Practically Perfect: Dame Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton

Emma Walton Hamilton and Dame Julie Andrews, Sag Harbor’s mother-daughter dynamic duo.
Emma Walton Hamilton and Dame Julie Andrews, the mother-daughter dynamic duo.
Courtesy Bay Street Theater

Yes, even dames Zoom.

Watching legendary actress Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Victor/Victoria, The Princess Diaries) describe the day she received her knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, suddenly this reporter’s small laptop screen is larger than life.

“I was directly facing the queen; I came in from one side of the hall and Her Majesty from the other side,” recalls Andrews. “She is very diminutive, very tiny and flanked by ladies in waiting and members of her household, and in spite of seeming very small, she radiated such kindness. … She was strong and lovely and said something like, ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to see you.’”

The ceremony, which took place in 2000, seems as fresh and personal for Andrews as if it was yesterday. “I hold it very privately inside—I try not to boast about it, because it’s quite moving to be honored by your queen and country. I found it awesome.”

And where Andrews leaves off, her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton—accomplished author, writer, producer, performer, arts educator and co-founder of Bay Street Theater—picks up:

“It was an extraordinary day,” confirms Walton Hamilton. “My uncle and I made our way into the ballroom, an astonishing hallway with Renoirs and Turners and actual men in suits of armor and chain mail,” she continues, speaking from her own Zoom window.

“And I must say,” adds Walton Hamilton, lovingly, “you might have given the deepest curtsy I have ever seen anyone give, with those long legs of yours.”

“I did my best not to topple over,” responds Andrews, with that ever-present sense of whimsy.

The two love to tell stories, and they are good at it. As co-authors of more than 30 books for children and adults, best-selling authors Andrews and Walton Hamilton have more than a way with words—they have a way with each other that is both deeply affectionate and respectful of each others’ talents.

You can’t help but get caught up in their passion and enthusiasm as they talk about their children’s book, Simeon’s Gift, which they will narrate on May 15 as the concluding event in an eight-part Storytime reading series presented through Bay Street Theater, featuring live readings from children’s book authors via Zoom.

Simeon’s Gift was the first thing we ever wrote together,” says Walton Hamilton. “The original version of Simeon’s Gift was a little story that Mom and I wrote when I was 5 years old. She and my father (Broadway and film costume and sets/production designer Tony Walton) were separated and living on opposite coasts but still very good friends, and Mom had the idea that if we wrote a story together, perhaps my father, who is also an illustrator, could illustrate it. And my mother would have it bound for me as a sort of memento of our togetherness and our family, even though they were divorced.”

Some 30 years later, the motherdaughter duo was writing children’s books together, and their editor asked if they had any other ideas, and they remembered Simeon’s Gift. The editor suggested they revisit it from an adult perspective, and they did.

“Simeon is a humble man who loves a lady of noble birth. He really wants to better himself to be worthy of her hand,” says Andrews. “So he journeys up the river, which has its own musical sound, and everyone he sees and meets gives him the beginning of an education in music.”

The authors are thrilled with their illustrator, the children’s illustrator and painter Gennady Spirin.

“He had no idea who Mom was,” says Walton Hamilton, “But he responded to the story because it’s a story about art and the making of art in a musical form, and he identified and agreed to do it.”

The Zoom event is a virtual throwback for Walton Hamilton, who, along with her husband, Stephen Hamilton, and Sybil Christopher, co-founded Bay Street Theater 30 years ago. It was certainly a joyful challenge.

“Right up until the last minute in rehearsal for our first production, Joe Pintauro’s Men’s Lives, we didn’t have seats in the theater and didn’t know where we would get them, honestly,” says Walton Hamilton. “And then a welder who overheard us talking about the seats said ‘Oh, my cousin in Tenafly, New York has a whole warehouse of seats—you want ’em?’”

In a way, Simeon’s Gift, born when Walton Hamilton was 5, has been the gift that keeps giving, having been presented and developed as a musical for the stage that premiered at Bay Street in 2007. It then “went on to a life in the symphony with Mom narrating with beautiful classical singers and an 88-piece orchestra.”

When Andrews and Walton Hamilton tell the story on the Storytime Zoom, it will be another throwback.

“I always read to my children,” recalls Andrews, “at nighttime, bedtime, always with a story—books were everywhere, as they are now in Emma’s house. To sit a child on your lap and trace the words with your finger and comment about the pictures, it is the best way to get a child to start reading.”

Watch Storytime with Dame Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, presented by Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, on Zoom on Saturday, May 15 at 10:30 a.m., for children 3–8 years old and their families. Get tickets at baystreet.org.

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