Uncle Walt: Karen Dotrice Nalle reflects on Disney and her iconic role as Jane Banks in ‘Mary Poppins’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
She called him “Uncle Walt.”
Decades after his passing, Walt Disney is a bit of an unknowable figure for modern audiences — families who have grown up with the classic films he helped create.
For most people who watch “Snow White,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio” and more, the man who made it all possible is simply a legendary figure. They have no sense of the human being at his core.
It isn’t like that for Karen Dotrice Nalle. Born in Guernsey on the Channel Islands, Dotrice Nalle was the daughter of two actors and ended up becoming part of the family business almost by accident.
After being sighted by a Disney scout in a play, she was brought to California with her family to work in the company’s films. There, she came to see the then-53-year-old Disney as a bit of a father figure — one who treated his young stars with respect befitting another adult.
One day, she was visiting Disney in his office when inspiration struck. “I said to him, ‘You know, Uncle Walt, your desk is so far away from the door where people come in. And I’ve got a great idea. I can help you,’” Dotrice Nalle said in an interview with Toledo Free Press.
“’Why don’t we move your desk closer to the door, so you won’t have so far to walk?’
“And he was great, because he didn’t treat me like a kid. And he said, ‘Karen, let me tell you something; it’s over here for a reason. Because by the time those cigar-chewing executives have had to cross the floor and get to my desk, they’ve changed their mind about what they were going to ask me.’”
Dotrice Nalle was only 8 years old when she was chosen in 1964 to star in what had become a passion project for Disney — his long-gestating adaptation of P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins.” Karen was cast as Jane, one of the Banks children, in what would become a smash hit that made her a recognizable face worldwide.
“I feel very blessed. Disney gave me a gift. He picked me out of the blue. It could have been any other little girl. And I made three films for them, and they were always such happy experiences,” Dotrice Nalle said. “What kid wants to miss out on magic? He was magic, the set was magic, everything that he did for us.”
It was remarkable rise for a young performer who didn’t necessarily ever want to be an actress.
“I didn’t really want to participate, actually. It was the family firm — we could have been dentists, we happened to be actors. I don’t know if there’s many 5-year-olds who say, ‘Ooh, mummy, I want to be a dentist.’ Or an actor. I just sort of fell into it. I had a great time, absolutely.
“Ultimately, it just wasn’t for me. I’m kind of a private person, so being out there in front of people wasn’t my ultimate cup of tea,” Dotrice Nalle said.
“I was really lucky. So I feel a bit of an ingrate, because I sort of got everything — which is kind of unfortunate that I didn’t want it more. I loved the fans, I loved the crew, I loved being on set. But the whole notion of being an actress just wasn’t for me.”
She left acting at a young age with an eye on becoming a mother (she eventually had three children), though she has never quite ended her connection with Hollywood. She married producer Edwin Nalle in 1994 and still lives in Los Angeles — strictly for the weather, she insists with a chuckle.
“As an adult, having made a specific choice that — OK, that was fun, quit while you’re ahead — I’ve always been surrounded by the business. I’m married to a guy who’s a TV producer, my family are actors still . So I’ve never left the profession, and I never want to. I think it’s the most exciting game there is.”
But with the 50th anniversary of “Mary Poppins” upon us, Dotrice Nalle is beginning to reconnect with the memories of her past. For the first time, she’ll be doing a few appearances at conventions and other events in the days to come. She recently attended a screening of “Poppins” at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood — the first time she’d actually seen the whole movie, believe it or not. And she was also at the premiere of “Saving Mr. Banks” — which inspired new reflections on a wonderful time of her life, and the caring, childlike man who made it possible.
“He didn’t baby you, or talk down to any of his actors — and I know Hayley Mills felt the same way,” Dotrice Nalle recalled. “I think he was more our age than his own age.
“What a gift to be given in life, considering I am a nontheatrical type of person. What a gift to be given, that somebody is ever going to remember me for something.”
Tags: Fantasia, Guernsey on the Channel Islands, Hayley Mills, Karen Dotrice Nalle, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins”, Pinocchio, producer Edwin Nalle, Saving Mr. Banks, Snow White, TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Uncle Walt, Walt Disney