The recent death of Mrs. Potato Head actress Estelle Harris of the Toy Story franchise has led to an increased interest in the careers of legacy actresses and the voices behind iconic Disney Characters, especially after their passing. One such actress, Mary Wickes, born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser in 1910, is a woman well-deserving of such attention.
As a lifelong resident of St. Louis, Missouri I have often visited the historic Delmar Loop, and walked the sidewalks that make up the St. Louis Walk of fame. The St. Louis Walk of Fame provides a showcase for the cultural heritage of St. Louis and to advance the knowledge, awareness and appreciation of great St. Louisans and their accomplishments. The Walk of Fame consists of brass stars and bronze plaques, each star features the name of an honoree and the accompanying plaque contains a biography summarizing his or her achievements and connection to the city.
Though I had walked the path many times, I was unaware as an avid Disney fan that the name of a real-life Disney legend was just under my feet.
Born and raised in St. Louis, comedic actress Mary Wickes graduated from Beaumont High and Washington University. Her big break came in the 1939 Broadway hit The Man Who Came to Dinner; Wickes reprised her role in the 1941 film version. Famous for playing sharp-tongued busybodies, nurses, nuns and do-gooders, Wickes appeared in over 50 films, ranging from classics like White Christmas and The Music Man to the 1992 hit Sister Act. An accomplished television actress, veteran of 27 major Broadway productions, and member of the St. Louis Muny Hall of Fame, Mary Wickes delighted audiences for an incredible seven decades.
Wickes moved to the new medium of television in 1949, starring in an episode of Westinghouse Studio One, an American anthology drama television series adapted from a radio series in 1947. The episode saw her play Mary Poppins, making her the first actress to play the iconic Disney heroine on screen. Julie Andrews would go on to play the role in Walt Disney’s 1964 film adaptation of Mary Poppins, 2013 would show an adaptation of the behind-the-scenes creation of that Oscar-winning film with Emma Thompson playing author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, and Emily Blunt would fill Andrews’ shoes in the 2018 film sequel Mary Poppins Returns. Despite all of this, the honor of first to play the iconic character goes to Mary Wickes.
CBS’s Studio One in Hollywood, Season 2, Episode 15, “Mary Poppins” December 19, 1949
She continued in the medium of television in the 1950’s, Wickes would co-star in Walt Disney Presents: Annette, a televised serial that during The Mickey Mouse Club in the show’s third season. It starred Mouseketeer Annette Funicello as a poor orphaned country girl who moved in with her upper-class Aunt and Uncle, with Mary Wickes playing Katie the housekeeper.
ABC’s The Mickey Mouse Club, “Walt Disney Presents: Annette” 1957-1958
Cruella de Vil
Wickes also served as the live-action reference model for Cruella De Vil in Walt Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Glenn Close played the villain in the 1998 101 Dalmatians live-action adaptation and its 2000 sequel 102 Dalmatians. Emma Stone would play the villain in the 2021 live-action reboot Cruella. But the physicality and persona of the character were originally performed by Wickes, with all other actresses who played the villain merely doing an interpretation of Wickes’s original performance.
Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1961)
Wickes is seen above with one of Disney’s most prolific live-action reference models Helene Stanley, who not only modeled Anita Radcliffe in 101 Dalmatians, Cinderella and her stepsister Anastasia, and Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
Sister Mary Lazarus
Wickes is well known for her role as Sister Mary Lazarus in Touchstone Picture’s Sister Act in 1992 and its 1993 sequel Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Sister Mary Lazarus is the original choir director of the sisters at St. Katherine’s before she is replaced by Sister Mary Clarence AKA Deloris Wilson played by EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg.
Touchstone Picture’s Sister Act (1992), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)
In a 1992 article Titled “Mary Wickes Makes a Habit of Playing Nuns on the Run” from the L.A. Times, she spoke of her long history playing Catholic nuns, and her enjoyment of it.
There is a romance about it. There is a tradition… It’s amazing, when you are in the habit you get quieter as far as your gestures are concerned… You find yourself quite relaxed and reposed, which is new for me. I enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about getting (to the set) early and getting your hair done.
In what would end up being Wickes’ last role, she voiced one of the gargoyles who play the role of Quasimodo’s confidants in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She filled the role of Laverne, the only female in the trilogy of gargoyles, to which she contributed her trademark combination of sweetness and sass.
Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Unfortunately, Wickes would die in L.A. due to complications in surgery before she was finished recording her role. Actress Jane Withers would finish the dialogue that Wickes had yet to record, and reprise the role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2 in 2002, seven years after Wickes’ death. Withers herself passed recently in 2021.
Mary Wickes’ Legacy
Upon her death in 1995, Wickes donated much of her estate to the University, including a large donation to set up the Isabella and Frank Wickenhauser Memorial Library Fund for Television, Film, and Theater Arts in honor of her parents. The Mary Wickes Papers contain Wickes’ film and television contracts, photographs, personal correspondence, audio-visual material, early Wash U memorabilia, costumes, and other personal effects.
“I’m always happy to be back on the campus. I could live on or near a campus happily the rest of my life. I love libraries; I love stacks; I get very excited over microfilm of the New York Times. I love the look and the smell and the feel of classrooms.”
-Inaugural Adele Chomeau Starbird Memorial Lecture, Wash U, 1988
That is the amazing story of St. Louis native, character actress, and Disney legacy Mary Wickes- a woman who used her gifts and talents to spread joy and education to others. A woman worth remembering.