Throughout my childhood, I can remember several occasions in which I wished Fairy Godmothers existed. I mean, it’s an alluring concept. To know that someone is always looking out for you? And has the availability to pop in and give you the tools and guidance you need to make wonderful things happen? That was one of the most magical parts of the Cinderella story. Sure, the Prince is great and all, but if Cinderella ever had the opportunity to get up on stage and accept an award for “Miss Congeniality of Disney Princesses” (or whatever), you can bet that her first “thank you” would go to the sweet lady with the wand.
So you can imagine my excitement, when I learned that the Fairy Godmother character was based on a real person! Her name was Mary Alice O’Connor and she was the young wife of a Disney animator when “Cinderella” was being created. Ken O’Connor designed the Fairy Godmother based on his wife’s warm, loving and charitable character and imagined how he thought she might age. Not only was he spot on about how his wife would look in her later years, Mary Alice also became known as the Fairy Godmother of Burbank, CA, due to her very active volunteer work in the community. I had the pleasure of speaking with their daughter, JP, about her mother’s fairy tale-like charm, her philanthropy and the legacy she left behind.
You clearly had amazing parents, can you tell me a little bit about them?
My parents’ life really was like a fairy tale, though not without it’s share of life’s traumas and sadness. They always approached everything head on with the belief that they could get through things together, learn from each experience, and remain positive about the future. Their love and respect for each other was incredibly strong and gave them fortitude for the challenges they faced and openness for their adventures.
How many times have you seen “Cinderella”?
As for “Cinderella,” I’ve probably only seen the whole movie a handful of times. Our family’s association with “her” was always clear though, just as a matter of life. The pumpkin coach model my father built to show Walt his concept, was on display in our home for as long as I can recall, so I knew from day one what Dad’s imagination had created. When Dad became a “Disney Legend,” Cinderella was his escort at the ceremony.
What was it like growing up with the real Fairy Godmother?
My mom was always involved in community service, helping people, finding solutions to needs, listening to other people’s dreams and helping them find their way. I thought this is what was expected of people—to care for and about each other. Only later in life did I realize HOW MUCH she gave of herself and how rare this actually is, which explains why everyone was always so amazed at her energy and optimism. To her it came naturally and often people would say, “she’s like everyone’s Fairy Godmother.” Plus, as Mom aged, her hair turned the most remarkable silver color which was elegantly swept up on top of her head, and her eyes sparkled blue with a glint so full of wonder and life, one would swear she’d be pulling out a wand any moment.
We used to joke as a family that when you got one of us, you got all of us….meaning, we were always involved in each other’s projects. When my brother, John, and I were little, Mom was active with our Scout Troops, PTAs, student exchange programs, the National Charity League with me, and attended John’s sporting events, etc. Later, she served on the School Board, was a hospital trustee, she was active with the American Cancer Society, the LA Children’s Hospital Guild, Family Service Agency of Burbank, KCET public Television, Chaired Open House at the Hollywood Bowl, and on and on. At one time we counted over 50 groups in which she played a role in our city.
Mom was all about education, health, the arts, and building strong communities. She believed everyone deserved an opportunity to make the most of their own individual talents and to follow their passions. She was encouraging, but a realistic sounding board. Like the Fairy Godmother, Mom helped people get the tools to advance themselves, but they had to put in the work. She didn’t do it for them because she knew they had to own their dreams and have pride in accomplishment.
What would you say, is her legacy?
-Life is worth living!
-It’s not always easy or without unexpected detours, but one’s approach is half of survival.
-Complaining rarely changes anything.
-Everyone matters! She treated everyone she met with the same dignity and interest. When she was talking to you, you felt as if you were the only two people in the world…she never looked over her shoulder to see who was around.
-Actions count! What you did was more important than what you talked about doing.
-It’s OK to fail! Everything won’t always go right, but it’s how you accept and handle loss that is the key.
-Celebrate EVERY day! Each morning she woke up with a clean slate and more things that interested her than she could ever get through… she was never going to die bored or inactive, and thankfully she was fulfilled right up until the moment she left us.
I miss her zest for life every day and I try to infuse the same zeal into everything I tackle. I was incredibly lucky that my family has strong genes. They were older when I was born and yet, Cinderella and I were “born” the same year. I had them in my life for more than a half century!
I hope this gives you a flavor of life with the “Fairy Godmother” and my beloved, reserved, creative, funny father. It was inspiring, high energy, loving, and I count myself as one of the most fortunate of all to have had such a wonderful upbringing. It has been a “Happily Ever After.”
A big thanks to JP for taking the time to share her mother’s amazing story.
To celebrate the October 2nd release of “Disney’s Cinderella Diamond Edition,” we’re giving away exclusive items from Sephora’s Disney Reigning Beauties Cinderella Collection line of makeup to one very lucky HelloGiggles reader! If selected to win, you will receive:
To enter, leave your name and email in reply to this thread under the Lookin’ Fly section of our fabulous forum. Our winner will be randomly selected on Sunday, October 28th and alerted via email. Must be a resident of the U.S. or Canada to enter. Only one entry per person.
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