This coming week marks a milestone in the public life of Dame Julie Andrews: it will be 70 years since the legendary star made her professional performing debut at the tender age of 12 in Starlight Roof at the London Hippodrome on October 23, 1947.
As discussed in previous posts, the budding singer had performed intermittently prior to this date –– she had even sung for the Queen –– but Starlight Roof was her first fully “professional” engagement. As such, most commentators –– Julie included –– tend to regard her appearance at the Hippodrome as the birthdate of her official performing career (Cottrell, 46).
Produced by legendary impresario, Val Parnell, Starlight Roof was a glamorous West End revue of sparkling theatrical entertainments – songs, sketches, orchestral pieces, dances – performed by many of Britain’s leading variety stars. The fact that a juvenile performer of Julie’s age and inexperience was contracted to appear in such a high-profile theatrical bill is testament to the impression her talents made on the show’s production team.
Mind, Val Parnell had second thoughts about including Julie, literally the day before opening night. He worried that she “appeared too innocent, too young to be in a sophisticated revue” and might come “across as unnecessary and perhaps even inappropriate” (Andrews, 79). But after much haranguing on the part of Julie’s parents and, especially, her agent, Charles Tucker – who also had several other clients in the show – Parnell relented and allowed the 12-year-old singer to go on. It was a decision he must subsequently have been very glad he made.
Julie’s appearance in Starlight Roof came toward the end of the first act and was staged as something of surprise novelty. At the close of a preceding sketch with Wally Boag –– an American comic whose schtick included crafting extraordinary animal sculptures from balloons –– Julie would run up from the audience under the pretence of receiving one of his inflatable creations. In the course of scripted patter with Boag and revue maestro, Vic Oliver, Julie would reveal that she liked to sing. At Oliver’s invitation, she would then launch into the “Polonaise” from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon, a coloratura showcase of trills, leaps and cadenze that climaxes with an ear-piercing high F above top C.
To say Julie’s performance in Starlight Roof was well-received would be an extreme understatement. The star herself recalls:
“[A]t the end I hit that high F above top C. There was a hush –– and then the audience went absolutely wild. People rose to their feet and would not stop clapping. My song literally stopped the show. The aria was so difficult, and I was barely twelve years old, a sprite of a thing, really, with this freakish voice, and it caused a sensation. It was the first…major stepping-stone…in my career (80).
A survey of press reports reveals the claim is no hyperbole. “Julie Andrews, 12-year-old coloratura soprano, stopped the show in her first West End appearance,” trumpeted Cecil Wilson of the Daily Mail (3). “A twelve- year-old girl in a party frock…stole London Hippodrome’s new musical, Starlight Roof, last night from the stars,” declared the Daily Express (3).
Even high-brow critics made mention of Julie as a highlight with The Observer noting how “a scrap of a child called Julie Andrews runs from [the] stalls and sings like an exaltation of larks” (Trewin, 2). The Stage declared that “Julie Andrews, the youthful prima donna, is fully entitled to her remarkable reception for some beautiful singing” (1). While The Illustrated London News noted that “one remembers first the smallest person in the show, a little girl called Julie Andrews who runs upon the stage from the stalls, and who turns suddenly from a child-in-serach-of-a-balloon to an impressive young prima donna” (Trewin, 524).
Though perhaps the most prescient commentary on the birth of the surprise new star came from Harris Deans of Playgoer who wrote:
“Julie Andrews, a twelve-year-old-kid, shares the honours. Stage children are usually sophisticated little monsters, but here is a pleasant-looking, naturally-spoken child with a simply phenomenal voice.
I don’t wonder Vic Oliver asked her for her autograph. He should get the kid to number it for him. Miss Andrews’ first autograph should be worth something one day” (3).
Happy Septuagennial Anniversary, Julie!
Andrews, Julie. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. New York: Hyperion, 2008.
Cottrell, John. Julie Andrews: The Story of a Star. London: Arthur Barker, 1968.
Imagine a scene in the upcoming Mary Poppins sequel where Emily Blunt as Mary is walking down the street, drenched in the rain. Having lost her umbrella, she is suddenly tapped on the shoulder and spins around to see Julie Andrews who says,
“Excuse me Miss, I believe you need this more than I do.”
and she hands her a new umbrella.
Like a cute little cameo and wink to the audience. Almost as if she’s passing on the torch.