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Andrews grew up with love of reading

CHAUTAUQUA – Mary Poppins knew "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was the way to a child's heart.

Fraulein Maria came up with delicious images – raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens – to tame a brood of unruly youngsters.

On Friday, the famous woman who brought both characters to vivid life landed in Western New York, accompanied by her author daughter and other family members, to talk about literature and its importance in the lives of children.

Not only that.

In response to a question from an audience member in a crowded amphitheater at Chautauqua Institution, Andrews even said the "super" word – not just frontways, but backwards.

"It's ‘dociousaliexpilisticfragicalirepus,'" said Andrews.

Then she added, modestly:

"‘Super' is a wonderful word – and seems to sum up all kinds of fun."

Andrews, a star of stage and screen who is internationally known for iconic roles ranging from "Mary Poppins" to "The Sound of Music," told hundreds of listeners gathered on a sunny Friday morning that the deep connection she had with film and theater roles was fostered early in life by family members who read to her – and by books she loved.

That's why today, Andrews said, she feels it is important to encourage parents and caregivers to read to the children they know – even when they seem to grow too old for it.

"From a parent's point of view, I think there is nothing so cozy as having a child snuggled at your hip," Andrews said of reading aloud to youngsters.

Her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, a Long Island resident who co-authors children's books with her mother, agreed.

"It is a powerful visceral experience," said Hamilton, whose husband Steve and two children, Sam and Hope, occupied seats nearby in the Chautauqua hall.

Also on stage was Roger Rosenblatt, the journalist and author, who acted as a presenter and interviewer during the 90-minute talk.

So, what sort of reading shaped Julie Andrews?

The actress and singer – who was named Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II – said as a child she loved the poetry of A.A. Milne, tales by Charles Dickens, the book "Water Babies," and a volume her parents had called "The Little Gray Men."

"It is a charming story," Andrews said.

Clad in a flowing beige pantsuit and off-white scarf, her short hair bobbed in a style just slightly less formal than that required long ago by the Reverend Mother, the 76-year-old Andrews joined her daughter in reciting Milne's poem, "The King's Breakfast," at full length. (It is a poem, Andrews later pointed out, that no less a personage than Steven Colbert once told her was his "very favorite poem in the whole world.")

Andrews took on the roles of the King, Queen and narrator, emphasizing the humor in Milne's words – the Queen's worried "Oh!," the King's final contentment – with effusive vocal stylings and expansive gestures of her arms.

Hamilton, who read the part of the flummoxed dairymaid, achieved the nearly impossible, keeping up with her mother as the poem built to its happy conclusion.

"This poem was read to me by my father, which inspired me," explained Andrews, who grew up in a small railway village in England in the 1930s and 1940s, beginning her singing and acting career at an early age. "And I passed that on to Emma."

Hamilton, who teaches writing and has written a book called "Raising Bookworms," about teaching children to love literature, said that she also fell in love as a child with the book by Norman Juster called "The Phantom Tollbooth."

"I went back to it over and over and over again," said Hamilton. "It's hilariously funny. But it does celebrate words."

This being Julie Andrews, there was, of course, some talk of Hollywood and Broadway, and the various roles that defined her indelibly in the public mind.

Rosenblatt read aloud from Andrews' memoir, "Home," a passage about the birth of Emma in the early 1960s. In the passage, Andrews tells of picking up the phone shortly after delivering Emma – to find P.L. Travers on the line.

The author of "Mary Poppins" told Andrews she had heard she was going to play the nanny in the Walt Disney film.

"You've got the nose for it," Travers told Andrews, according to the memoir.

At one point in the Chautauqua talk, when Andrews digressed on the topic of hope as a virtue in children's literature – calling for more of it, along with "humor" – Hamilton was quick to parry back.

"Well," she quipped, "what do you expect from Mary Poppins?"

Andrews spoke of her talents, particularly her voice, with grace and self-deprecation.

Of her legendary range – which some said spanned four octaves in her prime singing years – Andrews said that she had what she considered to be perhaps a somewhat colorless voice, "but I could just do gymnastics with it all over the place."

But, she said, she did have very good teachers and collaborators, including an early teacher of singing who made a great impression on her. "She stressed diction," Andrews said. "I don't mind singers bending the melody ... but why not sing them as they were meant to be sung?"

Andrews and Hamilton, who have written 20 books together, started their collaboration by writing in the same room.

Now, they said, they collaborate long-distance – especially since they live on opposite coasts.

"We are huge fans of Skype and iChat," said Hamilton.

"Usually at the crack of dawn because it's really three hours later," added Andrews, who lives on the West Coast.

Andrews cracked a joke about how once, when getting used to using the new technology to communicate with her daughter, she spritzed perfume on herself before going to sit at her computer.

A big laugh and a warm round of applause followed that line – as did an anecdote by Hamilton about seeing as a very young child a cardboard cutout figure of Mary Poppins in a department store.

When Hamilton cried out "It's Mommy!," she told the crowd, a kind older woman overheard her.

"Isn't that sweet?" the woman remarked to a friend, according to Hamilton. "That little girl thinks her mother's Mary Poppins!"

email: cvogel@buffnews.com