More Forgotten Tales of Disney History

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I was pleased that the response to my previous column of Disney history tidbits (link) was so well accepted by the readers here at MousePlanet. I love these little snapshots of unfamiliar quotes and facts that I have gathered in some decaying folders over the years in hopes of finding either enough information to expand those bits into a full column or as an addition to enhance a column. Unfortunately, some of these tidbits just cannot be shoehorned into any other project or I am just unable to find any more information.

So once again, here are some brief glimpses into the forgotten stories of Disney history:

Lee and Mary Blair

I am quite fond of the book The Art and Flair of Mary Blair by John Canemaker, not only because I am a huge admirer of Canemaker's groundbreaking research on animation history and Disney history, but because I loved the selections of Blair art included in the book.

This last year, a book was released in connection with the "Colors of Mary Blair" exhibition at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, with 304 pages of stunningly beautiful color images. There are no plans at this time for this exhibition (or the beautiful catalog by the same name) to make its way here to the United States, so start checking eBay for copies (as well as the merchandise released in connection with it).

Blair had a troubled life and, in particular, had to deal with an alcoholic husband named Lee who, although a talented artist himself, seemed deeply resentful for the attention and opportunities given to his wife. Supposedly, he never went to accept her posthumous Disney Legends award offering some remark like: "Why did they give it to her? She's dead. I'm still alive. They should give one to me."

I can sense that undercurrent of resentment in this article "They Animated 'Fantasia'" by Dale Pollock, from the June 20, 1976 edition of the The Santa Cruz Sentinel. Lee Blair seems to dominate the conversation, focuses attention on his achievements and minimizes the work at the Disney Studio. Mary Blair seems very submissive and is pretty much portrayed as a housewife who has a little talent in art and helps her husband.

Once again, I am only excerpting all the quotes and relevant information and eliminating the standard hyperbole about the magic of animation and how an impossibly large number of drawings are done for a few seconds of animation. Again, this is a fairly obscure local newspaper article that Canemaker located but few others have seen.

"After meeting at art school in the depths of the Depression, the Blairs reluctantly took jobs in the earliest animation studios. 'It was way beneath our standards,' confides Lee, 'but we needed to eat.'

"Lee and Mary worked at the MGM Studios. 'Sound was in at that time,' remembers Lee, 'so we had Happy Harmonies to rival Disney's Silly Symphoniesand Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies.' Both Blairs continued their fine arts careers, winning prizes and competitions across the country. 'It was a Jekyll-Hyde existence,' Mary recalls.

"Lee picked up valuable experience that landed him a job as color director with the still-growing Disney operation. 'Disney had just achieved his first feature success with Snow White' and Lee was rushed right into production on Pinocchio, choosing all the color layouts for the animated film. 'I remember one time we had thousands of drawings for one Pinocchio sequence that just wouldn't work,' says Lee. 'We tossed all of them in a big pile and since we already had the soundtrack ('There ain't no strings on me'), we just went through and matched up the motions to fit the music. Took us days and days.'

"With over 2,000 animators working for the Disney studio ('Walt had animators to burn,' claimed Lee), Lee was transferred to Bambi. 'But that was too cutesy for me, not enough fantasy. So the great Walt called me in and said I couldn't leave, he had a new film in mind for me.'

"The upshot of that conversation was Fantasia which remains the Blairs' favorite Disney effort. Lee was assigned two crucial sequences of the film: the opening abstract drawings that accompanied the tuning of the orchestra and the classic ballet of the hippos.

"Every week Disney would schedule a meeting with what came to be called 'the wrecking crew'. 'If Walt was displeased,' reminisced Mary, 'he'd just raise one eyebrow and you knew it was back to the drawing board'. Mary joined her husband and went to work on additional numbers that unfortunately never made it to the screen.

"The advent of World War II put a halt to animated production, although the Blairs did get in one eventful trip before Lee was drafted. The State Department sponsored a Disney junket to Latin America where Lee helped conceive one of Disney's most popular characters, the South American parrot, Jose Carioca. 'We based him on an actual guide we had in Rio,' confessed Lee, 'and he became the greatest thing down South since Mickey Mouse.'

"After the war, Disney once again tried to entice the Blairs back, but Lee saw the trend going to live-action footage. Accordingly, he started his own animation company in New York, Film Graphics. With all of their past laurels to rest on, the Blairs are still in motion, much like Lee's animated drawings. Last year, they designed a visual presentation of Ravel's Bewitched Child for the San Francisco Symphony, a production so successful that it toured Japan. 'Animation has been good to us,' Lee says gratefully."

Friz Freleng

In the summer of 1988, in an informal interview, legendary Warner Brothers animator and director Friz Freleng (who was also responsible for the original Pink Panther) recalled a memory of his short time with the Disney Studio. And yes, having met Friz in person and talked with him on several occasions, it is quite apparent that the cartoon character of Yosemite Sam was obviously inspired by Friz. Unfortunately, Walt and Friz had hard feelings towards each other right up until their deaths. Apparently, it all started when Freleng was fired, but that was covered in an earlier column (link).

"Hugh Harman told Walt there was a guy out in Kansas City at Film Ad who looked like he had potential. And so Walt offered me $50 a week to come out. I said I didn't know anything about animation, but was willing to learn. Walt met me at a little old railroad station near where the Union Station is now. Walt had a roadster, and took me to the studio over on Hyperion. They were just finishing the Alice Comedies and starting on Oswald. They put me to work next to Ub Iwerks. When I came to work for Walt, I couldn't get along with him. He had to have a whipping boy, and I guess I was the guy. There was a little guy by the name of Ham Hamiliton who worked for him before, and Walt made life so miserable for him that Ham quit. I didn't know I was taking Ham's job, or I probably wouldn't have. I would never have taken it, because I loved the guy. So I didn't get along with Walt and I quit and went back to Kansas City and worked for Film Ad again."

