Margaret Kerry talks about Tinker Bellby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Disney Legend Margaret Kerry was kind enough to do a foreword for my latest book, Off To Never Land: 70 Years of Disney's Peter Pan that celebrates not only the original animated feature but all of the spin-offs over the decades.
I've known Margaret for over twenty years, and she remains a popular speaker at conventions and other events around the country even as she has sneaked past the age of ninety.
Peggy Lynch was born May 11, 1929 in Los Angeles, California. By the age of five, she was already performing in episodes of the Little Rascals/Our Gang film comedies.
She was cast in the movie If You Knew Susie (1948) as star Eddie Cantor's daughter. During the filming of the movie, Cantor decided that Peggy needed a more theatrical name to stand out in the entertainment business and she officially became "Margaret Kerry".
In 1949, she started playing the role of the eldest daughter of actor Charlie Ruggles in an early television situation comedy entitled The Ruggles (1949-1952). During this time, her agent contacted her about doing the live action reference modeling for the character of Tinker Bell for Disney's newest animated feature in production, Peter Pan.
Margaret had an extensive dance and movement background including recently being the assistant dance director on the Fox feature I'll Get By.
Margaret is the author on an autobiographical scrapbook of her life entitled Tinker Bell Talks: Tales of a Pixie Dusted Life.
Here are some excerpts from the many interviews I did with her that I think will be of interest to readers.
Jim Korkis and Margaret Kerry in 2003.
Jim Korkis: How familiar were you with Disney cartoons before you were asked to audition?
Margaret Kerry: They were fantastic. When a Disney movie came out, it was a big deal. They were top quality and they were magical. Of course, I was a live action actress and Disney did animation so it never occurred to me that I would work for him.
JK: So you are performing in a popular television series and your agent calls you one day with an offer to model for Tinker Bell.
MK: I had an agent who sent me over for the Disney audition for Peter Pan. They were looking for a young girl who was comfortable with dance movement. How do you audition for animation and for a character who doesn't speak? At home I had a room set up…my dance room…with all these mirrors and a barre, etc.
So, I got this little record player and put on an instrumental record and I worked up a pantomime of making breakfast to the beat of the record. You know, carrying eggs and maybe dropping one, closing the refrigerator door with my foot, etc. As much variety of movement as I could do in the context of a little story. So the next day I went to the studio and took the record player and put on this 45 rpm record and did this mime. I choreographed a whole three-and-a-half minute routine to this old record.
JK: Who was there at your audition?
MK: I believe there were three people there. Marc Davis and Gerry Geronomi and somebody else I can't remember right now. Anyway, I remember after I did my prepared pantomime, we chatted for a little while and then they gave me some direction of "look up as if you see such and such", etc.
One time they said, "What would it look like if she landed on a mirror and saw herself?" I figured the pixie had never seen her reflection in a mirror before, so I began to groom myself, taking the time to truly give myself a once-over. When I got to her hips, I pretended to measure them, then—upset by how big they were—stormed off. They liked that.
JK: Did you know immediately that they wanted you?
MK: Now my memory is that they offered me the job right then and there, but it may have been not until I got home that I got the offer. Anyway, they said, "At your convenience, could you come in on Tuesday?" and that sounded odd to me. I thought they were joking or something. In this business, they usually tell you when they want you.
So I pushed it and said "How about 10:00?'" which was later than most call times and they said "Fine". So I showed up and was in a bathing suit…and tennis shoes! You can see it in a publicity photo or two and they offered to get me ballet slippers and I told them I had those at home and I would bring them in the next day and I did.
JK: What was it like performing Tinker Bell's movements?
MK: I was isolated on a great big soundstage at the Disney Studio that seemed to go on forever. There was no one for me to react to. I had to imagine almost everything. There was an occasional prop like huge scissors or a wire frame keyhole or something. Most of the time it was just me pretending to be looking up from under something or walking around.
