On the Town: The story of the real Fairy Godmother

At the stroke of midnight on October 2, Disney released the Blu-ray Diamond Edition of the studio’s 1950’s classic, “Cinderella.” The offering includes a bonus feature, “The Real Fairy Godmother,” that tells the tale of long-time Burbank residents Ken O’Connor, who served as the art director of the film, and his wife, Mary Alice O’Conner, who was the inspiration for the Fairy Godmother character. Just hours before the release, a very special gathering took place at the O’Connor family home as Ken and Mary Alice’s daughter, Joan Patricia “J.P.” O’Connor, and her husband, Cotton Thompson, hosted a pre-release premiere screening and dinner party.

Welcomed by J.P., the assemblage included long-time family friends and numerous Disney employees and artists who had studied under Ken, who died in May of 1998, and had worked on the feature honoring Mary Alice, who died in June of 2010.

“My mother celebrated every day of her life,” said J.P. “She truly loved having our home filled with interesting people, sharing stories and their passion. Whether you’d known my family several hours or a lifetime, people always felt comfortable here, which I believe reflected the mutual respect, grace and curiosity of my mom and dad. Because of that, there seemed no more appropriate way than to gather dear friends together to share in the re-release of ‘Cinderella’ and to celebrate the telling of the true fairy godmother’s story.”

Very special guests were Jim Davy, a producer with the Walt Disney Studios, and production coordinator Jessica Arcelles, who worked together to make “The Real Fairy Godmother” feature a reality. Other notables who enjoyed the evening were Disney animation historian Paula Lowery, who appears in the feature, along with three-time Emmy Award-winner and director of “The Simpsons,” Mark Kirkland and Disney art director and layout artist Ed Ghertner, who were both mentored by Ken when they were students at the California Institute of the Arts.

The story is told with a mix of historic photos, video clips, and touching reflections. They include those of J.P, Lowery, Kirkland and Ghertner, and also include memories from J.P.’s brother, John O’Conner, and Tillie “T.J.” Baptie, who for many years headed up the The Walt Disney Company Foundation. “The Real Fairy Godmother” documents the story of how Ken designed Cinderella’s coach and then looked to Mary Alice as the inspiration for the Fairy Godmother.

Along with documenting how Mary Alice served as the physical model for the character, the feature goes on to reveal how, as the years went by, she became a real-life fairy godmother by offering encouragement to people with dreams. Her volunteer efforts with the Hollywood Canteen, the Burbank Unified School District, the La Providencia Guild of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the National Charity League, the Family Service Agency of Burbank and the Hollywood Bowl, to name just a few, also are covered.

“She really, truly cared about people,” said J.P. “She encouraged and inspired a lot of people to get involved in their community and to achieve their own personal dreams.”

Others who enjoyed the evening, which included the sharing of many personal memories of Ken and Mary Alice, much laughter, a few misty-eyed moments and a healthy dose of inspiration, were Jan Ghertner, Giacomo Delgado-Carcheri, Anita Davy, Letty Kirkland, Lupe Bautista, Fay Playstead and Maxine “Max” Andrews.

DAVID LAURELL can be reached by e-mail dlaurell@aol.com or (818) 563-1007.

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