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was well known for her delightful and popular children's books, especially her first The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

In 1936, Walt wanted to animate her characters, but Potter was reluctant and wrote to a friend: "There is a scheme to film Peter Rabbit. I am not very hopeful about the result. They propose to use cartoons; it seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion. I don't think the pictures would be satisfactory without the landscape backgrounds, and I doubt if the backgrounds would be satisfactory on a larger scale and without colour. I think children with masks, acting the stories against a natural background would give more satisfaction."

Robin Williams

In Disney's animated feature Aladdin, the talented Robin Williams performs as the voice of the Genie and mimics 55 different personalities. However, even more personalities ended up on the cutting room floor including imitations of President George Bush (senior) and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Williams also did some alternate versions of certain readings. For example, when Williams says with a Jack Nicholson leer, "If ya wanna court the little lady, ya gotta be a straight shooter," Williams originally did the line reading as John Wayne. To encourage improvisation, the crew put a lot of objects on a table under a cloth and Williams reached under it, pulled out an item and had to instantly ad-lib. One time he pulled out a bra, placed it on his head and said elatedly, "A double yarmulke!"

Stan Freberg

Writer, comedian, voice-over actor and so much more, Stan Freberg provided the voice of the beaver in Disney's Lady and the Tramp. He almost had another part in a Disney animated feature. When Disney was making Alice in Wonderland, there was a segment about the dreaded Jabberwocky and Freberg was called in to do the voice.

"I was directed by Walt himself and Ben Sharpsteen," Freberg remembered. "There was some animation done but Walt was concerned that the segment would be too scary for kids and it was pulled from the final film. I've never seen it but somewhere in the Disney Archives it still exists."

Disney Press released a hardcover book of some of the colored concept drawings of this segment in 1992. It was the fourth and final volume in a series reprinting Disney artwork for unmade Disney shorts.

Loni Anderson

In the Pomona, Calif., "Progress Bulletin" for May 7, 1983, actress Loni Anderson, who may be best remembered for her blonde bombshell role in the television series WKRP (in Cincinnati), stated the following in an interview: "I wanted to be an animator before I became an actress. I really am Snow White in my fantasies. My dad used to call me 'Snow White' when I was little because I had hair as black as night, skin as white as snow and lips as red as rose. Snow White was the only princess around I could identify with because she was a brunette. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were all blondes."

Anderson did not become a blonde until the late 1970s, and, at the time of the interview, had a very extensive collection of artwork from Disney's Snow White and other related collectibles.

Linda Ronstadt

From Los Angeles, The Daily News, February 18, 1983: "Award-winning theater producer Joseph Papp is negotiating with the Walt Disney organization to acquire the legitimate theater rights to the 1937 film version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stage version would include the film's original songs and would feature Linda Ronstadt in the leading role. The Papp-Ronstadt Snow White will be presented free of charge during the summer of 1983 in the Delacourt Theater in Central Park."

Obviously, negotiations fell through because this production never materialized.

Emery Hawkins and the Disney Stare

During the infamous strike at the Disney Studio, animator Emery Hawkins joined the picket line because he was disgruntled that, despite Walt Disney's verbal assurances, it was becoming clear that Hawkins was not going to be moved into animating on the feature films. One day during the strike, Hawkins was outside the studio when Walt drove up, got out of his car, and started to enter the studio when, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Hawkins. Walt walked up to Hawkins and stood there, inches from his face, just glaring for what seemed like forever, and then wordlessly turned and walked in to the building. This is almost a word for word account that Hawkins shared with several of us in the mid 1980s (he died in 1991) at an animation event. He claimed that the impact was so great that he laid down his picket sign and left the Disney lot that day, going over to Walter Lantz studio where he found work.

"At that moment (of the stare), I knew my days at Disney were over forever," Hawkins remembered.

Dreiss: The Tinker Bell Secret

The official Disney coloring instructions for the original animated Tinker Bell list the color of her outfit as "dreiss." That name may puzzle art students just as it puzzled me because that term only existed at Disney. Legendary ink and painter Phylis Craig shared with me and underappreciated writer John Cawley ( in 1992 that she first started to work at the Disney Studio during the production of Peter Pan and that "dreiss" was "a color named after a lovely woman who worked there who always wore this distinctive chartreuse green" that was selected for the famous pixie.

Walt Kelly

This quote is from TV GUIDE, July 17, 1965, from cartoonist Walt Kelly who was then famous for his work on the popular Pogo comic strip, but who had earlier worked at the Disney Studios: "I'd never say (Walt Disney) was a tyrant. He's an easy man to work for, if you're putting out. He is very demanding, there's no doubt about it. He can be fairly sharp-tempered and tough, if people are stupid or unproductive, and this causes griping among those who don't live up to his standards. But if you are hard-working, he's an amazing man to work for. You learn an enormous amount, artistically. He helped to groom me, and I appreciated the experience enormously. I thought of him as a genius."

Salvador Dali

From Time magazine, December 27, 1954, here is a quote from the famous artist Salvador Dali, who worked briefly at the Disney Studio on a short film. "Disney is innocence in action. He has the innocence and unselfconsciousness of a child. He still looks at the world with uncontaminated wonder, and with all living things, he has a terrific sympathy. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to imagine that mice and squirrels might have feelings just like his."

Roy O. Disney

"Walt puts up this mild front but underneath it, there's drive, drive, drive," stated Roy O. Disney in Time magazine, December 27, 1954.