Tinker Bell Tales

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Being a huge Peter Pan fan and the author of an unpublished book on the entire history of Peter Pan in various media, I was troubled by the recent DVD release of the Disney animated classic.

Of course, I was disappointed that in the extras, Disney didn't include the second Disney Christmas television show from 1951 that showcased a live action Bobby Driscoll flying around as Peter and Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy interacting with Walt and the Magic Mirror. I would also have loved the Lux Radio Theater production of Peter Pan with Driscoll and Beaumont that had John Carradine doing the role of Captain Hook.

I was also disappointed in the color transfer that has been discussed negatively and with much greater technical knowledge than I have at a variety of other Disney Web sites.

However, the thing that troubled me most was the material on the upcoming Tinker Bell animated movies. I am withholding final judgment until I actually see the completed films but just seeing the material that was presented, I felt that the people involved didn't really understand the little fairy and her long and rich history.

James Barrie's first draft of his famous story of the magical boy who never grew up originally christened the world's most famous female fairy as "Tippy-Toe." Fortunately, by the time the time the play was first performed, the little pixie had been renamed "Tinker Bell" and has remained so ever since.

Over the years, the fairy's name has sometimes been spelled Tinkerbelle but Disney Archivist Dave Smith has determined the official name is Tinker Bell because in the film Captain Hook refers to her as "Miss Bell," indicating that Bell is her last name.

Of course, probably most readers know that a tinker was an itinerant tradesman who mended pots and pans. He rang his distinctively high pitched "tinker's bell" to announce he was in the neighborhood

Barrie pictured the fairy with fiery red hair because she was so small she could only have one emotion at a time, and the red hair seemed to reflect her most common emotions.

In 1924, Barrie wrote a screenplay for a possible movie of Peter Pan but it was never used. From that unpublished screenplay, here is the description of the first appearance of Tinker Bell:

"The fairy, Tinker Bell. Now we have the outside of the window, with swallows still there. The fairy music comes now. The fairy, Tink, flies on and alights on the window sill. The swallows remain. She should be about five inches in height and, if the effect can be got, this should be one of the quaintest pictures of the film, the appearance of a real fairy. She is a vain little thing, and arranges her clothes to her satisfaction. She also keeps shoving the birds about so as to get the best place for herself. There should never be any close-up pictures of Tink or the other fairies; we should always just see them as not more than five inches high. Finally, she shoves the swallows off the sill."

When the animated feature was first released, the Disney publicity department insisted that this would be the first time that Tinker Bell would be visible as more than just the little spot of light flitting around the scenery that was familiar to audiences from the many stage productions of the play.

In actuality, a silent movie version of Peter Pan released by Paramount in 1924 had a live actress appear briefly in some close-ups as Tinker Bell. Her name was Virginia Brown Faire, and she had appeared in silent films for over three years before she won the role of Tink.

Through the special effects of Roy Pomeroy using "in-the-camera matte photography," Tink was seen as a real person for the first time. The director wanted audiences to believe she was very much alive so that the film audience would understand why it was necessary to clap their hands to save her life near the end of the film. For most of the film, she remains the familiar ball of light.

A film magazine of the time, Exceptional Photoplays (Dec.-Jan. 1925 issue), was delighted by the final effect: "What could be more delightful than the picturing of Tinker Bell as a brilliant ball of light, flitting swiftly through the air and which, when alighting, is disclosed to the wondering audience as a tiny creature in the wind-blown draperies—all flame and unreality and beauty?"

Herbert Brenon, who directed that film version, was still around when Disney released its animated feature. He was very complimentary about the Disney interpretation of Tinker Bell.

"Tinker Bell is absolutely magnificent. That was something we had to do most of the time with just a light on the end of a wire. Cartoon is the ideal medium for portraying the role," he stated when the film was originally released.

For the Disney version, actress Margaret Kerry (who also modeled and provided a voice for one of Neverland's mermaids) was the model for Tinker Bell. Miss Kerry had to audition in pantomime for the film's directors and had previously played a fairy in the Warner Brothers' film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, besides a host of other professional acting credits beginning from the time when she was only 4 years old.

"One of the greatest misconceptions about Tinker Bell is that she was modeled after Marilyn Monroe," claimed animator Marc Davis, who was responsible for designing and bringing the pixie to life. "There is no truth whatsoever to this. Margaret Kerry was our only live action reference and she was a tremendous help in allowing us to rough out the action."

"I had an agent who sent me over for the Disney audition for Peter Pan," remembered Kerry when I interviewed her in 2003. "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 bar, etc.... so I got this little record player and put on an instrumental record and I worked up a pantomime to the beat of the record of making breakfast. You know, carrying eggs and maybe dropping one, etc. So the next day I went to the studio and took the record player and put on the record and did this mime I had created. I believe there were three people there... probably Marc Davis and Gerry Geronomi and somebody else I can't remember right now. Anyway, they gave me some direction of 'look up as if you see such and such', etc.

"The sessions were very exciting. There were all kinds of props for me to interact with including an oversized keyhole which I had to pretend to squeeze through. They also had a pair of twelve-foot scissors which I had to move. It's difficult to do a pantomime if you don't have a rhythm so I did a lot of action with songs like The Donkey Serenade going through my mind.

"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. When I showed up that first day, I 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."

Margaret has her own Web site, Tinker Bell Talks (link) where you can find out more about her forthcoming autobiography Tinker Bell Talks: Tales of a Pixie Dusted Life as well as purchase some wonderful autographed pictures.

Disney publicists did take great pains at the time to point out that Tinker Bell's personality characterized by jealousy, anger, vanity and more was entirely different from Margaret Kerry's personality.

