Disney art director Ken O’Connor is well remembered for his lasting contribution to Cinderella, and consequently, to Disney past and present. He built the model for the pumpkin turned stagecoach that whisks Cinderella away to the ball.
But that's not all he contributed. When animators were struggling over what the fairy godmother character should look like, he imagined his lovely wife and tried to think of how she would look and act as an older woman. Thus, Mary Alice O'Connor become the real life inspiration behind the grandmotherly figure we all know and love. I had the chance to talk with Mary Alice's daughter JP O'Connor, and she related:
They [the filmmakers] couldn’t quite get the fairy godmother right. They didn’t know whether she should look like kind of a nun, or something evil, or something happy – they just didn’t know.
My dad wasn’t normally a character designer, but his imagination of how my mom might look when she was an older woman was inspiring. My mom was very young, svelte, black-haired at the time, and her spirit is really what they all captured. It’s that sort of, I’ll give you the tools, I care about you, I want to help you make your dreams come true – that sort of sparkly, warm, nurturing spirit, and his imagination of her became the fairy godmother.
As an older woman, Mary Alice really did begin to look just as her husband had imagined she would. JP describes, "as she grew older, just naturally, she had the most exquisitely beautiful silver hair that was all swept up on top of her head. And she was generously proportioned, not quite as much as the fairy godmother, but she was round and soft, and she had the most incredible sparkling blue eyes that looked like she’d just done something quite mischievous."
Though Mary Alice's looks weren't the main reason she become known to all as the "Fairy Godmother of Burbank." Her generous spirit and tireless work for the community earned her that honor. "Mom really did embody helping make people’s dreams come true," JP recalls. "There were probably 50-60 organizations here in our town that she had a role in somewhere. She started many of the organizations, like the family service agencies or mental health counseling...she was always very quietly helping encourage people, giving them the tools, helping them be their best. She really did kind of become everybody’s fairy godmother."
So, Cinderella wasn't the only one with a happy ending. Not only did the real life fairy godmother lead an inspiring life helping others, she also enjoyed a life full of love. "They’re love story was amazing," JP says of her father and mother. "They literally were madly in love every single day of their lives, and that’s pretty refreshing these days."
Hearing about the life and legacy of this dear woman reminds us all of the potential we each have to make a make a little magic happen within our circle of friends, family and community. We don't need a magic wand. Day by day, little by little, we can all help make each other's dreams come true.You can learn more about Mary Alice and her husband Ken's contribution to Cinderella from the bonus feature "The Real Fairy Godmother" on the Cinderella Diamond Edition Blu-ray. The feature shares pictures and stories from the O'Connor family, as well as some of the stunning artwork from the making of Cinderella and the model Ken made of the classic Cinderella coach. More Disney Diamond Edition Movies: