A Snow White Christmas Premiere

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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A Snow White Christmas Premiere

"Who says there is no Santy Claus? It seems to me that Walt Disney tonight in giving this feature to the children of the world is indeed the modern Santa Claus."

– Jesse Lasky, film pioneer responsible for "The Covered Wagon" and the original film version of "The Ten Commandments" on December 21, 1937.

"One thing I do know is that this picture is the best Christmas present the children of Hollywood could possibly have."

– Louella Parsons, Hollywood columnist on December 21, 1937.

"Walt Disney ... brings to motion pictures a new medium for a greater art. It looks like a Snow White Christmas for all."

– Narrator of RKO Pathe News newsreel released December 1937.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood on the night of December 21, 1937 and this year celebrates its 70th anniversary.

There have been countless articles and several good books written about this innovative film. So, in looking for a new twist to help celebrate this classic movie, I thought it might be fun to try to relive that memorable premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater.

The first cels for Snow White were taken to Ink and Paint on Jan. 4, 1937 and were put under the camera nine weeks later to be filmed. The last cels were painted on November 27, 1937 and final photography took place on December 1, 1937.

There was a sneak preview at a Pomona theater on December 6, 1937.

"The preview was unsettling," said Wilfred Jackson, who was one of the sequence directors. "The audience seemed to be enjoying the film, laughing, applauding. But about three quarters of the way through, one-third of them got up and walked out. Everybody else kept responding enthusiastically to 'Snow White' right to the end, but we were concerned about that third. Later we found out they were local college students who had to get back for their 10 p.m. dormitory curfew."

The Carthay Circle Theater was a movie palace designed in a "Spanish Mission Revival" style by architect Dwight Gibbs. The 1,500 seat theater opened in 1926 at 6316 San Vicente Boulevard in the mid-Wilshire district. Along with Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Carthay Circle hosted more big West Coast movie premieres than any other Hollywood theater (Gone With the Wind premiered there 1939).

If you would like to catch a glimpse of what the theater looked like around the time period that Snow White premiered, then find a copy of the "Our Gang" film "The Big Premiere," released in 1940. The first five minutes of this film was shot on location at the Carthay Circle where the gang tried to crash a film premiere.

In 1929, Walt decided to produce a new animated series, the "Silly Symphonies," and the first installment was "Skeleton Dance." However, Walt's distributor didn't want to release the cartoon but wanted more Mickey Mouse cartoons instead.

Walt found a salesman he knew at a local pool hall, gave him a copy of the cartoon and convinced him to contact Fred Miller, the owner of the Carthay Circle Theater. Miller liked the cartoon and booked it into his theater in August 1929 where it was a huge hit and gave Walt plenty of positive reviews to convince his distributor to book the film in other theaters.

It was this success that convinced Miller to take a chance on the first feature length animated cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It premiered at his Carthay Circle Theater in December 1937. The film had already been booked, sight unseen, as the Christmas attraction at Radio City Music Hall but Walt wanted a Hollywood premiere for his peers to help demonstrate that his work in animation was comparable to the work done in live action films.

"All the Hollywood brass turned out for my cartoon!" remembered Walt years later, "That was the thing. And it went way back to when I first came out here and I went to my first premiere. I'd never seen one in my life. I saw all these Hollywood celebrities coming in and I just had a funny feeling. I just hoped that some day they'd be going in to a premiere of a cartoon. Because people would depreciate the cartoon. You know, they'd kind of look down."

Ken Anderson, talking to Disney historian Paul Anderson, remembered that night when the Disney's animators in tuxedos were completely unprepared for the reaction of the celebrities: "So then there came the premiere of the film. It was a big deal. We all had monkey suits the first night. We were wearing these; we were really dressed up in clothes that weren't ours. We were standing around trying to listen to what the big shots were saying. And these stars were all coming. We were looking at these stars. And they were coming to this thing to see it and they were pretty off-hand about it. They came, "Oh, what the hell. It's a damn cartoon. We wouldn't waste any time on this damn thing or not if it was up to us to do it.' And so they were kind of put upon to do this thing.

