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Mary Poppins (1964)

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Article 2

About Matthew Garber
(a.k.a. Michael Banks)

by Elizabeth, ReelClassics.com

April 27, 1999

Ever since I built my MARY POPPINS (1964) section, people have been emailing me with questions about Matthew Garber, the little boy who played Michael Banks in the film and also appeared in two other Disney movies: THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA (1963) and THE GNOME-MOBILE (1967). I began researching Garber back in 1998, but there was scant little information about him.  It appeared he was born March 25, 1956 and died sometime in 1977, but the circumstances surrounding much of his life (including his death) remained a mystery.

After spending several hours in Princeton's Firestone Library (and later, on location in London) researching this enigma, here is what I have found:

First, no one seems to have realized that Garber had died until several years after his death. Various Who's Who books of actors and actresses reported him as still living, even as late as 1987. Second, no major newspapers ran any obituaries of him at the time, and any other contemporary reports of his death remained unknown -- therefore, so did the circumstances and location. Finally, even the Walt Disney Company didn't know what happened. I received the following in response to an inquiry in 1999:

To: ReelClassics.com
Subject: Re: Disney: Disney Mail

Dear Elizabeth,

Unfortunately, there seems to be no information anywhere on the exact circumstances surrounding Matthew Garber's death. We here in the Disney Archives have been searching for an obituary or other information for years now.

If you ever do discover any information, we would very much like to know it for our own files here.

I'm sorry we couldn't be of any help.

Sincerely,
Walt Disney Archives

Thus, the answer to that long standing question, "Whatever happened to Matthew Garber?" remained a mystery. No one really seemed to know.  Disney gave me what information they had about him and encouraged me to look into the matter further, so I set out to solve the mystery and below is a chronology of my research.

  • October 15, 1999: 
    • Research at the Family Records Center of England and Wales indicates that Garber died in June 1977.  A copy of his death certificate has been requested.
  • October 22, 1999: 
    • A copy of Garber's death certificate reveals the following:
      • Died June 13, 1977 at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead
      • Cause of death: Haemorrhagic Necrotising Pancreatitis
        • According to medical professionals consulted by Reel Classics, there are a number of factors that could have caused this "bleeding pancreas" condition, ranging from acute drug or alcohol abuse to gallstone complications.  Because the death certificate does not contain any information that might point to specific contributing factors, it alone does not enable us to draw any additional conclusions about the cause of Garber's death.
        • For more information on Pancreatitis, visit the National Institutes of Health pages on Digestive Diseases: Pancreatitis.
      • The informant of death (no apparent relation to Garber) noted an intention to have his body cremated. 
    • A conversation with staff at Highgate School, north of London revealed:
      • Garber had been a student there between September 1968 and July 1972.
      • His father's name was recorded as L.L. Garber.
      • The school was unaware of his death.
    • Leads at St. Paul's Primary School where Garber was a student before attending Highgate, and at the Royal Free Hospital did not materialize.
  • July 24, 2000:
    • Research in the archives of the British Film Institute reveals conflicting reports about Garber's death in the following articles, both of which interviewed Karen Dotrice (Jane Banks) for their stories:
      • "Remember the tiny gap-toothed girl from Mary Poppins?" by David Wigg (Daily Express, 29 November 1977) -- reports that Garber died "of drugs" at age 20.
      • "The sad secret of Mary Poppins" (Daily Mirror, 22 December 1984, page 11) -- reports that Garber "contracted a fatal mystery virus while attempting a showbiz comeback on a rock tour of South Africa."
    • It should be noted that both the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have "tabloid" reputations in the British press, and thus, the reliability of both these reports is in question.
  • January 8, 2005:
    • An Australian article about the 40th Anniversary of MARY POPPINS reports the following, without citing any sources for its information:
      • "Mary Poppins cast relives the magic and memories" (Courier Mail (Queensland), 3 Dec. 2004, page 8) -- reports that Garber died "after contracting hepatitis while on a hippie trek around India."
  • June 6, 2005:
    • A London newspaper interview with Matthew Garber's younger brother, Fergus Garber, published in the Mail on Sunday (24 Oct. 2004, page FB 38-9) reveals:
      • Matthew Garber unknowingly contracted hepatitis while in India in 1976, and by the time his father was able to get him home to London several months later, the disease had spread to his pancreas and was untreatable. 
      • Garber's brother, Fergus, who was 13 when Matthew died at age 21, denied reports that his brother was involved with or abused drugs and said the hepatitis likely came from eating bad meat.
      • Fergus Garber confirmed that his brother's body was cremated, but he did not attend the funeral and did not know if any memorial had ever been erected for Matthew.
      • Garber's parents both died in the decade following their eldest son's untimely death.

So, after more than six years of research, a logical explanation for this tragedy has finally surfaced.  Special thanks to Justin Camilleri for his help with the 2004 Sunday Mail article.  And anyone else with any further information or insight into this issue is welcome to pass it along. 

2005 Reel Classics, L.L.C.

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