DISNEY’S D23 EXPO
Say what you will about the Mouse House, but no Hollywood power holds onto its heritage with the fervor of the Walt Disney Co., which means a lot to the stars and artists of past classics still occasionally get the royal treatment. That happened Saturday night at the D23 Expo in Anaheim where several hundred giddy fans enjoyed a very special screening of “Sleeping Beauty” in the company of a famous princess who was wide awake and ready to embrace every one of them.
“If people get sleepy, tell them I have a prince out here who will give them a kiss,” the vivacious Mary Costa told me right before the 10:20 p.m. screening of the 1959 classic in which she gave voice to Aurora, the beauty who dozes while awaiting true love’s smooch. “This is going to be amazing. Are there really people waiting in line?”
Oh yes, there were plenty of people waiting in line. I had the pleasure of introducing the film to the crowd and the honor of doing it in the company of Costa and Floyd Norman, who in 1959 was a wide-eyed, 19-year-old newcomer to the animation department at Disney and worked with the team that brought the film’s trio of unforgettable fairies to life. Norman would go on to be an enduring contributor to the Disney film legacy and a key player working directly with Walt Disney on his last animated feature, “The Jungle Book,” released in 1967 just 10 months after the studio founder’s death. Norman is a delight to speak to, a modest man with a twinkle in his eye, and during the 20-minute chat on stage he spoke about the rare emotion of Disney films, the inspirational personality of Walt and the raw energy of an office where an animator might jump onto his desk and, wielding a ruler as a sword, slay the dragon of his own imagination.
The crowd was thrilled to hear Norman but it was Costa they had come to see. And, wow, does she deliver. After years as a motivational speaker, she knows how to work a room and use the charm of her Tennessee accent and respectful tales of Hollywood past. She started singing in public at age 6 with a performance at a church in her native Knoxville and the power of her voice would take her around the world, eventually performing at the Royal Opera House in London, New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and the Bolshoi in Moscow.
She had many fans during the years (Leonard Bernstein called her “the perfect” leading lady for “Candide”) but especially notable among them were President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who were taken by her interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.“
After that grim November day in Dallas in 1963, the president’s widow reached Costa and asked her to perform at the memorial service, an emotional honor that still gives Costa chills when she talks about it. “I just recently watched a recording of my performance, they found one and it’s at the Kennedy library now, and it’s still overwhelming for me,” Costa told me backstage.
I brought my 11-year-old daughter, Addison, to the screening and she adored Costa, as did every little girl there who was taken by the singer’s electric enthusiasm and Southern charm as well as her meticulously perfect hair, makeup and jewelry that, for a crowd expecting a princess, only adding to her aura. Costa sat with my daughter during the screening and the two of them swayed to the grand old music by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra channeling Tchaikovsky’s 1890 “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. “Every expression, every emotion that Walt wanted was there in the music of Tchaikovsky and all the colors that he needed,” Costa explained to Addie. After the screening, Costa kneeled down, put her hands on Addie’s elbows and told her to remember in life that you compete with yourself, not with others, and that you need to celebrate every success you see whether it’s yours or someone else’s.
Then Costa, now a year shy of 80, turned to a long line of grinning fans who were hoping she would sign autographs. She did just that, despite the late hour, and made each and every little girl (and big girl) feel like they had a royal visitation. That kept Costa in the building past 2 a.m. Who needs to sleep when there is princess work to be done?
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
CREDITS: “Sleeping Beauty” image, Walt Disney Co. The black and white photo of Mary Costa, circa 1960s, courtesy of Costa. Bottom photo shows, left to right in front, Floyd Norman, Addison Boucher and Mary Costa. Back row, Geoff Boucher.