Dumbo's Mothers: Helen Aberson and Adrienne Tytlaby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
When I do presentations, I have come to expect being asked whether Walt hated mothers since so many of them are missing in his animated feature films.
Walt dearly loved his own mother, Flora. He was devastated after her accidental death in November 1938 from asphyxiation by fumes from a faulty gas furnace in her new North Hollywood home, which was purchased by Walt and his brother Roy with funds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt blamed himself for the rest of his life.
The reason for the lack of one parent (either a mother or a father) was a story issue. As Walt once related to some Disney animators, a complete family is like a well-balanced three-legged stool. A father, a mother and a child (or children) represent each of the legs and each provides a unique support. There is no dramatic tension.
However, if you remove one of legs, like a mother, then, suddenly, the stool is off-balance and the other two legs have to struggle to maintain the balance and that struggle provides drama (and sometimes the springboard for unexpected moments of humor). That's organic storytelling.
Sometimes having even one parent there, like the purposed mother of Aladdin, who even had her own song, but was cut from the final film, causes a story problem trying to integrate her into the story. She could clearly set up exposition at the beginning of the film and could be there at the end of the film to celebrate in her son's ultimate triumph, but had no real role in telling the rest of the story without some difficulty.
That challenge was solved incredibly well and increased the intensity of the story with Dumbo's mother, Mrs. Jumbo, in perhaps my favorite Disney animated feature.
Dumbo originated with a story written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, and was adapted for the screen by the legendary story team of Joe Grant and Dick Huemer.
Aberson's son, Andrew, remembered that Disney asked her to go to California in 1939, "She was out there until 1941. She was on the premises and they were consulting with her."
However, Disney Archivist Dave Smith could find no official record of a "Helen Aberson" ever being an employee of the Disney Studios, but added that it is still possible she did come out and work briefly at the studio as a consultant. Story man Joe Grant vaguely remembers meeting her and seeing her look at the preliminary drawings for the film, but others do not at all.
The original story by Aberson and Pearl appeared as a Roll-A-Book. A Roll-A-Book was a distinctive format. It featured about a dozen illustrations which appeared on a short scroll that was built into a box and the reader would twist a small wheel at the top of the box to get to the next panel illustration into a screen.
Apparently no known copies of this original Roll-A-Book survive today, even in the Library of Congress, and that has led some historians to conclude that it might have been a prototype. It was not unusual for Walt to see manuscripts before their official publication and to then purchase the rights to the story.
Supposedly, one of managers in the Disney story department, John Rose, first brought the story to Walt's attention. Rose may have been made aware of the product through Disney merchandise genius Kay Kamen, who reportedly saw a prototype with the Dumbo story.
The New York Sun for October 21, 1941, just before the New York premiere of the film on October 23, wrote: "Dumbo" was originally a story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which the studio was asked to illustrate. Disney read the tale, saw picture possibilities, bought it, and proceeded to expand the original idea."
According to the card entry in the U.S. Copyright Office: Roll-a-book publishers, Inc., 550 Erie Blvd., W., Syracuse [New York] Publication date of Dumbo Roll-A-Book: 4/17/39. Registration date (and copies received date): 4/29/39.
Copies received is an interesting entry because, to the best of anyone's knowledge, there was only one ever published Roll-A-Book, called The Lost Stone of Agog on November 28, 1938. An advertising circular for that book described it as "a fast-moving adventure story packed with mystery and surprises and crammed with heroic exploits." There were 50 pictures in "Roll-A-Color" and 12,000 words. That first Roll-A-Book sold for $0.50 cents.
It twirled from bottom to top so it looked more like a real book and the certificate of incorporation for the company indicates that it was producing "specialties and advertising novelties." Besides these two books, another Roll-A-Book, Movie Riddle Quiz was apparently completed, but never published.
Story man Joe Grant remembered in an interview that he saw the Roll-A-Book for Dumbo: "It was sort of a little novelty idea. As you rolled the little wheels on top, the pictures would appear like they would in a film."
Storyman Dick Huemer said, "I never saw it, but they say it was on a little strip. But it had the basic elements of the story: the little elephant who had big ears, was made fun of, learned to fly, and was redeemed. All in a few panels. "Somebody at the studio [Korkis note: probably Otto Englander among others] had started working on it and there were quite a few sketches that I remember, but no storyboards yet. Mostly talk, getting together with Walt, and taking notes, and studying them. Dumbo was put aside a while to concentrate on another picture, I suppose, then Joe Grant and I picked it up."
Shortly after the Roll-A-Book version, the story and illustrations were expanded in a regular softcover book edition and, according to the Disney Archives, only 1,430 copies were sold before the book went out of print forever.
It is only 36 pages long (counting covers) and the bright yellow cover declares: "Dumbo the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl" with no mention of Disney at all except on the copyright page.
The book was published by Whitman Publishing Company and there are two copyrights: 1939 by The Roll-A-Book Publisher, Inc. and 1941 by Walt Disney Productions. It is roughly 8-by-11 inches and contains approximately 4,500 words There was concern about its publication at the Disney Studio because it was so different from the final film.
