December 13, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

Dumbo’s Mother: Adrienne Tytla


Adrienne Tytla died from cancer on December 13th, 2006. For thirty years (1938 until his death in 1968), she was the wife of Bill Tytla, often described as “Animation’s Michelangelo.”

Among Bill’s most famous animation work for Disney was Stromboli, the evil puppeteer in Pinocchio; Chernabog, the winged devil featured in Fantasia; and baby Dumbo in Dumbo, for which Bill used his son, Peter, as an inspirational model.

Adrienne died at her farm in East Lyme, Connecticut. It was the same one she and her husband bought back in 1942 just before he left the Disney Studio. She was 92 years old.

Adrienne le Clerc met her husband in 1936 when she was a 22-year-old actress and fashion model from Seattle, earning extra money by posing in art classes. She was paid 75 cents an hour (for a three-hour shift) to pose for life drawing classes at the Disney Studios for one week. That first night, a dark, intense, good looking young animator who was finishing his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs asked to give her a lift home and lightning struck.

In addition to being a model, Adrienne Tytla had quite an active career as a stage actress and even dated playwright Will Saroyan before she met her husband. Bill and Adrienne’s were married on April 21st, 1938.

Some accounts state that they were married in 1937, possibly because they lived together for a while before they married, but Adrienne herself confirmed the April 1938 date. Their son Peter was born approximately ten months later.

Clearly, she was a great inspiration and support for her husband although she complained that in order to get her husband’s attention when he was intently working on his animation, she had to stand in the doorway naked.

The December 29, 1941, issue of Time magazine had a review of Disney’s recently released animated feature Dumbo. It included in the review of the film a paragraph focusing on Bill Tytla’s work and the unique inspiration for the baby Dumbo:

“I gave him everything I thought he should have,” Bill Tytla said. “It just happened. I don’t know a damn thing about elephants. It wasn’t that. I was thinking in terms of humans, and I saw a chance to do a character without using any cheap theatrics. Most of the expressions and mannerisms I got from my own kid.

“There’s nothing theatrical about a 2-year-old kid,” he said. “They’re real and sincere—like when they damn near wet their pants from excitement when you come home at night. I’ve bawled my kid out for pestering me when I’m reading or something, and he doesn’t know what to make of it. He’ll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry… I tried to put all those things in Dumbo.”

In the February 2nd, 1942 issue of Time magazine was the following letter from Adrienne Tytla:

Peter Tytla

Mother’s Appeal
“In TIME’S Dec. 29 story on Dumbo, which designated that blue-eyed baby elephant “Mammal-of-the-Year,” TIME quoted Vladimir (“Bill”) Tytla, Disney staff artist who conceived Dumbo’s face, form and character. Some weeks later TIME received the following communication from the kid’s mother, who is, of course, Artist Tytla’s wife. – ED.


“When I am approached by an eager acquaintance who asks, ‘Is it true your child resembles an elephant, Mrs. Tytla?’ (with the same expressions, incidentally, as the gossiping elephants in Dumbo), I am compelled, like poor Mrs. Jumbo, to waddle off, as I mutter to myself, ‘A wit, no doubt.’

“However, being fully aware of the havoc that can be wrought… on an impressionable small child, I am appealing to you, as a mother, to right this terrible wrong. (Besides, we have no space left in which to store the tons of peanuts that continue to arrive daily.) Therefore I have taken the liberty of sending you a photograph of Peter…

“However, thank you. Peter has made a terrific hit with the small fry and they even allow him to ride his own tricycle…

“La Cañada, Calif.”

Little Peter even received fan letters from this publicity. However, it also garnered the attention of Walt Disney himself.

Shortly after her letter appeared, Adrienne was out in the backyard sunbathing in a tiny two-piece bathing suit she had converted so that it was so miniscule it according to her “barely covered the strategic areas.” This was years before the bikini.

The doorbell rang and she went to the front door and was astonished to see Walt Disney. After some small talk including Walt talking with her son, Peter, Walt turned to Adrienne. Here is the rest of the story in Adrienne’s own words:

“I was just telling Peter I’d seen his picture in Time magazine. That was a clever letter you wrote. Did you do that on your own?”

“Oh, sure. I was on my own from the time I was 15. It never occurs to me to ask anyone permission to do anything.”

“He stared right through me. ‘Well maybe it should in the future,’ he said, smiling. ‘Well,’ he welled, ‘I’ve got to be going.’

“I got the message. Not loud, but clear… I never did tell Will about Walt’s unexpected visit. Besides, by then I had already been told by Will there was an unwritten law in the organization that nothing ever was to be released regarding Walt Disney Productions, or its employees, without clearing with the Studio first. Even then permission would probably be denied.”

Peter later grew up to be a photo-collage artist and has his own Web site. The Tytlas’ daughter Tammy (now the artist and photographer Tamara Schacher-Tytla) reportedly provided inspiration for the Little Lulu and Little Audrey shorts her father directed and animated later at Famous Studios in New York.

Tytla “Little Audrey” drawing

After her husband’s death in 1968, Adrienne, resettled in East Lyme, Connecticut and opened an antique garden furniture shop in the barn on her property and continued her lifelong hobby of taking photographs.

In 1974 she became the food columnist for the local newspaper, The Old Lyme Gazette. In addition to sharing recipes, she included stories of her adventures in Hollywood. Her “Joy of Eating” column continued until the paper was sold in 1982.

After leaving the paper, she began concentrating on the field of photography in earnest, primarily still-lifes and landscapes. She exhibited her work (sometimes in shows along with the work of her children).

When Bill died in 1968, Adrienne announced that she was going to write a book about his life entitled The Wonderful World of Willy T. Over the years, as she struggled to find a publisher, the title changed to Disney’s Giant and was privately printed in 2005.

About one thousand pages, roughly the size of a telephone book, Disney’s Giant is a scrapbook biography of her husband and her life with him. It is not a professionally laid out book but a mixture of photocopies of original artwork, some (often badly printed) photos, and apparently the raw unorganized notes for the book that Adrienne had compiled over the last few decades.


  • So before she married Bill Tytla, Adrienne le Clerc dated William Saroyan, whose first cousin and occasional songwriting partner was Ross Bagdasarian, who would later create Alvin and the Chipmunks. One of the directors on The Alvin Show was Jack Kinney, who had been a sequence director on Dumbo.

    I was interested to note that Adrienne referred to her husband as “Will”, not “Bill”; I wonder if anyone else ever called him that. I don’t know if anyone ever called him “Vladimir” apart from some of his colleagues at Disney who gave him a hard time for having taken part in the 1941 strike — which I understand he joined primarily out of loyalty to his best friend, Art Babbitt.

    It must have been a great comfort to Tytla to have such a strong and loving partner to sustain him through the strike and its aftermath, the move back to the East Coast and subsequent disappointments at Famous, Terrytoons and Tempo. No question, Bill Tytla was one of Disney’s giants.

  • “was interested to note that Adrienne referred to her husband as “Will”, not “Bill”; I wonder if anyone else ever called him that.”

    I recall reading an interview with Tytla (I think in the”Walt’s People series by Didier Ghez ) where Tytla said that Walt Disney always called him William.

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