How Maude Adams Influenced Disney's Peter Pan

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

With the 70th anniversary of Disney's animated feature Peter Pan (1953) coming next year, it is interesting to me how little documentation has been done about the film and how many things we just accept without any further exploration.

For instance, most Disney fans know that Walt Disney experienced many things for the first time as a child growing up in Marceline, Missouri. He saw his first motion picture. He saw his first circus. He saw his first theatrical play. That play was a touring production of Peter Pan.

The impact of seeing that play with a performance by actress Maude Adams, who represented the character of Peter Pan for a generation, was amazing.

In an article from Brief magazine (Vol. 1, No. 4) April 1953 entitled "Why I Made Peter Pan" that was by-lined by Walt Disney, he stated:

"The world of make-believe has always delighted and absorbed me, ever since I was a little boy. And I know exactly how my interest started. It began when I was a child, one of five in our family.

"Every evening after supper, my grandmother would take down from the shelf the well-worn volumes of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. We would gather around her, the two youngest children on her knees and listen to the stories that we knew so well we could repeat them word for word.

"After my grandmother's death, my mother continued the evening story hour. It was the best time of the day for me and the stories and the characters in them seemed quite as real as my schoolmates and our games. Of all the characters in the fairy tales I loved Snow White best, and when I planned my first full-length cartoon, she inevitably was the heroine.

"Next to Snow White, I cared most for Peter Pan. He did not come from our well-loved story book, but my introduction to him was even more exciting. We were living on a farm, and one morning as we walked to school, we found entrancing new posters on the barns and fences along the road. A road company was coming to the nearby town of Marceline and the play they were presenting was Peter Pan with Maude Adams.

"It took most of the contents of two toy saving banks to buy our tickets, but my brother Roy and I didn't care. For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends. I took many memories away from the theater with me, but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air.

"Shortly afterward, Peter Pan was chosen for our school play and I was allowed to play Peter. No actor ever identified himself with the part he was playing more than I – and I was more realistic than Maude Adams in at least one particular: I actually flew through the air! Roy was using a block and tackle to hoist me. It gave way, and I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience.

A live performance by Maud Adams as Peter Pan inspired Walt Disney's desire to create an animated version.

"When I began producing cartoons, Peter Pan was high on my list of subjects. In fact, after talking it over, Roy and I bought the rights with the idea of making the second full-length feature for our company."

That touring company production visited Marceline, Missouri sometime between 1909 and 1910 when Walt was eight to nine years old. Walt was attending Park Elementary School in Marceline that was inspired to produce its version of the play because of Adams' performance and the excitement in the students that it generated.

The touring company performed in both St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri which were on the main line of the Santa Fe railroad, so the small town of Marceline on the same line was chosen because it was easy to add to the tour.

Adams traveled in her own private $30,000 railroad car that was named the "Tinker Bell".

When Adams retired from her acting career (although she did read the Peter Pan play on NBC radio in 1934), she ended up at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri teaching theater.

In 1940, Walt tracked her down and wrote to her. He told her he was considering doing an animated feature based on the Peter Pan story and wanted her to review an early scenario of the film his studio had produced for her approval and comment.

He added that he and the film's director (Ham Luske) and their wives could visit Adams in Columbia that November and would present early concept and storyboard sketches to her.

The sketches he pointed out would be projected upon a screen accompanied by the appropriate narration and proposed music. He affirmed that his studio would send the necessary equipment to Columbia for the presentation and that it could be open to any Stephens College student or faculty member interested in attending.

Disney finished by writing "This is a rather interesting and novel way of building a story and I feel the witnessing of it will be an evening well spent for anyone."

However, Walt was upset when his proposal was rejected. He later wrote to Kay Kamen who was in charge of the Disney Studio merchandising, "She wouldn't give me the courtesy of looking at our reel. Her reasons were to the effect that 'Peter whom she created was to her real life and blood, while another's creation of this character would only be a ghost to her'. It seems pretty silly and from my point of view, I would say that Miss Adams is simply living in the past."

The Disney animated feature was released in February 1953 and Adams passed away in July 1953. Adams was highly protective of the character because it was her greatest stage triumph.

Maude Adams (Maude Ewing Adams Kiskaadden 1872-1953) was born into a Mormon family and was suspected of being a lesbian because she never dated men and always had a long time female companion with her. She was a hugely popular actress of her day and at her peak the most highly paid. She was the inspiration for the Jane Seymour love interest character in the 1980 film Somewhere in Time (1980).

Peter Pan opened in New York on Broadway at the Empire Theater on November 6, 1905. Actress Maude Adams was in the title role, which she performed sporadically over the next decade to an estimated two million people.