"And they came, they walked in the theater, did this kind of down their nose thing. And they filled the theater. When they left, they were all talking about the story. In fact, you can't really begin to convey what they felt. Because they were astounded. They stood and they clapped and they had a terrific time at the end of the thing. And they were all kids again. These people were just moved by this thing, this cartoon. They could not understand it. We were never prepared for this type of reception. And-boy-they were crowding around Walt. And each of us. They crowded all around, 'What did you do?' And such and such. We're standing out there in the foyer and these people just went on and on and on and on about this marvelous picture. And I—for one—and I know everybody must have felt the same way, was thrilled."

That bright starlit night was fairly cold. Animator Marc Davis, who was not invited to the premiere nor could afford a ticket, remembered trying to dress up warmly to stand with nearly 30,000 other people to see the celebrities and top Disney staff enter the theater and then quickly left once the film started.

There was a long canopy stretching from the theater to the edge of the sidewalk. It covered a deep blue carpet for the many film executives and glamorous celebrities who had come out for a premiere that was unusual even for Hollywood. The glare of floodlights surrounded the theater as searchlight beams waved across the sky.

RKO Pathe News newsreel claimed that "Blasé Hollywood accustomed to gala openings turns out for the most spectacular of them all, the world premiere of the million and a half dollar fantasy 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.'"

Those celebrities included Marlene Dietrich, Preston Foster, Shirley Temple, Bob "Bazooka" Burns, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden (Amos and Andy), Joe Penner, Helen Vincent, Fred Perry, George McCall, Charlie Chaplin with Paulette Goddard, Gail Patrick , Ed Sullivan, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Cary Grant and many more.

Roy O. Disney had cleverly included invitations for Joseph Rosenberg (who had arranged for the Bank of America to loan money to the Disneys for the film) and the board of directors of Bank of America.

The distributor, RKO, teamed with the Disney Studios to do promotion for the film. In the weeks before the premiere, more than 1,000 posters decorated billboards around the Los Angeles area. There were promotional visits by Walt and his characters to radio shows from the Lux Radio Theater to Charlie McCarthy to make audiences aware of the film.

Bleachers were erected to accommodate 4,000 fans, although almost 10 times that number actually showed up that night. Hundreds of people waited long hours in the cold to catch a glimpse of the stars. The show had been sold out for many, many days, but a long line of people were at the ticket box office buying tickets for future shows 30 minutes before the premiere.

There was a full orchestra including the singers who had recorded the movie's songs who performed under the direction of Manny Harman.

Usherettes wore Snow White costumes. NBC radio was there for a coast-to-coast half-hour broadcast with announcer Don Wilson.

There was a special display on the street, and here is Wilson's description of that unique addition:

"Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, Dwarfland was moved to Hollywood. Down at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard just outside the Carthay Circle, Walt Disney built a replica of the dwarf cottage that appeared in the film. The cottage is only ten feet high and not quite so wide but every kid in this town has been through it. Outside are mushrooms three feet tall painted yellow and blue and pink. Weird looking trees with eyes that light up and long arms that reach out and grab at you just like the way they grab at Snow White.

"There's a little Dwarfs mill wheel and a diamond mine sparkling in the spotlights that illuminate the entire scene. The Dwarfs garden stretches for about two blocks. It's filled with all sorts of strange looking statuary and stumps and toadstools and flowers by the hundred and hundreds. A stream flows through the garden that turns the mill wheel. The crowds stand around watching the antics of the seven little dwarfs. Actual dwarfs in quaint medieval costumes who work the diamond mine, rake the garden, run in and out of the house, putting on a great show."

If you'd like to see some unique home photos of what that village looked like with garden gnomes decorating the area and those horrible looking monster trees, then check out this link: http://animationwhoandwhere.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html

Yes, this was probably the first time that the Disney Studio attempted to do costumed characters. Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck were there looking as if the famous three-dimensional Charlotte Clark dolls had been blown up to life size.

Mickey and Minnie had the famous "pie-eyes" but the missing "slice" was used by animators to indicate a highlight to show where the round eye was looking. Both slices should be pointing in the same direction. On these faces, the slices were facing each other so Mickey and Minnie looked cross-eyed.

