Happy New Year, Virginia Davis

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

As we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another and with the Disney Company promoting the celebration of birthdays, it is time we celebrate the birthday of a very special New Year's Eve baby who is tremendously important to the birth of the Disney Company.

Virginia Davis was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec. 31, 1918 and this year she will turn 90 years young. She is the sole surviving veteran of Walt Disney's first studio in California, the Disney Studios' very first star as well as Disney's oldest surviving employee.

When she was roughly 4 years old she starred in an experimental film done at Walt's Laugh-O-Grams Studio in Kansas City titled Alice's Wonderland, where a real little girl interacted with cartoon animals and backgrounds. Virginia Davis was Alice.

Using that film as a sample reel, Walt was able to get a contract with M.J. Winkler to produce a series of similar films, the Alice Comedies, and when he signed that contract on Oct. 16, 1923, it marked the beginning of the Disney Studios. Winkler insisted that same girl that was in the sample reel needed to appear in the series.

Walt Disney singlehandedly wrote, designed and animated the very first Alice Comedy made in Hollywood, "Alice's Day at Sea." Along with doing the artwork for the cartoon scenes, Walt directed the live-action scenes, while his brother, Roy, the business manager, doubled as company cameraman, photographing both the animation and the live action.

Upon signing with Winkler for a second series of "Alices," the Disney brothers were forced by the distributor to keep their expenses down. This led to the departure of Virginia Davis when the new contract would not pay her a monthly salary but only for the actual days she filmed as well as preventing her from doing other films. Three other young girls would play the role over the next several dozen installments.

After 13 films, Davis ended her employment with Walt. However, she continued performing in the theater and in a number of films. She also appeared in such early television shows as Your Hit Parade and One Man's Family.

Her final film appearance was in The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland.

Virginia went on to earn a degree from the New York School of Interior Design and became a decorating editor for the popular 1950s magazine Living for Young Homemakers. In 1963, she began a successful career in the real estate industry in Connecticut and later, Southern California. She was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1998.

Apparently, she is finally working with a collaborator on her autobiography. More than a year ago, I had an opportunity to talk with Davis and here are a few excerpts from that interview:

Wade Sampson: Walt first saw you in an advertisement for bread.

Virginia Davis: Warneker's Bread. Awfully good bread. It was a still picture. I had the bread in my hand like this and I was looking out this way and the look on my face was “Hmmmm… good!”

WS: So you had filmed Alice's Wonderland and then your parents hear from Walt in California that he wanted you for a series of pictures. Did your parents feel moving to California would be a great opportunity for your acting career?

VD: I had been very ill with double pneumonia at one point in Kansas City, Missouri, and the doctor told my mother that the climate would be much better out in California so that was a factor that weighed in with the nice offer from Mr. Disney. My dad was a traveling salesman so he could work just about anywhere. My mother was just a homemaker and I was an only child so it was no problem to move.

WS: Isn't that your mother in the live-action of Alice's Wonderland?

VD: You know? That's funny. People thought that and have written that but it's not true. When I saw the film, I could tell it was shot in my mother's house and that's my bedroom but the woman putting me to bed is my aunt, my mother's sister. Still, it is nice to be able to look back and see what my house looked like back then.

WS: I know it was just your mother and you that came out on the train to California. How did your dad get out to California?

VD: Ub Iwerks drove my dad's car out to California. That's how my dad got out here. My mother and I came out on the train and Ub and my dad drove out together. Walt had written to Ub asking him to come out. He brought out his mother as well. Whenever Walt dated his girlfriend [Lillian Bounds], he would borrow mother's car. I remember that.

WS: What was it like being directed by Walt?

VD: He was just a gentle person, I think, really. He loved children. He never yelled at children that I remember. That was nice. He would always tell me a very nice story which is how the pictures were made then. He would tell me a story as if it was someone opening a book to read a story but I was actually in the story. I was in the group only the rest of the group was still to be drawn in the cartoon world. Everything I did was in pantomime but Walt would tell me this story and he'd say, 'Look back of you. Quick! Somebody's coming. It's an animal. Look scared!' I did what he said. There was no sound. He could tell me anything from 'I love you, little girl' to 'Go to heck, little girl' and I would react on camera. But nobody would know what he was saying to me because there was no sound. He was so wonderful to me and kind and sweet.

WS: Was there a lot of rehearsal after he told you the story?

VD: There was no rehearsal at all. It was just 'Here is the story and now, react!'He would do an emotion off camera to show me what he wanted. I have this one picture of him and he is off camera and his arms are outstretched very wide and he's obviously trying to show me what he wants done. I don't remember what it specifically was right now but I do remember him acting things out. I remember him sometimes saying “that will do” or “that's fine, honey”.

WS: So were there a lot of retakes since there was no script?