Peter Pan recorded the longest single engagement in the history of the Empire. It ran from November 6, 1905 until June 9, 1906.

Adams had been the first choice to play the role of Pan in the British production but was unavailable at the time and had to content herself with being the first American Peter Pan. Her performance sparked Peter Pan hysteria. Children were named after the character. It became a nationwide vogue.

Adams had designed her own costume which was a tunic and breeches and a hat with a feather in it. There was a touch of white around her neck and that piece of clothing came to be known as the Peter Pan collar.

A British writer stated that "the whole country talked and loved the unforgettable little character who now became not merely a stage figure but the best beloved of all American children."

Helping along the image of Peter Pan as an American hero was the fact that Barrie changed changed lines in the play to accommodate an American audience. Hook's remark to the boys that they would have to say "Down with King Edward!" was changed to "Down with the Stars and Stripes!" The singing of God Save the King was replaced with Yankee Doodle.

After his defeat of Hook, Peter Pan pulled down the pirate flag and said, "Oh, I'm a wonder! Abe Lincoln, are you looking at me? John Paul Jones, do you see me? (Peter looked up to ask Lincoln but down to ask John Paul Jones that always got a laugh from the audience.)

"George Washington, what do you think? I'm the wonderfulliest boy that ever was and I don't say it in boasting because I can't tell a lie!"

The American magazine Outlook reviewing the show stated, "Mr. Barrie's Peter Pan now being played at the Empire Theater is like a breath of fresh air. It is not to be judged by the ordinary standards of drama. It is a bit of pure phantasy [sic] by the writer who since the death of Robert Louis Stevenson has most truly kept the heart and mind of a child."

After a seven month run at the Empire Theater, the play toured for most of the year. Maude Adams became identified with the part and was acclaimed in the cities that she played including San Francisco ten days after the big earthquake in 1906.

Southerners in Selma, Alabama took exception to Peter Pan's relationship with Tiger Lily but that was one of the very few complaints connected with Adams' production of the play. The show was part of her repertoire and she performed short runs of it in 1912 and 1915 in New York.

Because of the Spanish Flu pandemic of which is she was a survivor and the death of her theatrical patron, she retired from acting for the most part.

A magazine cover depicting Maud Adams as Peter Pan.

Reviewers commented on the "sweet, keen wistfulness" she gave to the part.

Louise Boynton had an article that appeared in the December, 1906 issue of The Century Magazine. She said: "Playing Peter Pan is not acting a role. It is embodying a living thought. It is expressing the life-force in the simplest, most beautiful way by teaching us to look at life from the child's point of view…Realities that seemed formidable are found not to be real at all, and all sorts of lovely illusions are dreams that may come true."

Some critics did not like the play itself and thought the producer was wasting Maude Adams' talents. Adults had a much harder time understanding the play than did children.

Mr. H. Massac Buist, writing in the Pall Mall Gazette of December 2, 1913, said: "I have seen America's first and only Peter Pan, Miss Maude Adams. She can convey the notion of impishness and suggest a creature partly human and partly elfish in a manner which no other actress is able to do."

The New York Times newspaper on November 7, 1905 stated, "In Peter Pan Maude Adams emerged from stage traditions to a spiritual creation heretofore unknown to the theatre. Maude Adams as Peter Pan is most ingratiatingly simply and sympathetic. True to the fairy idea, true to the child nature, lovely, sweet, and wholesome."

Maude Adams' interpretation sparked "Peter Pan Hysteria" with parents naming their children after the character. Pictures of Adams in her Peter Pan costume appeared inside schoolbooks to be surreptitiously adored, and thimbles were worn for kisses and a popular seller was a little cap with feathers.

The big ambition among many children was to have been to Peter Pan a greater number of times than anyone else. At one performance, a full fifteen minutes before Adams was to make her request on behalf of children, a small child stood on her seat and proclaimed loudly, "I believe in fairies!"

Author Mark Twain wrote to Maude Adams: "It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and that the next best play on the boards is a long way behind it as long as you play Peter."

It was reported that she prepared for the role by taking "the manuscript with her up to the Catskills. She isolated herself for a month; she walked, rode, communed with nature, but all the while she was studying and absorbing the character which was to mean so much to her career. In the great friendly open spaces in which little Peter himself delighted and where he was king she found her inspiration for interpretation of the wondrous boy."

She told the press, "It opened a new world to me, the beautiful world of children. My childhood and girlhood had been spent with older people, and children had always been rather terrifying to me. When one met the eyes of the little things, it was like facing the Day of Judgment.