The costumes were typical "pajama" costumes, meaning that the costume followed the shape of the person's body. The costumes for the dwarfs were even worse, so that they looked like blow-up dolls from a mail-order company with mouths frozen open in an oval shape and dead eyes not anchored but staring straight out.

Animator Bill Justice, who attended the premiere and who would decades later be in charge of designing Disneyland character costumes remembered that "When 'Snow White' was finally completed, all employees were invited to the premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater. Everybody went, and as it turned out, enjoyed a success beyond anyone's dreams. My most vivid memory of the evening, however, was the dwarf costumes. To help generate some atmosphere the Company made one of its first attempts at costumed characters. They must have been after thought because they sure weren't close to the model sheets. It's a wonder those dwarfs didn't scare people away."

Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, was there, as well, with one of his early Donald Duck ventriloquist dummies. Looking at stills from the premiere it is funny to see that everyone's eyes are focused on the small dummy and not on Clarence who was happily quacking away.

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck were interviewed by Wilson on the radio and I always wondered if Walt did Mickey's voice but I am sure that Nash did Donald.

Minnie: "Oh, be quiet, Pluto. Mickey wants to say something."

Mickey: "Hello, everybody. Gosh, what a night! I'm so excited I can't say a thing. (laughs)"

Wilson: "Mickey, how do you like coming to big premieres like this?"

Mickey: "I like it fine."

Minnie: "Me, too."

Pluto: "Barks."

Wilson: "Mickey, do you wish you were in the picture?"

Mickey: "Not me. I need a rest."

Donald Duck: "Quack. What are you talking about? All you do is rest."

Wilson: "What seems to be the trouble, Donald?"

Donald: "Somebody stole my ticket to the premiere. Dog gone it".

Wilson: "I think we can get you into the theater all right."

Donald Duck starts singing for the radio audience and Mickey, Minnie and Pluto try to shut him up and take him away.

Donald wasn't the only one who didn't have a ticket, neither did Adrianna Caselotti who voiced Snow White nor Harry Stockwell (the father of actor Dean Stockwell) who voiced the Prince.

Caselotti loved telling the following story: "When we got to the door, the girl said, 'May I have your tickets, please?' I said, 'Tickets? We don't have any tickets—I'm Snow White and this is Prince Charming!' She said, "I don't care who you are, you don't get in unless you've got tickets!' So, we sneaked in when she wasn't looking and we went upstairs to one side of the balcony and I stood there watching myself on the screen and all those movie stars clapping for me. Boy! Did I get a thrill out of that!"

Whether Walt did Mickey's voice or not, a very nervous Walt was interviewed on the radio show:

Walt: "Well, I'm very happy about everything. It's been a lot of fun making it and we're very happy that it's been given this big premiere here tonight and all these people turning out to take a look at it and I hope they aren't too disappointed. Well, our favorites are the little dwarfs. There's seven of them. We got names for them all that sort of fit their personality such as Doc whose the pompous leader and then there's old Happy, the smiling little fellow and Grumpy, the old sourpuss, the woman hater and ... I can't remember them all here tonight. (Laughs). And little Dopey. He's sort of our pet, you know. He hasn't any lines. He doesn't talk. Well, I don't know. I guess he just never tried."

Announcer: "Are you going in to watch the premiere?"

Walt: "Yes, and have my wife hold my hand."

Amazingly another Disney staffer was also interviewed.

Dave Hand, who was introduced as the supervising director of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the general manager of Disney Studios and "Walt Disney's right-hand man" told the radio audience the following among other comments: "At times it appeared to be an almost impossible task. The fact that we did it is a tribute to the guiding genius of Walt and the whole-hearted efforts and perfect cooperation of the seven hundred artists and technicians of the studio staff. We found we have only scratched the surface of the wonderful possibilities of the full length animated feature. We have recently started work on two new feature length features. The first to be released a year from now and the second the following Fall. Our staff thrives on tough assignments. We are hoping to produce things far above anything imaginable."

