TONY WALTON: PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

Anthony John Walton has passed away at the age of eighty-seven. This is a personal loss for me as from the first moment I met him, I melted. He was one of those rare people who emanated so much warmth it felt like coming in contact with a human radiator. His exceedingly kind manner and good cheer mixed with a sunny optimism were contagious and his wealth of talents so enumerable it put him in the rarified breed of renaissance artist. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask anyone who met him or worked with him. He was (alphabetically) an art director for motion pictures, Broadway poster designer, costume designer, illustrator, scenic designer, stage director and theatrical producer with an Academy Award, an Emmy, and three Tonys scattered about his living room; testaments to a bit of all that.

His first professional credit was in the year I was born, 1957. His sixty-five year career was filled with so many triumphs that his resume could easily exceed pages and pages of theatre, film, television, ballet and opera to which he contributed. Sixteen Tony Award nominations alone between 1967 and 2000 (about one every other year). His talents shone most bright in the extraordinary looks he designed for Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974); the fantasy sequences of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), and, as he was often doing both sets and the costumes, the Broadway productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both the original 1962 production and 1996 Nathan Lane version); Anything Goes (1987), and Uncle Vanya (2000) with Roger Rees and Derek Jacobi, to name a few.

His credits on Mary Poppins (which starred his then-wife Julie Andrews, to whom he fell in love when they were both teenagers) were varied and many. One was as “design consultant” among those in the Art Department in the film’s credits. But he was much, much more deeply involved in crafting the entire look of that film than people know. For example, he was behind not only the draw rings of the penguins who frolicked with Dick Van Dyke in the renowned “Jolly Holiday” song and dance, but the idea to put penguins in the animated sequence in the first place (he LOVED penguins). As for his credit as a “costume consultant,” his responsibilities were the design of all the clothing for the character of Mary Poppins, from her iconic black hat with the daisies and cherries to Bert’s “jack of all trades” costume; a “worn to the bone” look, as he described it in an interview. To achieve that look and feeling, he chose heavy fabrics and added leather patches over the elbows of the jacket. “My most fortunate notion was giving Mary Poppins a secret life,” he said. “I showed this by making her clothes gray or black or slate but showing she had a secret life by their linings, which were always flashes of crimson or some very bright color. Julie loved that idea and really made good use of it.” Bert’s “Jolly Holiday” jacket was created by sewing different widths of ribbon onto a white jacket and (fun fact) Tony’s step-daughter Bridget and her first husband, Randy, were married wearing Bert’s and Mary’s “Jolly Holiday” costumes.

His ideas for the film weren’t related to just costuming. Tony was also responsible for Cherry Tree Lane where the Banks family lived (all built on a soundstage, as none of Mary Poppins was filmed outdoors). From the website at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco in 2011, the following information makes good on Walt Disney’s hiring his leading lady’s husband for what he brought to the table: “As a young boy, Walton had seen the film An American in Paris, and the film’s perfect flat cobblestone streets aggravated him. Remembering this, Walton insisted to Walt that Cherry Tree Lane be more realistic. So, he designed a curved street that went slightly uphill. Not only did this make the street more realistic, but it added to the character and visual interest of Cherry Tree Lane.”

For fun, here a just a few of the Broadway theatre posters he designed:

As told in a New York Times 1991 interview, “He once thought of following in the footsteps of his father, a surgeon. He dabbled in posters for school events and it became evident that he would pursue art. While studying at the City of Oxford School of Technology, Art and Commerce, he designed marionettes and performed with them. But he found his acting inadequate and turned instead to set and costume designing.”

His output was enormous. Take the year 1992 when he was working on four plays, an opera and a ballet simultaneously — most of them opening in the same month. Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden for Mike Nichols; Herb Gardner and Dan Sullivan’s Conversations With My Father; Peter and the Wolf for the American Ballet Theatre; Tosca for the San Francisco and the Chicago Lyric Opera; John Guare’s Four Baboons Adoring the Sun for director Peter Hall at Lincoln Center, and the massive hit revival of Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls for director Jerry Zaks, which garnered him his third Tony Award.

When I first encountered Tony it was in 2014 to interview him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, since he was influential to me as a young theatregoer. As the scenic designer of Pippin and Chicago (yes, it once had a great set), he is work simply knocked me for a loop, as it did for anyone fortunate enough to see Pippin, especially the moment when Ben Vereen tugged on a red handkerchief out of the floor until it morphed into a giant set. Truly unforgettable.

One of the things he told me, from the comfort of his beautiful home in Manhattan, has always stayed with me. It was that as a young child, he appeared in a Christmas pantomime, making his entrance sitting in a cupid-decorated box. “That’s all it took for me,” he said. “It was love at first sight with the theatre from that point on. In fact, a friend of mine said to me this week, ‘It’s holy, but you don’t have a word for it.’ I told him, it’s like your first sexual experience.”

My heart goes out to Gen, his wife of forty-seven years, and to all his extended family. He touched so many lives through his generosity of spirit and by his work in all mediums. He will be deeply missed for his artistry, his winning smile, and his liquid blue eyes that made you want to fall into them like refreshing pools. Here it’s worth noting that while writing the score to Mary Poppins, Richard and Robert B. Sherman were also writing songs for a short film for Disney. As they explained in their autobiography Walt’s Time, here’s how Tony Walton came to be an inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.

“Walt (Disney) said ‘Read the Pooh stories and let me know what you think.’ We tried, but the stories just weren’t coming through to us. At that time designer Tony Walton was working on Poppins. He was English-born, and he was about our age, so we asked him to give us some insight on the Pooh character. His eyes lit up. ‘Winnie the Pooh?’, he said. ‘I love Winnie the Pooh! Of course I’ll help you!’ Three hours later, he was still talking about Pooh, inspiring us no end. He explained how he had been a chubby little boy, and had felt very insecure. But Winnie the Pooh was his buddy, because Pooh was pudgy and proud of it. Pooh was probably the only character in the world who exercised to gain weight! Pooh was a wonderful, lovable friend who would never let you down or turn his back on you. Soon, we started to fall in love with Pooh ourselves. Our songs for Winnie the Pooh were truly a love affair, thanks to A.A. Milne and to Tony Walton.”

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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