You remember the scene where she falls over backwards in Wendy's dresser drawer? Well, they had me falling over backwards onto a mattress. Well, the mattress was about half an inch thick, or at least it seemed that thin, and I went over backwards, and I went "thud". The look on my face of surprise and pain was identical to the one Tink has in the finished film.
Margaret Kerry gets help from a stagehand in trying to use a giant pair of scissors.
JK: So who else was there watching all of this?
MK: Two or three prop men to help move things around, a 35mm camera set up with a camera man, a lighting crew who adjusted not only the lights on the floor but also overhead in the cat walks. They would do my hair up and then I would go on the soundstage.
Marc Davis would show me the storyboard, and Gerry Geronimi was usually there. Wilfred Jackson, who was also another director on the film, would come by as well. They would tell me what they wanted Tinker Bell to do, and then we would talk it over and I would put some of my ideas in with it and they would film that.
JK: How many times did you have to do a scene?
MK: They called me 'Two Take Tink' because I would get it right the first time and then they would have me do it a second time for "safety". I was so young and foolish. I could have made a lot more money messing things up so they would have to do it over and over.
JK: How long did the filming take?
MK: I spent the next six to eight months working on that cold, dark and dank soundstage. They would call me when my schedule would work and their schedule would work so it wasn't every day.
JK: Did they rig you up in the flying apparatus like Bobby and Kathryn?
MK: Almost. I escaped it at the last minute like in those old movie cliffhangers. It was an awful, ugly contraption and I thought it was quite dangerous as well. I was very nervous about it. But when you are in show business, you do as you are told. If they ask if you can ride a horse, you say "sure, no problem" without hesitation even if you have never been on a horse in your life. I got into it once and they were going to fly me up after lunch. I was so nervous I couldn't eat when we broke for lunch.
After lunch, Marc said, "Margaret, we're not going to have you fly." I said, "Why not?" I thought maybe they had figured out how afraid I was about it. He said, "Well, you know, at lunch, we realized that Tinker Bell works at a different rhythm than anybody else in the movie. Tinker Bell does not glide when she flies. She darts. She flips. So we couldn't use any of the film for reference anyway."
And I said, "Oh well, that's a big disappointment." I was a really good actress. (laughs) Did you ever notice that? The other people fly. But not Tinker Bell. She darts. She's gotta see what's going on here, there, and the other place.
Margaret Kerry darts from place to place, as Tinker Bell does not fly smoothly like the other characters.
JK: Did you recognize expressions or movements when you saw Tinker Bell on the screen?
MK: My husband (second husband Jack Wilcox) and I saw it in a movie theater. I remembered all the scenes and all the motions I did to create them. I kept elbowing my husband and saying, "That's me! That's me!" He just turned to me and said, "I know it's you. I'd recognize those thighs anywhere."
JK: You look amazing in those still shots.
MK: At the time, I was five foot two and my measurements were a 35 bust line, my waist was 25 inches and my hips were 36 inches. I was a babe. I had just won the World's Most Beautiful Legs contest but, of course, I never told Disney about that.
JK: Does any of the live action footage still exist?
MK: It's all lost. All they have now are the stills. That's all I've ever seen
JK: I understand Roland Dupree did a lot of the live action reference for Peter.
MK: They tried using Bobby Driscoll, who did the voice, but he didn't have any movement training. The face of the character definitely looks like Bobby.
I am the one who suggested they bring in Roland Dupree to body double Peter. Roland was a terrific dancer but never grew beyond five foot five so never became a romantic lead dancer. He was a good friend of mine. I was working with him since he was a dance director at Fox. They wanted more of a dance type of movement for Peter Pan, so I said, "Well you've got to get Roland."
They were so happy with the work he did that they later told me that Hans Conried was unavailable immediately because of a previous commitment and they needed some live action reference and if I had any suggestions. I told them to get Henry Brandon who played a lot of villains and I had enjoyed working with him in a movie. He was over six feet tall and he worked out well for Disney.
