Home Catechetical Corner Life lessons from the late Pat Carroll, Ursula the Sea Witch’s bold...

Life lessons from the late Pat Carroll, Ursula the Sea Witch’s bold voice — Elizabeth Scalia

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Publicity photo of actress Pat Carroll from "With Six You Get Eggroll" (Wikimedia Commons)

“Life’s full of tough choices, innit?”

The question oozes out of Ursula the Sea Witch like a plume of playfully poisonous vapor as she interrupts a brilliantly executed cabaret of a con meant to work on Ariel, the emotionally torn “Little Mermaid” of the 1989 Disney cartoon. “Come on, you poor, unfortunate soul,” she booms in a joyfully passionate shout of wicked persuasion, “go ahead! Make your choice! I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day.”

Ariel makes her difficult choice and Ursula, whose own voice suggests a bourbon-soaked brass band, steals the mermaid’s youthful, bell-like tone.

We should hiss and boo and hate the sea witch. I never could, though, because as portrayed by the late, wildly gifted Pat Carroll, I was too busy wondering what sorts of awards are given to voice actors.

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate and Culture Editor at OSV News.

Carroll certainly deserved one but when she died on July 30, 2022, she may have gotten something better — a New York Times obituary that gave the artist her due in spades. Reading it, however, I felt like Pat Carroll was leaving one last gift to the world — offering real wisdom from someone who had gone ahead and made her choices, and in ways that remained true to her own vision and her own voice.

Hers is the only obituary from which I have ever taken notes. After two years before my eyes the bullet points have gone a bit grubby, but I still ponder her “life lessons” when I really need to.

Carroll wouldn’t have called them that, but it’s what they are — three instructive messages from a compelling and creative woman:

•  Lesson one: Don’t just go along to get along, especially not for a credential.

Though Carroll studied at two colleges she never earned a degree. “I realized that what I was learning was not going to advance what I wished to do,” she told an interviewer. “I always thought experience was the best preparation.”

She was very right. Employers are beginning to rediscover the truth that not every career requires a degree and not every degree ensures competence. H.L. Mencken and Pete Hamill, two great journalists who never went to J-school, could write (and think) rings around their contemporaries. Broadly speaking, unless you want to fly a plane, engineer a building or perform surgery, it is well to identify a mentor and then start doing the thing you feel called to. Begin as you mean to continue. If you’ve made a mistake you’ll know it soon enough.

• Lesson two: When the phone stops ringing, don’t get bitter. Build your own bell, and ring away! Create your own opportunities.

There is genius in this. At 50, Carroll faced being typecast in “aging mother” roles for the rest of her life and didn’t think much of that. Once more refusing to “go along to get along” she boldly commissioned a playwright to create a one-woman show about Gertrude Stein. The play opened Off Broadway to rave reviews and Carroll won numerous accolades and awards for her work. She called it “the jewel in my crown.” As she remembered, “I was recently divorced, I had gained a lot of weight, and the phone was not ringing. It was not the agents’ or directors’ or producers’ fault that the phone was not ringing. I thought, ‘I am responsible for creating some kind of work.’ And I began thinking of people to do.”

Ten years later — and long before gender-bending ever became a thing — she ignored her sex to “do” Falstaff in a Washington production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — once more, to great acclaim. Theater critic Frank Rich marveled, “One realizes that it is Shakespeare’s character, and not a camp parody, that is being served.”

• Lesson three: Be proud of what is worthy.

This is an image of the animated character Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” (OSV News photo/Disney)

Modesty may be a virtue but so is truth. Ursula the Sea Witch may have been a voice in a cartoon, but Carroll called the role “the one thing in my life that I’m probably most proud of. I don’t even care if, after I’m gone, the only thing that I’m associated with is Ursula … because that’s a pretty wonderful character and a pretty marvelous film to be remembered by.”

Carroll’s Ursula was a singular sensation and her pride was well-founded. It is no small thing to be able to recognize that what you have loved, you have served, and served well.

Which is a whole ‘nother lesson, altogether.

Elizabeth Scalia is outgoing culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on X @theanchoress.