VD: Not at all. There was only one reason why they didn't do take after take even though we had no rehearsal. They didn't have the money to use more film. They only had enough money to film it once. He would tell me the scene and then it would be shot. We couldn't do it over again. That was it. The poor guy didn't have any money at that time. He was working his butt off.

WS: Did Roy ever give you direction?

VD: Poor Roy. They borrowed someone's camera because they didn't have enough money to buy a camera. In those days, there was a crank on the side and you did it by hand. And you had to be good. If you cranked too slow, people looked like they were moving fast and if you cranked too fast, they looked like they were moving very slowly. So we had to be very careful. Not me. I just had to be me but poor Roy had to learn to use that camera and he had problems. Finally when they got more successful they got a motorized camera and it got easier. I don't remember him giving me any direction.

WS: Tell me a little about Alice's Day at Sea since that was really the first film of the Disney Brothers Studio.

VD: When I saw it recently, I was amazed at how crude it really was. It's amazing to think that from this comes the Disney entertainment empire. It really wasn't that bad but it wasn't what it was going to be. I remember a few things. We filmed it at Santa Monica. It was the first time I had seen an ocean and that looked great. I really liked that. I liked to play in the sand with Peggy, the dog they had. I loved animals anyway but it was more fun there.

WS: And the home in the film was…

VD: That was Walt's uncle's house and Peggy was the uncle's dog and she knew all these tricks so Walt would have her do these tricks. Nice little dog. I loved animals but I don't know why I never had one as a child. I have one now, a little toy poodle named “Buster Brown” and he is brown.

WS: Who were those seamen in the film?

VD: Walt had a tendency to pick up anybody who looked like they would be a good character. There were some fellers with these big boots and so he used them.

WS: Do you remember seeing your films in theaters?

VD: I remember the personal appearances. I did make personal appearances so I saw bits of some of the Alice Comedies but I mostly remember the appearances themselves. These were on a Saturday. I did my little Hungarian dance. There were actually two dances I remember doing. One was the Hungarian dance and the other was called the Bird dance. That was it. They would show the picture. I would come out and bow to the audience. They would play some music and I'd go into one or the other of my dances. I have a handbill or two that say something like 'Little Virginia Davis starring in the Alice Comedies appearing in person!' I didn't do autographs or anything like that. I just did my dances and my mother would take me home. They were the same dances I was doing in the films.

WS: You graduated very young from high school.

VD: I graduated high school at 14 and I wrote a letter to Walt Disney saying “hello” and so forth and so on. And he wrote me a very nice letter back saying, “How nice of you to remember me”. Now that was Walt Disney. The true Walt Disney. He was really a sweetheart. He had me come out to the studio and showed me around. I liked the cartooning they were doing and I ended up in the ink and paint department with the other ladies. While I was doing that, he had me do a jitterbug dance for a Donald Duck cartoon [Mr. Duck Steps Out” 1940]. I was the little female duck, Daisy. And they used that for reference for that cartoon. I've seen a publicity photo of me doing that. I don't know who the young man in the picture was.

WS: Walt also tested you for the part of Snow White at this time.

VD: Walt always called me for things like that. He knew me and what I could do. I did a Snow White voice for him. I remember doing the line, 'A shoe? That will never, never do.' So he thought he might use my voice for Snow White. And he knew I could do the actions, the live action reference. Anyway, I was put in the costume and wig. I couldn't do the singing but I could do everything else like the dancing. I could carry a tune, of course, but not the type of singing they wanted. It was a three-year exclusive contract which meant I couldn't do any other acting, any other films. And I would only be paid for the days I actually worked. So my mother said, 'No, thanks.' I was sad because I liked Snow White. I really did. I still wish I could have done it. I couldn't do the singing but I sure could have done the rest of it.

WS: You also auditioned for Alice in Wonderland.

VD: I had played Alice at the Pasadena Playhouse and I auditioned for the Paramount film (1933) but they gave it to some adult. Then, Walt asked me to audition for the cartoon. It's kind of vague. I don't remember why I couldn't do it. It was probably the same reason as Snow White, the exclusive contract. I could have done the English accent.

WS: It's a shame you weren't able to do a voice for a Disney animated cartoon.

VD: Oh, but I did. I did the voices of some of those bad boys on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio. I can't remember how I got involved in that but I did it.

WS: How would you describe Walt Disney?

VD: First of all, he loved children. He was a very kind person. He was a very kind person. I don't remember him using any foul language in any kind, shape or form. Certainly, never around children. He was always very sweet to me. Walt Disney loved working with children. He had a little bit of childishness in himself, too. He must have had. He thought 'young.' Children all liked him. Truly, I put him on a pedestal. I'm sorry he's gone but he left a lot for us to remember.

WS: Thank you for sharing some of your memories, Virginia. You've left a lot for us to remember, as well.