In a 1993 letter Aberson stated: "The terms were we would get $1,000 and royalties on the first 1,000 books of our original story, which amounted to a very small sum."
However, the prestige of being connected to a Disney project was supposedly a good investment for future writing projects. In addition to the sum of money, the contract also included the stipulation of publication of one edition of Dumbo the Flying Elephant under their names.
The design of the book includes eight full-page pictures (leaving barely 24 pages of text mixed with drawings that often take up half a page). The artwork and story are both very odd and different.
The book does not have Timothy Mouse, but a red robin named Red, who wears a red vest and pearl-gray derby. There are no crows or magic feather. Red pushes Dumbo over a cliff like tossing a child into the water and hoping that instinctively he will swim. Dumbo's mother is not caged.
At the end, Dumbo and his mother do get their own private car in the circus train with his name painted in gold letters and they head for Hollywood to appear in movies, which is probably a reference added after the story was purchased by Disney.
Dumbo's mother is given a name: Mother Ella who names her son Little Jumbo after his father. When Little Jumbo messes up during a performance, he is put in the donkey car on the train and, on his water pail, the "J" had been painted over with a big letter "D." While fans often say the name "Dumbo" with great affection, they forget that it was intended to be a derogatory epithet to humiliate and belittle the baby elephant.
"Right from the beginning, 'Dumbo' was a happy picture," stated Walt Disney. "It started out from a simple idea, but, like Topsy, 'it just grew.' Since we weren't restricted by a set story, we gave our imaginations free play. When a good idea occurred to us, we just put it in the picture. And we all had a wonderful time."
"The story's original authors, Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, steered us in the direction of simplicity," said Ken O'Connor who was one of the art directors on the film. "They gave us a skeleton line that we could build on with little touches without destroying it or changing it much."
Tracking down information about Helen Aberson Mayer is difficult. It is known that she was born June 16, 1907 in Syracuse, New York, and died at the age of 91 in Manhattan on April 3, 1999, of Parkinson's Disease.
She was the daughter of Russian immigrants. She and Hal Pearl married on February 14, 1938. Aberson wanted the marriage kept secret, perhaps because she was almost 7 years older than Pearl, but it was announced two days later in the Syracuse Journal, after Aberson's father, a retired cigar maker, died suddenly.
She divorced Pearl in Reno in 1940 and later married import-export businessman Richard Mayer in 1944, and had a son named Andrew.
Andrew Mayer grew up to be a newspaperman and journalist with the Washington Post, New York Law Publishing Co., Condé Nast Traveler, and other freelance writing and apparently talked with his mother at length over the years about Dumbo.
She received a bachelor's degree in 1929 from Syracuse University and, during the 1930s, was the host of a Syracuse talk-radio program before her first marriage. Apparently, she later did clerical work in Manhattan, but also used the time to create a menagerie of animal characters.
Andrew Mayer, has mentioned that she liked to create animal characters and that the plots for stories she devised were often based on people or situations she had been in. His mother returned to Syracuse where she wrote Dumbo which apparently was a little autobiographical in representing Helen's struggles.
"Yes, there is trial and travail [in the story of Dumbo] but he persevered, and in the long run, he was successful. At times [my mother's] life was difficult," cryptically commented Andrew Mayer at the time of his mother's death, suggesting that the story was "inspired" by the classic tale of the Ugly Duckling who is at first rejected and then later redeemed.
Andrea Frank, who was 4 years old when Dumbo was written, was the next door neighbor of Helen Aberson and remembers being a one-girl test audience for the story. She remembers it being told to her by Aberson.
Pearl wrote a bylined article in the Miami Daily News for November 2, 1941 that described how "we had written Dumbo, inspired by the example of Munro Leaf's Ferdinand [also made into a cartoon, of course, as the first Disney short to be based on a licensed property]" but never identified Aberson by name.
A few days later, Pearl was interviewed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for an article published on November 13, 1941: "Mr. Pearl wrote the story of his woeful circus elephant with the too-large ears four years ago when he was a columnist and amusement editor for a Miami, Fla., newspaper. He intended it to be a story for children, but, in the course of his efforts to sell it, the script was shown to Disney, who purchased it in 1939."
Pearl died on December 17, 1975, at the age of 61 (he was born on June 8, 1914). His obituary in the New York Times is at odds with that Times-Picayune article—and certainly more accurate—since it says he "began his newspaper career with The New York Journal-American and became assistant drama editor. He moved to Florida in 1940 to join The Miami News, and at his death had been with The Hollywood Sun Tatler for eight years, serving as amusement page editor and columnist."
But the Times obituary, like the Times-Picayune interview, makes no mention of Pearl's roughly two years in Syracuse, from 1937 to 1939, or his marriage to Aberson.
Pearl never wrote another children's book, but Helen apparently kept on writing children's stories into the 1960s. None of them were ever published, and it is unclear what ever happened to copies of those stories and they may be lost to the ages.
