BY KRISTOPHER KYER
In October of 2012, my agent had me drive 43 miles to the Firestone Ranch in Agua Dulce, California where they were filming a 1906 river scene for the feature film Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. I kept driving down this one lane, loooooong dirt road way off the highway. Upon arrival to this barren set in the middle of nowhere, they were filming a scene in a stream (they even had to heat the water), in which Emma Thompson’s character, P.L. Travers, was growing up in Australia. I was escorted to a trailer by a crew member, where two of us were to audition for the role of a Dick Van Dyke-alike. The film, set in the 1960s, tells how Walt Disney wooed writer Travers for the film rights to her book, Mary Poppins. I would be playing the legendary Dick Van Dyke, in a re-creation of the 1964 premiere of the film version of Mary Poppins, which was going to be shot in front of the then Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where the actual premiere took place nearly 50 years ago.
The crew member took us up the knoll to meet the producers on this dark, cloudy, blustery day. The two female British writers/producers proceeded to ask us both questions. I went right into my Van Dyke facial expressions and persona that I had done in a DVLA commercial in England. My agent had sent the casting director my audition tape ahead of time . They asked us if we had played DVD before. The other fella said he had played him in parades at Disney parks years ago. He had the height, but I don’t think he looked like DVD. Since the ladies were Brits, I immediately told them about my Chitty Chitty Bang Bang commercial that ran in England some years ago, and they remembered it. They really were trying to find the closest face to Dick Van Dyke possible, but the role would only be in the actual film for a few seconds at the re-creation of the premiere on the red carpet. We were escorted back to the trailer, and the crew member came in minutes later and let the other fella go home, and I was brought into hair and makeup to be approved.
It started to pour rain as I walked back to my car through the mud on the ranch. I got the call from my agent a few days later that I had gotten the job. I was instructed to have my hair lightened to match Dick’s. A day later I was in a chair and the lovely lady who did my hair had done all of the hair coloring on the film The Hunger Games.
The shoot was Friday, October 26, 2012. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day/evening, weather-wise. I was to report at 10:15 a.m. to “Base Camp,” as they refer to the actual area located for the trailers near the set. We were in the heart of Hollywood, and Base Camp was located in a parking lot immediately behind the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Blvd. I was put in makeup right away and had my hair cut extremely short to match DVD’s. While getting my hair cut, an older woman in pin curls sat down in the chair next to me. A few moments later she exclaimed in an authentic British voice, “Oh my god, you’re Dick Van Dyke!” Not recognizing her, I laughed and retorted in my best British accent, “Yes how did you guess, and what is your name, love?” She put out her hand immediately and said, “I’m Emma!” At that point I realized it was Emma Thompson, who was playing P.L. Travers in the film! Her hair was done differently for the role, and since she wasn’t wearing any makeup, I didn’t recognize her. I doubt I would have been as “cheeky” had I recognized her. As we were both being made up, someone asked what kind of music we wanted to hear. Emma said Mary Poppins, and sure enough, seconds later, the original film soundtrack was playing in the trailer. With “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” playing in the background, I proceeded to ask Emma about the film and her role. She felt it was an important story of how troubled and strident P.L. Travers was and rough childhood she had growing up in early 1900’s Australia. Evidently, Travers based the father character, Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, on her relationship with her actual cold father.
I was then transported by van to the holding area, located in an empty old musty night club which was no longer open. The place was filled with hundreds of extras in tuxedos and women in sixties makeup and gowns, all looking very authentic. There was a long line of background people: men waiting to get their hair cut and women in curls waiting to get their hair done. I got dressed in my Western Costume tux and was introduced to a young British actress, Victoria Summer, who, though she was a little tall, was a dead ringer for Julie Andrews. We hit it off and began talking about how we got our parts. Bill Dance was the casting director on this film. Bills is a pro, a jovial man, with tons of East Coast energy, and a fine acting teacher.
They escorted us around the corner to the Chinese Theater, where we were entered through a side door. I had been in the theater many times, once taking a tour, and just a few weeks ago had gone to see a screening of The Wizard of Oz. Large blue lights were used to simulate moving light on our faces while we were supposedly watching the film. They kept moving us to different quadrants/sections as a huge group, which in post-editing would be made to look like one big audience. Tom Hanks, playing Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson, as P.L. Travers, sat next to each other, saying their lines over and over for each take. It is a dramatic scene, as P.L. was overcome with emotion when watching certain scenes in the film, which revived childhood memories. The real Travers apparently didn’t like the film much, nor that evening’s festivities.
We got to watch snippets of Poppins on the big screen over and over. They were magical scenes I had witnessed as a boy growing up in Muskegon, Michigan. I always idolized Dick Van Dyke but never thought that one day I would resemble him. The “Jolly Holiday” musical sequence scene was played over and over and we as an audience were supposed to laugh as if we were seeing it for the first time. Sitting there, it was eery imagining that decades before, this actual premiere occurred exactly where I was sitting!
Kris Kyer’s memories of Saving Mr. Banks will conclude tomorrow.
Kristopher Kyer is currently starring in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.