JK: Did you work with Kathryn Beaumont?
MK: Kathryn Beaumont, who was the voice of Wendy in the film and also participated in the live action sessions, used to make a very definite separation between "then" and "now". The work she did for Disney was back "then". I went to her classroom when she was a teacher and told stories and did voices for her students…but only under the stipulation that I never reveal to them that Kathryn had done any work for Disney.
JK: You also did some live action reference for the red-haired mermaid in the Mermaid Lagoon.
MK: Marc Davis was so pleased with my work on Tinker Bell that he asked me to be one of the mermaids. I was shown over a dozen sketches of the mermaids done by animator Fred Moore. The voice recording took only two to three hours.
The three of us, Connie Hilton, June Foray and me, showed up at Disney's Sound Department about two weeks before the filming. We recorded the track and went home.
A couple of weeks later, the 'set' was ready and we dressed in our one-piece bathing suit (with cover-ups) and promptly climbed up on the prop rock. Our ankles were bound by soft tubing so we had to wiggle like mermaids.
The dialogue track was played for us and we 'mouthed' our lines from the track. We did not sing and received good-hearted applause from the crew when we got it right. People were coming and going watching the scenes we were doing.
A minimal set was built of wood planks at different levels to mimic Marooner's Rock in the film. We were given props. I was given a lyre and June a conch shell. The filming took about two days total.
We were all about the same height, roughly five feet tall, so we looked like sisters.
I was the redhead, so I joke to audiences when I give presentations that I was Ariel's great-grandmother.
I also did a voice reading for the Indian squaw, but June ended up getting that, and I also did a couple of lines for Michael but I don't think they were ever used. I think they had me do them for safety reasons…just in case his voice changed over the time. That happens to young boys, you know.
Margaret Kerry and Tinker Bell get stuck while trying to squeeze through a keyhole.
JK: Do you wish Tinker Bell could have talked?
MK: Oh, no, I thought that she was terribly interesting because it was up to the animators, and to me, to give her the body language in showing what she was thinking. Marc Davis said it so well. He said, "That spoke more volumes than if she'd said something."
JK: So you pretty much spent all your time at the Disney Studio walking around in a bathing suit?
MK: It was not pleasant, walking around the soundstage in my bathing suit all day. I did have a cover up I put on when I was not working. You never knew who might drop by the set. One day, actor Buddy Ebsen came by the soundstage. Not very far away, they had a huge grid, made out of wood. There was a lot of activity surrounding it.
He was working on it, and there were all these people around it, talking about it and Mr. Disney would come. I assumed that it was for registration, for live people and then how they were going to register to get their animated characters the right size and so on.
JK: Actually, that was the beginning of audio-animatronics and Disneyland. Walt was filming Buddy doing a dance routine and then they created a little mechanical puppet character called the "Little Man" that would mimic that movement. Walt was planning miniature displays for a project called Disneylandia where small figures would perform.
MK: Oh, my, I never knew that. You learn something new every day.
JK: How often did Walt drop by to see you go through your movements?
MK: He wouldn't come by often. Maybe only three or four times Walt himself personally stopped by. I introduced myself to him one day and in my pert way told him that I'd gone to school with his daughters — one was older, one was younger than me. He surprised me when he said, "Yes, they liked you!"
I do remember one time pretty clearly of him being in the projection room that they called "the sweat box" when they were showing pencil tests of what Marc Davis had done.
This projection room was just jammed with people to see whether this curvy Tinker Bell would work because there was some concern that she was maybe too curvy. When it finished, there was applause because it looked great.
And Mr. Disney was there, and he was standing alongside the wall and he was not smiling but he was not looking unhappy, he just was taking it all in. He nodded to all of us and then left. So obviously, he was very pleased with what Marc had done.