"Our intention was always to make (Tinker Bell) attractive," recalled Marc Davis when I interviewed him several years before his death. "She is basically a jealous woman and that is what motivates all her actions. The pouting aspect of her personality was suggested by Barrie."

More time and money were spent on the development of Tinker Bell than any other character in the animated feature, including Captain Hook. One press release claimed she was on the drawing board for 12 years and during that time her hair changed from blonde to red to dark brown, and finally back to blonde. One interpretation had her as a cool, sophisticated, ballerina-like fairy. Her wings were animated on a separate cel to give them a more translucent appearance.

Disney Legend Ollie Johnston said that Tinker Bell is "a prime example of how much an artist can do with a character that doesn't talk by simply using pantomime. Marc made the character much more memorable than if she had some kind of voice."

When the film was released, critics were not kind to little Tink. Bosley Crowther in his review for the New York Times described her as "a bit of vulgarity, with her bathing beauty form and attitude" and Francis Clarke Sayers called her "a vulgar little thing, who has been too long at the sugar bowls." Other critics were upset that Disney had omitted the stage tradition of Peter Pan begging an audience to applaud to revive the dying Tinker Bell.

However, audiences immediately fell in love with Miss Bell and she was featured on a variety of products including clothes, jewelry, comic books (including two issues in the Four Color Series illustrated by Al Hubbard), dolls, games, night lights, sunglasses, and many more items like a number of different souvenir bells that were available at Disneyland.

One of the first Disneyland-specific products sold at Walt's new theme park was a glow-in-the-dark Tinker Bell wand that you held under a light bulb for several minutes and then when you turned the light off, the wand would glow faintly.

There were even a series of commercials produced by the Disney Studios in the mid-1950s where Tinker Bell was the spokes-pixie for Peter Pan Peanut Butter, one of the major sponsors of the weekly Disneyland television series.

The primary director for these commercials was Charles Augustus "Nick" Nichols. Nichols, who began his Disney career as an animator on the Disney shorts, had most of his responsibility as a director on the Pluto cartoons from 1944-1951.

The commercials provided work for some of the Disney animators who had been working on the short cartoons that were being phased out of the theatrical schedule. Phil Duncan, Volus Jones, Bob Carlson, Bill Justice, Paul Carlson and others contributed to this new endeavor.

One of the greatest Disney storymen of all time, Bill Peet, remembered when he butted heads with Walt Disney on a segment of Sleeping Beauty, that the "next day, I was sent down to the main floor to work on Peter Pan Peanut Butter TV commercials, which was without a doubt my punishment for what Walt considered my stubbornness. I toughed it out for about two months on peanut butter commercials, then stubbornly decided to return to my room on the third floor whether Walt liked it or not."

The commercial work also provided jobs for other talent at the Disney lot. Sterling "Winnie the Pooh" Holloway and Cliff "Jiminy Cricket" Edwards narrated Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercials. Tinker Bell was mute in those days and had to pantomime her delight at the peanut butter that could be put on hot toast because it melted like butter and was so smooth that it could even be spread on "crispy potato chips."

Tinker Bell would fly around huge jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter while the theme song would remind audiences that "your eyes know and your tummy knows... best of all, your taster knows... Peter Pan Peanut Butter is so grand—the smoothest peanut butter in the land."

These commercials often appeared on the weekly Disneyland television show. The popular television show opened each week with Tinker Bell introducing audiences to the four lands of Disneyland. and she became so associated with the new theme park that one of the most frequently asked questions of cast members was "Where is Tinker Bell?" Walt came up with a solution to that problem in 1961 by having a real life Tinker Bell fly over Sleeping Beauty Castle during the nightly fireworks display.

That first Tinker bell was Tiny Kline. Tiny Kline came to America as a Hungarian immigrant at the age of 14 as part of a dance troupe. Kline rejected the plan of having her become a seamstress to instead become a well-known and popular burlesque dancer. She caught the attention of a well-known Wild West trick rider whom she married shortly thereafter. Five weeks after the wedding, he fell off of his horse and died, leaving Kline to begin her own career in the circus.

Starting at the bottom as a virtually nude, painted "statue girl," she worked her way up to "Roman rider" which meant she stood atop a charging steed in the chariot races at the end of the show and eventually became the queen of the aerial iron jaw act. That act became her trademark when she performed for Ringling Brothers.

Kline, at age 70, became the very first Tinker bell at Disneyland. Suspended 146 feet up in the air, she glided down a long wire from the Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty's castle to signal the beginning of the fireworks.

Kline kept a diary and reportedly circus historian Professor Janet Davis is annotating it for future publication by the University of Illinois Press. The working title is "The Tiny Kline Papers: From Titillation to Tinker Bell."

Kline performed for the next three summers but in 1964, health problems required her to hand over the wand (and harness) to nineteen-year old French circus acrobat Mimi Zerbini. Zerbini was also a circus family veteran but only performed as Tinker Bell for that one summer.

In 1965, Judy Kaye began a career of more than a decade of flying across the night sky at Disneyland. Kaye stood five foot, one and seven-eighth inches tall. She was born into a circus family and paid her first visit to a circus arena when she was barely three weeks old.

In 1997, she said, "I love doing Tink because of the flying. I'm partially a ham anyway. I enjoy my work...I wouldn't otherwise do it. In show business I can put forth what I've been observing and learning all my life. I like satisfying people. Show people stay young-Tiny Kline was a classic example of that."

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of Tinker Bell. I suppose time will tell whether these new planned animated features will add to that legend or will be seen as merely a crude mercenary attempt to cash in on the formerly silent icon of Disneyland.