Pat Carroll died a few weeks ago, and as soon as I found out, I was four years old again.
The Little Mermaid was the first movie I saw in theaters. At least, it’s the first movie I remember seeing in theaters. It left a very big impression on me, as it probably did for most kids born in the late 1980s. I watched a clip from it recently and was shocked by how much I still remember it, beat by beat.
This is saying something, because movies were a big part of my life from a very young age. Even before I started acting, my life was intertwined with the Entertainment Industry. Growing up in Burbank meant being involved in The Industry even if you weren’t really in The Industry. It was something of a company town. My dad worked as a maintenance engineer at a TV station, and a lot of my friends’ parents worked in TV or film, too. My mom had two best friends, and one was married to a graphic designer who worked for NBC, while the other was married to a producer for Disney. Burbank was where people involved in the less glitzy and more technical parts of show business lived and worked. It was also why people saying they’re “going to Disney” when they mean they’re going to Disneyland or Disney World has always annoyed me. “Going to Disney,” to a Burbankian, means you are going to an office building, and there will be no Pirates of the Caribbean or Dole Whip. (Tim Burton might stop by, though.)
It might have taken some of the mystery out of it, but I think we still knew we were lucky. Not everyone had family members who could take them to premieres or let them sit behind a real morning news desk and pretend to deliver the news. And not everyone got to sit in on a recording session with the cast of The Little Mermaid.
Even at four, I knew this was a big deal. They were recording lines for some kind of tie-in, maybe a book or maybe the TV show, and because my family knew someone working on it, we got to watch them. I was told that we had to be quiet and not distract them, but all I can remember was being in awe.
After watching Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, record, I got to meet her and get a photo with her. I remember her being incredibly nice to me, which is really all that I could have asked for. I remember boasting to my friends that I met “the real Jodi Benson!” (This was lost on most kids, especially the ones who didn’t live in Burbank. When I talked about the recording session with a girl I met on vacation that summer in Minnesota, she asked if the boy who played Flounder had to “dress up in a fishy costume.”) Meeting Jodi was one of the highlights of my early childhood. What little girl wouldn’t want to meet the woman who played a Disney princess, and find out she was just as sweet as Ariel?
But I learned something else special that day, too, something that shaped and changed my understanding of the world. As I’ve mentioned many times on here, I was an anxious child, and easily frightened. Even the nice scary characters, the ones in kid-friendly shows and movies — The Count on Sesame Street, Slimer from Ghostbusters, my lifelong nemesis ALF — terrified me. My mother had to soothe me and tell me it was “just pretend” every time I saw anything even remotely scary on TV. She’d remind me that we knew how it all worked, that actors were just people, that my dad had even worked for the TV station that put ALF on the air. There wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
None of this actually kicked in, though, until I got to see Pat Carroll play Ursula.
I remember watching a kind-looking woman with short hair and glasses, probably about my grandmother’s age, transform into a villain. There was something magical about it: she seemed to be two women in one person. Her performance was amazing, but she could come right out of it in an instant, as well, and be the grandmotherly woman again. She was very professional and very good at what she was doing, but like even the best voice-over actors, she slipped up a few times. At one point, I saw her do a double-take during the recording, as if she’d noticed something. That something, I realized, was me and my family.
“Oh!” she said, and she laughed. It wasn’t quite her Ursula laugh, but it was still deep and throaty and unmistakeable. She looked right at me. “Hi, kids!”
Ursula just said hi to me. And smiled! I watched her turn back to her work, still smiling, and turn back into Ursula. The scary villain from my favorite movie was a nice woman with a good sense of humor about herself. There was nothing scary about her at all.
It took me a very long time to grow out of my childhood fears. Some are still with me today. But I have a philosophy about fear that has given me a lot of help over the years: generally, the more you know about something that scares you, the less scary it will become. You’ll know how to protect yourself against it, or you’ll learn that there really wasn’t anything scary about it in the first place. Pat Carroll showed me that, and I’ll remember her laugh for the rest of my life.
I hope she would have been happy to know that. And that I, too, grew up to be a Disney villain.
Fake BBC Show of the Week: A Thought Provoking, Moving Documentary, Followed By Ending Theme Music That Is Straight Out of a Horror Film (yes, I’ve been watching the Up documentary series)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. You inspire me to be more thoughtful and reflective. Thank you