JK: There is the urban legend that Marilyn Monroe was the model for Tinker Bell.
MK: I've asked several people about that and they think that what happened was an executive or a producer or somebody from Disney was being interviewed and they got to talking about different characters and he said something like, "Well, she's curvy like Marilyn Monroe," and someone picked that up and put it in print.
Margaret Kerry and Tinker Bell look through a keyhole.
JK: You actually knew Marilyn Monroe, didn't you?
MK: I thought she was absolutely fabulous. She had just been put under contract at Fox and wasn't well known. Later, of course, she became a legend, but at that time she was just another aspiring actress. All the girls that were working with her, we loved her. She was adorable. But she was not a dancer. You had to be a dancer to do Tinker Bell and to give her all the movements and the flexibility that they needed for her. So she wouldn't have been asked to audition for the part.
We did a bathing suit publicity layout together at the Beverly Hills Hotel for some magazine around this time. While we were waiting for the photographer to set up, I had my camera and Marilyn took a snapshot of me and I took a snapshot of her. I still have those photos today.
JK: Tinker Bell became the icon of Disneyland shortly after the film was released.
MK: Tinker Bell was just going to be a fun secondary character that Disney was going to have in one movie. Then all the things changed when Disneyland started.
I'm told that so many of the people at the studio thought Disneyland was going to lose money or even go bankrupt. So they went to Roy and said, "Roy, would you tell him that we're asking him not to use our big characters that we can license and make money off of, so when Disneyland flops, we can get the money back?"
So Roy evidently talked to Walt in a much nicer manner than I just did, and Walt understood and got back to Roy and said, "Tell 'em I'm going to use Jiminy Cricket and Tinker Bell." That's why when Disneyland opened, you saw Jiminy Cricket and Tinker Bell everyplace.
But you didn't see a lot of the big licensed characters. He also made Tinker Bell the one who came in to everybody's household once a week and took children on a magical trip to someplace on the Disneyland television program. Kids got to know her, and before you know it, there were all these books and merchandise.
JK: You were there at Opening Day for Disneyland.
MK: My husband (Dick Brown) and I were there working. We were filming a behind the scenes documentary of Opening Day. Dick was the one who came up with the idea of having cameras on forklifts so you could get shots over the heads of the crowd. Hal Smith did the narration. It was chaos that day and so hot.
They never released it. A few years ago, Dave Smith at the Disney Archives pulled out a copy to show me, but the narration was gone and all of our credits had been removed from the end of the film.
JK: I know you've told me that you felt Tinker Bell was only thirteen years old.
MK: It explains so much, doesn't it? Her attitude is like almost any thirteen-year-old girl's. "What is this world about? I've got to protect myself. I've got to find out what's going on here. I'm not sure, so I'm going to do what I think is right." Some say that her attitude is "I want it all, and I want it delivered."
And, why not? When you're thirteen, you think you can have it! I think maybe that's why this idea of her being a brat or sassy comes from. She's not quite sure what life is all about, but she's gonna find out. But she's not going to take any guff either, which I really enjoy and I think more people relate to today than they did in the Fifties.
A Tinker Bell birthday card channels the spirit of Margaret Kerry.
JK: Margaret, you certainly still seem to be Tinker Bell to me.
MK: Well, I must tell you, Marc Davis, said to me one time this wonderful thing when we were having lunch later on with his delightful wife Alice. He leaned over and said, "You are still Tinker Bell." And I said, "Marc, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." He said, "No, that's you up there!"
When people introduce me to their friends they say, "This is Tinker Bell." And I explain quickly so they don't think little men in white coats are coming to take me away, and they say, "You look like Tinker Bell."
JK: What did you think when you saw the finished film?
MK: Like everybody else, I was enchanted. It is such a happy film. When you look up on that screen that's me you see up there. It's a wonderful thing. It's been a blessing.
Glad to see you back Jim. I hadn't seen an article since the end of last year. Another great article.