Adrienne Tytla

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Adrienne Tytla: The Disney Giant and the Artist's Model

Adrienne Tytla passed away from cancer on December 13, 2006. She was married to a Disney giant and was the mother of the real Dumbo.

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 their son, Peter, as an inspirational model.

Adrienne died at her farm in East Lyme, Connecticut. It was the same one she and her husband bought back in 1942 just before he left the Disney Studio. She was 92 years old. She is survived by her son, artist Peter Tytla and daughter Tamara Schacher-Tytla and granddaughter, Fantasia, who accepted the Disney Legends award for her grandfather in 1998.

Adrienne le Clerc met her husband in 1936 when she was a 22-year-old actress and fashion model from Seattle, earning extra money by posing in art classes. She was paid 75 cents an hour (for a three-hour shift) to pose for life drawing classes at the Disney Studios for one week. That first night, a dark, intense, good looking young animator who was finishing his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs asked to give her a lift home and lightning struck.

In addition to being a model, Adrienne Tytla had quite an active career as a stage actress and even dated playwright Will Saroyan before she met her husband. Bill and Adrienne's 30-year marriage began on April 21, 1938. Some accounts state that they were married in 1937, possibly because they lived together for a while before they married, but Adrienne herself confirmed the April 1938 date. Their son Peter was born approximately 10 months later.

Clearly, she was a great inspiration and support for her husband although she complained that in order to get her husband's attention when he was intently working on his animation, she had to stand in the doorway naked.

After her husband's death in 1968, Adrienne, resettled in East Lyme, Connecticut, opened an antique garden furniture shop in the barn on her property and continued her lifelong hobby of taking photographs. In 1974 she became the food columnist for the local newspaper, the Old Lyme Gazette. In addition to sharing recipes, she included stories of her adventures in Hollywood. Her "Joy of Eating" column continued until the paper was sold in 1982. After leaving the paper, she began concentrating on the field of photography in earnest, primarily still lifes and landscapes. She exhibited her work (sometimes in shows along with the work of her children).

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," said Tytla. "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. 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 Feburary 2, 1942 issue of Time magazine was the following letter from Adrienne Tytla:

Mother's Appeal

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. "Most of the expressions and mannerisms," said Artist Tytla, "I got from my own kid. There's nothing theatrical about a two-year-old kid."

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 "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 3-year-old 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, for the last two decades, has been working as a photo-collage artist and has his own Web site. The Tytla's daughter Tammy (now the artist and photographer Tamara Schacher-Tytla who specializes in nudes) reportedly provided inspiration for the Little Lulu and Little Audrey shorts her father directed and animated. The third generation of artist-photographers is Fantasia.

It might be interesting some time to further explore the effect the free-spirited Adrienne had on her talented husband.

Vladimir Peter Tytla was born October 25, 1904 in Yonkers, New York. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants and to assimilate into American culture Tytla took the nickname "Bill." His wife always called him "Will."

When he was 9 years old, he visited Manhattan and attended Winsor McCay's vaudeville act featuring "Gertie the Dinosaur" (view this classic short, now in the public domain, on YouTube). It transformed his life forever and he never forgot that presentation. By the age of 16, he was working in New York animation studios.

However, he was unhappy at the Paul Terry Studios and even more so when, in 1932, his friend and colleague animator Art Babbitt moved on to Hollywood to work for Disney. After fervent urging from Art, Bill finally took a trip to the West Coast and joined The Walt Disney Studios on a "trial basis" in November 1934.

During his "probationary" year, Bill animated Clarabelle Cow in the short "Mickey's Fire Brigade" and a rooster dancing the carioca in "Cock O' The Walk," which was so well-received by Walt that Bill was teamed with Freddy Moore in animating the seven dwarfs. Bill's work on Grumpy is especially outstanding, including the scene where Snow White first kisses Grumpy.

"Bill was powerful, muscular, high-strung and sensitive, with a tremendous ego," wrote Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book The Disney Villain. "Everything was 'feelings' with Bill. Whatever he animated had the inner feelings of his characters expressed through very strong acting. He did not just get inside Stromboli, he was Stromboli and he lived that part."

Besides Stromboli in Pinocchio, Tytla was also responsible for the giant in Brave Little Tailor, Chernabog, as well the sorcerer Yen Sid in Fantasia and of course, baby Dumbo.

When Art Babbit led a strike against the Disney Studio in 1941, Tytla joined because of his friendship with Babbit. "I was for the company union, and I went on strike because my friends were on strike," said Tytla. "I was sympathetic with their views, but I never wanted to do anything against Walt."

When the strike ended two months later, Tytla returned to the studio, but "there was too much tension and electricity in the air," according to Adrienne Tytla. With Vladimir, "everything was instinctive and intuitive, and now the vibes were all wrong."

Tytla felt he was unwelcome at the studio and also felt less challenged in his animation assignments, including Pedro the baby mail plane in Saludos Amigos and Jose Carioca. In addition for the last three years his wife had battled tuberculosis and there was the fear of a Japanese attack on California soil. Bill resigned from the Disney Studio on February 24, 1943 and moved back east. It was an act he regretted for the remainder of his life.

On the East Coast, he soon found work as an animator and a director at Famous Studios and Terrytoons. He worked on characters like Popeye, Little Lulu and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Unhappy that these cartoons never matched the standards of excellence set at Disney, Tytla went into animated television commercials for Tempo Productions in order to support his family.

Tytla's last animation work was on the live action/animated film The Incredible Mr. Limpet. However during production, Tytla became ill and later suffered several strokes. Much of his animation chores on the film were completed by Warner Brothers animators Robert McKimson, Hawley Pratt, and Gerry Chiniquy.

Tytla died on his farm on December 29, 1968 at the age of 64. [Other sources including the Disney Legends page have Tytla passing away on December 30 or December 31 but I have seen the actual obituaries, which were published on December 30.]

Scans from a 1994 exhibit catalog of at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York are available at the museum's Web site. This Tytla exhibit was organized by the well-respected animator and historian John Canemaker and the text about Tytla in the catalog was written by Canemaker. This text is a wonderful introduction to the life of Bill Tytla.

When Bill died in 1968, Adrienne announced that she was going to write a book about his life entitled The Wonderful World of Willy T. Over the years, as she struggled to find a publisher, the title changed to Disney's Giant and was privately printed in 2005.

About the size of a telephone book, Disney's Giant is a scrapbook biography of her husband and her life with him. It is not a professionally laid out book but a mixture of photocopies of original artwork, some (often badly printed) photos, and apparently the raw unorganized notes for the book that Adrienne had compiled over the last few decades.

It is really only for those Disney completists who want to know more about Tytla and perspectives of others who worked at Disney during the Golden Age. Or for those who want an obscure, limited edition Disney-related book. I found the book valuable to me for several reasons, including listing correct dates that are wrong in other sources and some great anecdotal stories (like Walt's unexpected visit after the Time magazine article). For my purposes, it was worth the price even though I had to eat candy bar lunches for a month. Last year, it was selling for $165 and through the kindness of Howard Green I was able to purchase an autographed copy directly from Adrienne.

Today to order a copy of Disney's Giant, you can visit Peter's Web site and ask for the current price and procedures to order.