ANIMATION ANECDOTES
October 7, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

In Her Own Words: Illene Woods on “Cinderella”

Suspended Animation #392

Born Jacquelyn Ruth Woods on May 5, 1929 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Illene Woods’ ambition was to become a school teacher when she grew up but her mother steered her toward a singing career.

By the age of eleven, she was using the name Illene Woods and had her own program on a local radio station.
Three years later in 1944, The Ilene Woods Show was being broadcast for fifteen minutes three days a week on the Blue Network on ABC Radio, in New York. Among her guests were songwriters Mack David and Jerry Livingstone who became longtime friends with her. Composers often came on the show wanting her to sing their new compositions to help publicize them.

By the time she was eighteen she had worked with such stars as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and many others as well as having sung for U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

She was a busy almost 18-year-old singer appearing on radio shows in 1948 when, as a favor to her two songwriter friends, Livingston and David, she recorded a “demo” for them of a few songs they had written for an upcoming Disney animated feature film.

“I did the discs for them, in a studio with a piano — Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boo, So This Is Love, and A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Woods recalled in a 2005 interview with the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Two days later I received a call saying that Mr. Disney would like to talk with me at Disney studios. I gladly said, ‘Yes, anytime you say.’ We met and talked for awhile. He said ‘I’ve listened to the songs. Now that we’ve met and we’ve talked, how would you like to be the voice of Cinderella?’

“And that’s really the way I got the part. I didn’t even know they were auditioning and by that time I understand, or was told, that they had auditioned over 300 girls. Needless to say, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. When I started working on the movie I knew I would never meet anybody like him again.

“He came in every single day we recorded. He came in at the end of the day to check everything out. He really made changes that were, once in a while, major, beautiful changes and he always had such an imagination going on. He was the only true visionary, I think, I ever worked with.

“When Walt would come in at the end of recording everyday the other three directors would have been arguing over and over. Walt would come in and sit down and play the tape. He never looked up when he was listening. He always sat with his head in his hand listening. He would make one suggestion and we’d do it his way and it would always be right. Always.

“I worked off and on the movie for two and a half years. We’d work for maybe a couple of weeks, and then have a week and a half off and then we’d work for another week and have two or three weeks off, and then work for two or three weeks.”

As she told the Houston Chronicle in 2005, “Walt would sit down at the table with us at meals, and we discussed the movie together. It was just magical. There was a happiness and joy.

“I loved doing the character When my dad saw the movie, he said he saw me in the facial expressions, hand movements and mannerisms. Marc Davis, who animated [the Cinderella character], would watch me record and picked up on things.

“I think Cinderella had a lot of spunk. She was a happy girl because she accepted life as it was and made the most of it. There was a happiness and joy for me in making that film. While I did a lot of radio and television, it was the only voice-over role I ever did.”

Ever since then as she told me when I talked with her, “I never hesitate to do a favor for a friend. I used my regular voice but just took on the attitude I thought she would have. I was just eighteen years old when we started recording and about twenty when we finished.

“A funny story that I love is that I took my young (three year old) daughter to a showing of Cinderella in a movie theater and when she heard my voice she got so excited she jumped up on her seat and pointed to the screen and yelled, ‘That’s my mommy!’

“A woman sitting behind us said, ‘Isn’t that cute? She thinks her mother is Cinderella.’ I turned and in my regular voice that hadn’t changed said, ‘She is.’ The expression on her face was priceless.”

Ilene Woods and Garry Moore with the then new CBS Eye Logo. Image dated October 25, 1951. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

On television during the 1950s, she sang on the Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey shows and was a regular on Garry Moore’s daytime show, where she met drummer Ed Shaughnessy, whom she married in 1963.

She had previously been briefly married when she was seventeen but it ended in divorce. Shaughnessy later became a drummer on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for many years.

Just like Cinderella, Woods had grown up with a stern mother who forced her into doing something she didn’t want to do but she ended up fulfilling her childhood dream by teaching third grade for two years in the Florida Keys before being lured back to radio where she met her own Prince Charming and lived happily ever after.

Woods was spokeswoman for the United Cerebral Palsy telethons around the country for many years. After she and her family moved to California in 1972, she retired from show business, with the exception of doing an occasional Disney event usually promoting a re-release of the film.

Later in life, she said in an interview, “Walt told me his favorite heroine was Cinderella. I thought he was just being kind to me because at the time I didn’t realize all the things he had gone through so his life had been like a rags-to-riches story just like Cinderella.

Frank Thomas and Ward Kimball – with Ilene Woods, the voice of Cinderella – in 2001

“He also said his favorite scene in all his films was when she got her ball gown from the fairy godmother. I think that was my favorite scene, too because after all her hard work and kindness she was finally getting rewarded. Cinderella had finally come through out of her troubles and was going to the ball in a beautiful gown. I think that was the happiest time in the movie. That scene was my favorite.”

Woods, who was presented with a Disney Legends award in 2003 said, “I just love children. Knowing that many years from now, when I’m gone, the children will still be hearing my voice and enjoying the movie is just the biggest thrill to come out of this altogether. Every time I look at that Legend Award, I think of the time I spent there making Cinderella.”

Woods died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at a care facility in Los Angeles on July 1, 2010, at the age of 81. She had no memory of performing as Cinderella but if she got agitated and confused, nurses would play the song A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes and it always calmed her down and made her feel peaceful.

7 Comments

  • I wish the Fontane Sisters had voiced the mice in “Cinderella”. I’ve always found those sped-up singing voices hard to understand.

    Trust Ducky Nash to steal the show!

  • Fascinating article, Jim! Thank you for this insightful look at one of the best Disney voices ever. Now I know more about Ilene Woods than I ever did before. She seems like someone who would have been nice to know personally.

    • Absolutely. A nice portrait, very well done.

      Odd thought. Did she ever work with Mike Douglas, or were the vocals recorded separately.

  • I always found it fascinating on how Illene got the role of the title character. She really was Cinderella.

    I also like the surprise cameo at the end of the Perry Como clip with another legendary Disney voice and his alter-ego.

  • Wonderful! Insightful! Especially about Walt Disney and of course Woods who seemed a dream. God Bless her!

    Thanks for the article

  • Very nice, Jim. A fine profile and tribute to a fine vocalist and apparently a very nice person. I wish my Voices book had unlimited room to profile all the voice artists covered to this extent (but then it would be a 26-volume set!!).

  • I’m glad she got to keep singing unlike Adriana Caselotti who played Snow White and who Walt Disney forbade to use that voice anywhere else to not break the illusion.

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