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Obit: Marc Breaux, who choreographed ‘Mary Poppins,’ dies at 89

When Dick Van Dyke got the role of Bert in the 1964 movie musical “Mary Poppins,” Walt Disney asked him if he had a recommendation for a choreographer. Van Dyke recalled working with the team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, who had created a number for the Jack Benny television show.

“I’m not really a dancer,” Van Dyke said. “I could move a little, and I was what you call an eccentric dancer – loose limbed and light on my feet. But they took what I could do and made the most of it. I was just thrilled.”

Disney took his recommendation and the married duo created one of the best-known live-action dances in the history of the studio – the chimney sweep number to the song “Step In Time.”

“We had so much fun,” Van Dyke said, “and then I took them to ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ with me.” “Mary Poppins” also led them to work on the 1965 film version of “The Sound of Music.” And in the 1970s – during the time variety shows were popular on television – they created dances for more than 200 TV episodes.

Breaux, 89, died last week in Mesa, Ariz.

Working with performers who were not primarily dancers became a Breaux and Wood hallmark. It was a situation they faced often as the choreographers on the Saturday night variety show “The Hollywood Palace” that ran from 1964 to 1970 and sometimes featured singers and comedians in dance numbers.

“You try to put them with good dancers who can haul them around if you had to,” Breaux said in a 1999 interview. “So you would just say, ‘Do you know what your left foot is?’ And they would usually say ‘yes.’ And I would say, ‘Well, we’re going to stamp the left foot twice, and then we’re going to stamp the right foot once.’

“You had to be very specific with what you told them.”

Marc Breaux was born Nov. 3, 1924, in Carencro, La., near Lafayette. He studied dance at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before serving in the Navy as a pilot during World War II. After the war he became a pre-med student, but that changed when he went to a friend’s modern dance class in New York taught by famed choreographers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

The instructors saw him observing and approached him at the end of the class. “They said, ‘Do you think you can do that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes, no problem,’ ” Breaux said. “I was very cocky.” They invited him to take a class, and he did so well they asked him to join their company.

In 1948 he was cast as a dancer in his first Broadway show, “Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’!” and performed on television shows in New York, including one hosted by musician Stan Kenton on which Breaux and Wood met. They married in 1955 and appeared together in the 1956 Broadway musical “Li’l Abner,” choreographed by Michael Kidd, known for his athletic style of dance. “He was our mentor,” Wood said.

Athleticism was evident in “Mary Poppins,” which led to “The Sound of Music” film because director Robert Wise saw a screening of the chimney sweep number and hired them, Breaux said in the university interview.

Breaux played an important, unseen role in the film’s opening sequence of aerial shots, finally coming upon Julie Andrews spinning around on a hilltop before breaking into the title song. To get the timing right, Breaux was hidden in nearby bushes. “He watched for the helicopter coming over the mountains,” Wood said, “and at the right moment he had a bullhorn and yelled to her, ‘OK, Julie! Turn!’ ”

Van Dyke said one of his fondest memories of Breaux concerns a step the choreographer put in the “Jolly Holiday” number of “Mary Poppins.” It was based on a bit Breaux used to do for fun.

“Hard to describe, but it’s like you try to step on your own foot, and then jump out of the way,” Van Dyke said Thursday. “He stuck it in there as our little signature. It was our own little joke.”

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