"Children remained an enigma to me until, when I was a woman grown, Peter gave me open sesame; for whether I understood children or not, they understood Peter. In Peter Pan is the idealization of everything that was wonderful and wistful in childhood."

The producer of Peter Pan had a restriction of not performing matinees with his big stars when they were on tour, especially Adams. A matinee was booked in Pennsylvania for Peter Pan and the producer immediately threatened to discharge the person responsible.

In answer to his telegraphed threat he received the following wire: "The matinee was played at my request. I preferred to work rather than spend the whole day in a bad hotel. -- Maude Adams"

A program from a performance of Peter Pan starring Maud Adams in 1906.

Adams loved her audiences as much as they loved her. Almost every performance was completely sold out. She especially wanted young people to be able to see her performance so insisted that a good number of seats be set aside for only fifty cents at every show for young people.

During one of her tours, the line for the gallery box office in an Eastern city was a block long at 7:40 pm. The regular admission price to the gallery was fifty cents but the house manager, knowing that he could get more for the performance, gave orders that those seats be sold for a dollar instead.

When Adams reached the theater a few minutes later there was a teen-age girl sobbing near the stage door. The girl tearfully confided that she had saved up her fifty cents and had been planning for many weeks to see Peter Pan but that she didn't have a dollar and didn't know where to get it.

Adams summoned the house manager to her dressing room, told him what she thought of his actions, and demanded that there be a refund of fifty cents to every person who had paid a dollar to get into the gallery that evening. And if he did not do so there would be no performance.

What happened to the young girl who had been crying? She saw the performance in a box seat as the guest of the star.

After one matinee performance in New York, Adams left the theater by the stage door wearing her street clothes when a small boy came rushing toward her, his mother trying to catch up.

When he came up to Adams, he stopped in his tracks and sobbed wildly as he pointed, crying, "But that's not Peter Pan! That's just a lady. There is no Peter Pan, is there?"

Adams hurried into her waiting carriage but from that day forward, she made it a practice while playing Peter Pan never to leave the theatre immediately after the play.

While she played many other significant roles in the theater including Shakespeare and St. Joan, she was always most closely identified for her work as Peter Pan. She did share at one point with associates that while she had never made a film in her entire career, she hoped one day to make a color film of Peter Pan.

It is quite easy to understand how a young Walt Disney like so many others in America at that time was entranced and inspired by Maude Adams and her interpretation of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

Reviewers commented on the "sweet, keen wistfulness she gave to the part.

Louise Boynton in an article that appeared in the December, 1906 issue of The Century Magazine wrote: Playing Peter Pan is not acting a role. It is embodying a living thought. It is expressing the life-force in the simplest, most beautiful way by teaching us to look at life from the child's point of view…Realities that seemed formidable are found not to be real at all, and all sorts of lovely illusions are dreams that may come true."

At such a moment came Peter Pan, created in the mind of a man of insight and gentleness, embodied by a woman beautiful in life and thought, with the soul of an artist, and the heart of a child…"

"It would be impossible to name any one who could meet the requirements as Maude Adams has done. Her frail, delicate personality has taken on, the last two or three years, just enough of the more material substance to make her Peter Pan in appearance exactly the being that Mr. Barrie has conceived. There is the lightness of Ariel in her movements, and the grace of Puck; half spirit and half human, she has the gossamer, fairylike freedom of the one and the human heart-throb of the other." New York Times, Nov. 7, 1905

"Miss Maude Adams fit the part of Peter wonderfully well, without attempting to depart from her natural manner. She expresses, with curious felicity, the innocence, the wistful ignorance, the loving instinct, and the natural yearnings of the undeveloped being which the author has conceived. She played with just the right degree of mingled earnestness and simplicity, and touched the occasional notes of gentle pathos with sure skill and nice sympathy." Evening Post, Nov. 7, 1905

"There was not a flaw in her performance of the title role. She was, in turn, elfish, wistful, tender, joyous, sad. She danced and tripped, whistled and sang as gaily as the rest of the children, and invested the part with so much charm, poetry and atmosphere that it would be difficult to conceive of the part being played better." The Theater, Dec. 1905

"'You do believe in fairies, don't you?' Maude Adams asked. 'Ooh, say that you believe in fairies.'" I did, for the moment, with all my heart, and so did the rest of the audience, but if Maude Adams had asked us to believe in Tammany Hall, I think we'd have been equally vociferous, though not equally moved. In that instant, twelve hundred hard-boiled New Yorkers broke into a frenzy of applause, every one of 'em convinced that the situation was desperate and that immediate action was required if that tiny dancing light wasn't to be extinguished forever."Good Housekeeping, March 1937