot for the 12 well-trained dancers to rehearse on.
The entire set that you see, all the rooftops, all the chimney tops, all the railings, everything was built as a floating unit because they didn’t really know until they set the dance number what the configuration of the rooftop was gonna be.
You know all those tricks and stunts? Those weren’t effects – the dancers really did those! No wonder they were all required to be good tumblers as well.
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 and it’s grim. It is grim.
The chimneys were metal chutes, about 8′ high, with rubber around the top and a cutout at the bottom. When it was time for them to jump into the chimney, they had to quickly pull up their knees and drop down through the cutout, landing on a mattress below.
The bad part was the chimney opening wasn’t that big . . . I used to have nightmares that I had tucked and I would clip my chin, my teeth, my nose. I used to literally wake up sweating about it.
The brooms were specially made and had rubber on the end to do trick. Rehearsals were always on a plywood floor but the real shoot ended up being on cobblestone.
All of a sudden we get out and we’re on a cobblestone street. There were supposed to be four of us tumbling right next to each other. When you’d put the broom down, even if it had a rubber point, you’d be all over the place.
As for the pipes, that was a whole other ordeal.
There’s one thing that looks very simple. It’s about ten of us and we’re running after each other and we’re running up chimney pipes. They were literally just pipes with a pad on the top and they went up to like eighteen feet. It was with somebody in front of you and somebody in back of you and you’re doing it this fast. I was scared to death of that.
They did all the hard choreography with the chimneys on the first day and all finished without major injury. They could then go home relieved that they’d never have to jump in a chimney again. Until they found out there was a scratch on the film for the whole scene.
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. Anyway, we all decided to do it. Everybody just went, you know, might as well get it over. So the second day was a copy of the first day.
Out of all the jobs Pete did as a gypsy (what dancers were called since they went from project to project), his work on Mary Poppins was the most involved, the most difficult, and also the most special.
Pete has had a rich career with many extraordinary opportunities. Being a dancer made him extremely flexible in more ways than one. Having the ability to remember things quickly by rote and then being able to repeat them in even the slightest detail was an asset in his future work. This includes costume design. He’s had the chance to work with countless movie/theater/music stars, practically all the ice shows, and so much more.
I’m retired now for a year but I’ve designed for 44 years.
Interviewing Pete Menefee
When we were first scheduled to interview Mr. Menefee, I was a bit confused. He was a dancer in Mary Poppins but what else would could we ask him about? The funny thing was, it became a question of what could we NOT ask him. Pete was such a joy to chat with and, man, he has some amazing experiences to share! Thank you for taking the time to share even just a portion of those with us 🙂
Mary Poppins 50th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD comes out December 10th!
I was invited on an all-expense paid media trip as a guest of Disney and in honor of the FROZEN movie. All opinions are my own.