Animator Ward Kimball who had worked for many months on a scene of the dwarfs eating soup that was cut from the final film before it went to ink and paint attended the premiere with his wife, Betty, and shared the following memories with Disney historian Jim Korkis:

"I was at the premiere in 1937. We were worried. It was being shown at the Carthay Circle Hollywood. We didn't know how it would go over. Walt was on pins and needles. We sat down. Movie stars were sitting in seats. Betty and I sat behind Clark Gable and Carol Lombard and he got upset when Snow White was poisoned. He started to sniffle and borrowed a handkerchief. That type of reaction is hard to get with a cartoon because after all you are exaggerating and caricaturing and the tendency is to do a put on. Not Walt! I think that was the key to his secret.

"In the beginning the audience warmed up to the first little gags. Gradually, there was this buzz that arose with the whole theater. They laughed at the gags, especially that dancing thing with Dopey on Sneezy's shoulders. It just tore up the place. You knew what was going to happen. Sneezy lets go and off goes Dopey. That was Walt's timing. He criticized the first version. He said, 'Blow Dopey out of the screen and then you don't go and see what happened to him. You cut to Snow White and she's laughing and all the dwarves are laughing. And then go to Dopey and he's up there swinging and wiggling his ears.' On the night of the premiere, that scene got the biggest laugh. That was Walt's timing.

"Anyway, when Snow White is laid out on the marble bier and in comes the prince and everybody in the audience is sniffing and I heard people blowing their noses. It was weird. It really got to them. I knew the picture was a winner because they laughed at the gags and cried at a silly thing of a cartoon of a girl who comes to at the prince's first kiss.

"It's hard to believe but the people in the audience were really blowing their noses. I heard all this noise and I said, 'Betty, let's run out and watch them come out in the lobby.' They came out and they were rummaging around putting on dark glasses so no one would know they had been crying and their eyes were all red. They were wiping their eyes. It was a very moving experience. We knew it was a winner then."

Layout artist Ken O'Connor shared with Steve Hulett the following memory: "The audience was wildly enthusiastic. They even applauded the background and layouts when no animation was on the screen. I was sitting near John Barrymore when the shot of the Queen's castle above the mist came on with the Queen poling across the marsh in a little boat. He was bouncing up and down in his seat he was so excited. Barrymore was an artist as well as an actor, and he knew the kind of work that went into something like that."

Animator Wolfgang Reitherman recalled that, "The audience was so taken by the magic of what they had seen that they applauded after individual sequences, just as though they were watching a stage play. I've never seen anything quite like it since."

As the house lights came up, the audience who was already applauding rose to its feet.

"It was the most receptive, enthusiastic audience I have ever seen," animator Shamus Culhane recalled.

"I remember the premiere. The whole audience was crying—which was really something for a cartoon—when these funny, gross, blubber-legged dwarfs gathered around Snow White's bier. They cried even though they knew there would be a happy ending," Ward Kimball remembered.

Walt, who appeared on stage with his wife, said "I always dreamed that one day I would attend a gala premiere in Hollywood of one of my cartoons. Tonight you've made it come true. You make me feel like one of you."

Disney Historian J.B. Kaufman who knows things I never ever knew in decades of research has stated: "Snow White was at the Carthay Circle for four months. The Spanish-language edition of the feature, 'Blanca Nieves y los Siete Enanos," was unveiled at the Carthay Circle on Sunday, Feb. 27 1938, and became a regular Sunday-afternoon feature during the remainder of 'Snow White's' run there."

However, the Disney connection with the Carthay Circle doesn't end with Snow White. The Carthay was only one of two theaters (the other being New York's Broadway Theater that used to be called the Colony Theater and was where "Steamboat Willie" premiered) to be fitted with the full Fantasound equipment for the premiere of "Fantasia."

At the Academy Award ceremony on Feb. 23, 1939, Walt received a special Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was one large statue and seven small Oscars. The inscription read: "To Walt Disney for 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon." It was presented by 9-year-old Shirley Temple who had been at the premiere and posed for pictures with the costumed dwarfs that were almost exactly her size.

The final box office gross for the first release of Snow White was close to $8.5 million dollars, making it the highest-grossing Hollywood film of all time. That record would be broken two years later with the release of Gone With the Wind but at that moment in time, it really was a Snow White Christmas.