The Disney Brothers Studio did not start with a mouse but a little girl named Virgina Davis.
On October 16, 1923, a New York distributor, M. J. Winkler, contracted to release the Alice Comedies series about a live action girl interacting with cartoon characters and a cartoon background, and this date became the formal beginning of The Walt Disney Company. Winkler insisted that the same little girl be used in the series as appeared in the pilot film, Alice’s Wonderland.
For the first nine cartoons, Walt himself did the animation and 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 Comedies”, the Disney brothers were forced by the distributor to keep their expenses down. This led to the departure of Virginia Davis after just thirteen shorts. Three other young girls would play the role over the next several dozen installments.
I got the opportunity to interview Virginia Davis on stage at the National Fantasy Fan Club (now Disneyana Fan Club) convention in 2007. In addition, I got to spend some additional time with her and her two granddaughters.
Jim Korkis: Isn’t that your mother in the live action of the pilot film “Alice’s Wonderland”?
Virginia Davis: 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.
JK: Was your mother on set with you when they were filming the “Alice Comedies”?
VD: My mother wasn’t always on set with me all the time. My dad was there actually. I don’t know if he was there to make sure I behaved myself or whether to protect me in case of who knows what? But he was always present. It was a nice feeling to know that dad was there. However, I liked Walt Disney better. (laughs)
JK: You had the unique opportunity of knowing Walt through the eyes of a child. What was that like?
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.
JK: 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”.
JK: So what did you think of the first Alice Comedy made in Hollywood, “Alice’s Day at Sea”?
VD: I didn’t even remember the story. Seeing it just now, 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.
JK: And the home 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.
JK: 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. 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.
JK: You graduated early from high school.
VD: I graduated high school at fourteen and a half because I was taking more classes to try to get out of high school so I could go into the motion picture industry. 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 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.
JK: 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.
It’s a pleasure to remember these stories. They really are fun to remember. When I tell those stories, sometimes I think I am younger than I am now. All of this was fun to me.