Her son, Andrew, insisted that Pearl only did the illustrations, but another unsolved Dumbo mystery is that although Pearl gets credit for the illustrations in the Roll-A-Book, it is obviously the work of an artist named Helen Durney, and her galleys for the book are in University of Syracuse. Did he merely make the rough sketches that Durney later developed?
Pearl and Aberson were divorced acrimoniously by the time the film was released and it is apparent that Pearl tried to promote himself as the sole creator of Dumbo.
Dumbo is the shortest in length of the Disney animated features and, at the time, RKO complained about it, but Walt refused to pad the movie. The film received rave reviews.
When the film was released, there were no interviews with Helen Aberson and apparently no comments about her impressions of how her simple story was translated to the big screen. In later years, she complained that Disney tried to minimize her contributions, but she was obviously Dumbo's first real mother.
Adrienne Tytla died from cancer on December 13, 2006. For 30 years, she was the wife of Bill Tytla, often described as "Animation's Michelangelo." Among Bill's most famous animation work was Stromboli, the evil puppeteer in Pinocchio; Chernabog, the winged devil featured in Fantasia; and baby Dumbo in Dumbo, for which Bill used his son, Peter, as an inspirational model.
Adrienne and Bill were officially married on April 12, 1938 and, 10 months later, their son Peter was born.
The December 29, 1941, issue of Time magazine had a review of Disney's recently released animated feature Dumbo. It included in the review of the film a paragraph focusing on Bill Tytla's work and the unique inspiration for the baby Dumbo:
"I gave him everything I thought he should have," Bill Tytla said. "It just happened. I don't know a damn thing about elephants. It wasn't that. I was thinking in terms of humans, and I saw a chance to do a character without using any cheap theatrics. Most of the expressions and mannerisms I got from my own kid.
"There's nothing theatrical about a 2-year-old kid," he said. "They're real and sincere—like when they damn near wet their pants from excitement when you come home at night. I've bawled my kid out for pestering me when I'm reading or something, and he doesn't know what to make of it. He'll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry… I tried to put all those things in Dumbo."
In the February 2, 1942 issue of Time magazine was the following letter from Adrienne Tytla:
"In TIME'S Dec. 29 story on Dumbo, which designated that blue-eyed baby elephant "Mammal-of-the-Year," TIME quoted Vladimir ("Bill") Tytla, Disney staff artist who conceived Dumbo's face, form and character. Some weeks later TIME received the following communication from the kid's mother, who is, of course, Artist Tytla's wife. – ED.
"When I am approached by an eager acquaintance who asks, "Is it true your child resembles an elephant, Mrs. Tytla?" (with the same expressions, incidentally, as the gossiping elephants in Dumbo), I am compelled, like poor Mrs. Jumbo, to waddle off, as I mutter to myself, "A wit, no doubt."
"However, being fully aware of the havoc that can be wrought… on an impressionable small child, I am appealing to you, as a mother, to right this terrible wrong. (Besides, we have no space left in which to store the tons of peanuts that continue to arrive daily.) Therefore I have taken the liberty of sending you a photograph of Peter…
"However, thank you. Peter has made a terrific hit with the small fry and they even allow him to ride his own tricycle…
"La Cañada, Calif."
Little Peter even received fan letters from this publicity. However, it also garnered the attention of Walt Disney himself.
Shortly after her letter appeared, Adrienne was out in the backyard sunbathing in a tiny two-piece bathing suit she had converted so that it was so miniscule it according to her "barely covered the strategic areas." This was years before the bikini.
The doorbell rang and she went to the front door and was astonished to see Walt Disney. After some small talk including Walt talking with her son, Peter, Walt turned to Adrienne. Here is the rest of the story in Adrienne's own words:
"I was just telling Peter I'd seen his picture in Time magazine. That was a clever letter you wrote. Did you do that on your own?"
"Oh sure. I was on my own from the time I was 15. It never occurs to me to ask anyone permission to do anything."
"He stared right through me. 'Well maybe it should in the future,' he said, smiling. 'Well,' he welled, 'I've got to be going.'
"I got the message. Not loud, but clear… I never did tell Will about Walt's unexpected visit. Besides, by then I had already been told by Will there was an unwritten law in the organization that nothing ever was to be released regarding Walt Disney Productions, or its employees, without clearing with the Studio first. Even then permission would probably be denied."
Peter later grew up to be a photo-collage artist and has his own Web site. The Tytlas' daughter Tammy (now the artist and photographer Tamara Schacher-Tytla) reportedly provided inspiration for the Little Lulu and Little Audrey shorts her father directed and animated later at Famous Studios in New York.
All of this is very interesting to me, and there is still much more to tell and much more to be discovered. I didn't even have room to include another of Dumbo's mothers: voice artist Verna Felton who provided the voice for both Mrs. Jumbo (who only speaks once in the entire film), as well as the voice of that snotty Elephant Matriarch who ostracizes baby Dumbo. She was 50 years old when she did the voices.
For those concerned about mothers in Disney animated feature films, remember the importance of the mother in Dumbo and the women who helped inspire her.