Dee Dee Wood, 87, is the genius behind the dance numbers in Mary Poppins as well as The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, plus countless television specials, not to mention Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime show and the 1984 opening and closing Olympic ceremonies. The dancer-turned-choreographer worked with a cavalcade of superstars ranging from Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews to Bing Crosby, Robin Williams, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, and the list goes on.
The Saturday Evening Post: How did you get your first break as a dancer?
Dee Dee Wood: In my 20s, I auditioned for renowned Broadway stage choreographer Michael Kidd. This was for the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. I completely blew the audition. I had never danced before in high heels, and I wasn’t used to it, but I wanted that job and I was determined to get it. I waited outside the audition studio for three hours while all these other talented people went in and out. When Michael finally came out, I asked him why I didn’t get it, and he told me to go home and practice dancing in heels and come back and try again. I did and I got it. It was the beginning of a great working relationship and friendship. He asked me to be his assistant in 1959’s Li’l Abner. Then I played the lead in the movie version.
SEP: Which is your favorite of all the movies you worked on or danced in?
DW: Mary Poppins, hands down. It was like working with family. Walt Disney was like a grandfather, who was brilliant. And everybody else was like brothers and sisters. Then of course working with Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, and all those talented dancers made it so special. And I got to play a penguin! I was the fourth penguin in the “Penguin Dance.” We filmed dancers performing the steps before animators drew them. That’s actually my voice screaming “Wee!” as the penguins turn around during the number, because every time I would make that turn in rehearsal I would yell out. But meeting the great Walt Disney was the best part. I still remember one day back in 1963 when we were filming Poppins, we saw Walt just sitting on the curb on the street outside his office, just like a regular guy. So then he calls us over, very excited, and points to a Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist and says, “I just got this in the company store, isn’t it great? And I even got it at half off because I work here!”
SEP: Who was your favorite actor to work with? And what was your oddest experience working with a star?
DW: My favorite is Dick Van Dyke by far. I met him when I was asked to teach this then-unknown comic actor a few steps for an upcoming appearance on The Jack Benny Program. He told me he couldn’t dance because he never had a lesson, but he was such a natural. His angular movements and that cartoon-like quality gave us so much to work with. As for the oddest, that would have to be when I staged the Super Bowl show with 500 dancers and with Michael Jackson as the main act. Michael was so worried about security; he had three impersonators walking around the stadium so you never knew who the real Michael was. At one point, I had lunch with two of him! They were so good it was hard to tell which one was real, but once you spoke to them it was obvious they were just hard-working actors trying to do a job.