The Mystery of the Female Disney Animator

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

As frequent readers of my columns might suspect, I love little Disney mysteries. By this time, most people assume that everything about the early history of the Walt Disney Company must have been written. That is definitely not true, as will be reinforced by two new biographies about Walt Disney that are coming out within the next six months by Neal Gabler and Michael Barrier.

A new little Disney mystery about female animators at the Disney Studio during the Walt years has recently cropped up.

The Disney Studio, like other animation studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation, was not always kind to women who wanted to become animators.

In my collection is a copy of a letter from the Disney Studios dated May 1939 in response to Miss Frances Brewer of Van Nuys, California who was seeking work at the Disney Studio as an animator. (Read the entire letter at the Animation Guild blog).

The form letter response included the following paragraph:

"Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. To qualify for the only work open to women one must be well grounded in the use of pen and ink and also of water color. The work to be done consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and filling in the tracings on the reverse side with paint according to directions."

Like many people who have studied Disney animation, I always assumed that the classic Disney animation was done by men who came to Disney during the Depression desperately seeking any job related to art. Talented women artists were consigned to the "nunnery" (as the Ink and Paint Department was known).

During that time period, it was assumed that women would only be at a job until they found a husband. Or if they already had a husband, they would soon leave to start a family. Men, being the primary breadwinner and supporter of the family, needed the job and higher wages in order to accomplish their role.

Mary Blair was the exception to the rule. Her husband, Lee, already worked at the Disney Studio, so that gave her a greater opportunity to show what she was capable of doing. Yet, reading about her time at the Studio is a sad series of battles and grumbles with the men working at Disney who resented Walt Disney's affection for her unique style.

So it was quite a surprise to recently discover on the Animation Guild Blogspot the names of Berta "Bea" Tamargo and Elizabeth Case Zwicker. Berta was an assistant animator who started at Disney in 1946 and Elizabeth was an in-betweener and breakdown artist who began in 1956. They were both laid off in the infamous "Black Sunday" mass layoff at the end of production of Sleeping Beauty and apparently left animation completely.

Nancy Stapp was also an in-betweener laid off on "Black Sunday." Eva Schneider made it up to the level of assistant animator. Ruth Kissane, Lyn Kroeger and other talented women animators contributed to the classic Disney animation we love, and yet their names are as completely unknown to us today as the names of the Nine Old Men were during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Trying to track down more information on these ladies and others who may have worked with them led me to yet another mystery: Retta Davidson. Retta Davidson had a girlhood ambition. She loved art and wanted to be an art teacher.

However, in July 1939 when she was only 17 years old and had just graduated from high school, she was hired by the Disney Studios as a painter for the feature film Pinocchio. She worked at the old Hyperion Studio location.

When the Disney Studio moved to its current location in Burbank, Retta did special effects painting of fire, water and bubbles on animated features like Bambi and Fantasia.

World War II provided Retta a unique opportunity and until now, a previously unknown anecdote in the story of Disney animation. With so many men being called into service, there was a shortage of animators. In 1941, women who worked in the Ink and Paint Department were invited to submit drawings of Donald Duck in order to be considered for jobs in the Animation Department.

Retta and nine other women (whose names are still unknown to me) were chosen to be trained as in-betweeners and background artists. According to my sources, only Retta and two other women of that special 10 stayed in the animation business.

Retta only stayed in that role for a year. In 1942, she left the Disney Studio to serve four years in the Navy. At first she was a draftsman in Washington but finished her service in Hollywood working in the Photographic Services Depot as a projectionist and in charge of the film library. She worked alongside such future Disney celebrities as Card Walker and artist Bob Moore.

When World War II ended, Retta came back to the Disney Animation Department, where she worked for the next two years until 1966. There were several interruptions during those two decades when she took time out to have two children and also took a year to attend State Teacher's College in Santa Barbara to study to become an art teacher.

Retta left the Disney Studio in 1966 and did freelance work. She worked for Chuck Jones as well as doing some commercials and television work.

For seven months during 1980-1981, she worked in Montreal, Canada as an animation teacher. A friend had recommended her to the Gerald Potterton Studios and she trained art students from Concordia College in Montreal and Sheridan College in Toronto.

Retta later told friends that she loved her time in Canada teaching students who had little or no experience in animation.

In 1982, the Disney Studios offered her the opportunity to return to Disney to help train young animators working on The Black Cauldron. After a trial period, she was given the position of "Coordinating Animator." At the time she lived in Mission Viejo (roughly 60 miles away from the Disney Studio) and commuted to her job in a van pool.

In her spare time she sailed off Dana Point with a sailing club, made batiks, swam and spent time with her two grandchildren.

Even though she was a grandmother, she took the job at Disney because she hoped it would open up greater opportunities for women in animation. She also stated at the time that it gave her the chance "to repay the studio for the years of early training I received in the Golden Years. This has always been my home. I was only seventeen when I began. I grew up here."

That's where my investigation hit a dead end. Over 20 years ago. What happened to Retta Davidson?

Retta Davidson retired from the animation business in 1985. She passed away June 12, 1998. Retta Davidson is not to be confused with Disney animator Retta Scott who died August 26, 1990 and is a Disney Legend. Scott was the first Disney woman animator to receive a screen credit for her work on Bambi. She joined the story department in 1938 and was made an animator when Bambi went into production. Like Davidson, she left Disney and did animation at other companies.

Surely some of those aspiring young animators she trained are still in the business, maybe even still working at Disney. Who were those other special ten who were trained in 1941? Why did only three stay in animation? Who were all those women animators working on Sleeping Beauty?

That's the problem with a really good mystery. It generates even more mysteries.

An additional note: Since this article was published, reader John Donaldson wrote in with the information that Retta Davidson passed away on June 15, 1998, in Carlsbad, California.