Mary McNamara: What would Mary Poppins do during the lockdown? Julie Andrews launches a podcast

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Somewhere in Suffolk County, N.Y., perhaps right at this moment, a woman is holed up in a closet, surrounded by pillows, blankets and towels, and she’s reading a story from a picture book.

A story that might go something like this:

Once upon a time, in a green and pleasant land far, far away, there lived a little girl who liked to sing. She traveled around the country with her mother and stepfather, and they sang for all sorts of people — soldiers and lorry drivers and shopkeepers; housemaids and homemakers and, on one very special occasion, the king himself.

As the girl grew, so did her voice, and by the time she was a woman, people from all over the world would stop whatever they were doing just to hear her sing. And when she grew older and no longer sang as often as she once did, the people were just as happy to hear her talk. Because her voice was a magical voice, still full of music and hope — so no matter how sad or scared or angry you might be, the sound of that voice would make you feel better.

And that is why Julie Andrews has been spending much of the COVID-19 shutdown stuffing herself into a pillow-soundproofed closet reading stories so that her new American Public Media podcast, “Julie’s Library,” could premiere Wednesday, months earlier than originally planned. The first six episodes, which drop weekly, will, she hopes, offer some aid to all those families sheltering at home like her.

“We want to reach the children,” she says. “And their parents, and their grandparents and anyone who reads with them.”

“Mom and I are both fans of podcasts, and we had been planning to do one for quite some time,” says Emma Walton Hamilton, Andrews’ eldest daughter and longtime cowriter-collaborator. “It’s a lovely extension of what we’ve already been doing with our own children’s books and children’s programming. And because of the virus, American Public Media was kind enough to fast-track the podcast. It’s kept us very busy.”

“Very busy,” says Andrews, laughing. “And it’s been quite a learning curve.”

Andrews was supposed to be in Los Angeles this past weekend, accepting AFI’s Life Achievement award and appearing at several events (two of which included me interviewing her onstage, sob), but all of those dates have been postponed due to coronavirus concerns — and so Andrews, along with a large portion of the world, is now working from home.

Where she, at 84, is still managing to get more done than some of us who are considerably younger.

Mother and daughter are speaking on a conference call from their homes in Sag Harbor. They live, Andrews says, about five minutes away from each other but have been sheltering separately with occasional outdoor, socially distanced and masked visits in Andrews’ backyard.

“It’s amazing how much you can make work if you really apply yourself to it,” Andrews says, sounding very much like the characters — Mary Poppins, Maria von Trapp and later “The Princess Diaries’” Queen Clarisse —that made many people, including Rosie O’Donnell and, well, me, wish at times that she were our mother.

(Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Andrews for an L.A. Times Book Club event, and when we stepped out onstage, she took my hand and, frankly, it is a miracle I was able to recover enough to speak. And a good thing too, because it is hard to imagine an easier, more delightful — and occasionally bawdy — interviewee.)

Making it work has been a theme of Andrews’ life from her early years as a child star supporting her family through her long and varied journey as a singer, actor, writer, wife and mother. Her second memoir, released last year, is called “Home Work” for a reason. Most recently, she has voiced characters in “Aquaman” and the “Despicable Me” franchise; four years ago, she did a series for Netflix — a kids show called “Julie’s Greenroom.”

She and Hamilton have written a series of children’s books, some of which will be featured on “Julie’s Library.” The two had begun working on the podcast at a nearby recording studio when the coronavirus shut everything down. When Andrews agreed to continue recording in her home, American Public Media sent over the necessary equipment.

“I never thought that at my age, I’d get to be a whiz at all this stuff,” Andrews says, laughing, “thanks to my sweet grandson, Sam, who is a whiz. He comes over with his gloves and mask on and hooks it all up and we record away.”

When it turned out that Andrews’ office was not ideal for sound purposes, Sam jury-rigged a solution. “He built me a recording studio in one of my closets, shoved a table and chair in there and covered me with throws and blankets and towels.”

Says Hamilton, “It’s like a pillow fort.”

Logistics were not the only learning curve Andrews faced. Although she has performed onstage, on-screen, on television and in the recording studio, reading picture books via podcast, well, that was a new one.

“It’s a very interesting process,” she says. “I’m used to also being seen. But to just do a voice that is intimate and friendly, and trying to judge if what one is doing is achieving that — it’s a whole different technique that I’m learning. Somehow, because it’s for children, and knowing that they could be listening anywhere, you want to engage them, to be accessible.”

“It requires a kind of intimacy,” adds Hamilton, “being right in someone’s ear.”

Hamilton will also be reading for “Julie’s Library,” which will include kid call-ins and guest stars. When, as is now inevitable, a discussion of video conferencing comes up, Andrews says she just recently lugged a standing lamp from one room to another “just to get better light on my face,” and Hamilton recommended using the enhancement button.

“Are we using that?” Andrews wants to know. “I know you are, but am I?”

“We both are,” Hamilton assures her.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she says. “It’s not a face-lift, Mom. We’re both using it.”

The two laugh and Hamilton pivots to the other coronavirus-related work Andrews is doing: new Facebook videos encouraging children to hone the theatrical skills she taught on “Julie’s Greenroom.”

“Netflix noticed an uptick in viewers” for the 2017 series, Hamilton says, “so we came up with a social media campaign. Mom posts short, casual videos suggesting activities kids can do that are related to each episode.”

Andrews loved doing the show, she says, because “I wanted to educated children, just a little bit, on all aspects of the theater. And I had such fun making it. Puppeteers are so brilliant. They’re very special human beings, a quality that’s gentle and kind.”

She says she would love to do a second season, but for now she is focusing on “Julie’s Library” and some writing. She doesn’t mind the chance to stay in one place for a while, “though obviously, I wish it were for another reason.” Like many of us, she is watching a lot of television — “I’m glued to the news” — and soliciting recommendations, “particularly British shows.” She’s already watched “The Crown” (“loved it”), so I suggest the new Epix series “Belgravia.”

“Oh, I saw that advertised,” she says. “I’ll definitely give it a go if you say it’s good.”

As for the AFI Life Achievement award, well, she is honored and was very much looking forward to seeing everyone, but she is confident things will get better soon and will happily fly to Los Angeles whenever the ceremony can take place.

“Meanwhile,” she says, “it gives me more time to find the right gown.”

Whether, like Fraulein Maria, she is eyeing her bedroom curtains as she says this is anyone’s guess.


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