Entertainment Weekly just put up a story where they talked to Disney legend Ruthie Thompson about her work and Walt Disney.
She is now 108 years old and the “oldest living animator.” She worked for the Walt Disney Company for 40 years from 1935 until 1975. She started off working at the end of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I got in on the dirty work, more or less. It was at the end of it where you had to clean cels and patch up little things that might have popped off, and do legwork. I was a gopher, really.
That started off her career and she went on to work on many feature films including: Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty. She received a Disney Legend award in 2000.
During the interview she tells the story of how she grew up in Walt Disney’s neighborhood and how she would pass by the storefront that Walt used, for his earlier projects, on her way to elementary school. This led to her becoming an animator.
They were sitting right in the store window, painting, and I’m going by on the way to grammar school.
Kids like her were inspirations for animation. And Walt even encouraged her to become an animator.
Disney paid the kids in the neighborhood with quarters to photograph them playing — running and leapfrogging, movement he could reference for animations — and it was Disney who encouraged Tompson to go to night school so she could begin to work in animation.
I went to night school and did what they told me to do, and the result is one of these things,
The first night I went, I went in inking. Inking was the main thing they needed. The girls that ink are really artists. This one managed to stay alive, the rest of them all popped off. After I inked this, these cels, two or three of them, the head girl in the inking department came over and gave me a little hug and she said, ‘Honey, I think you better go into painting.’
Thompson then moved to the painting department where she would paint the cels after they were inked.
The first one I did was Lonesome Ghosts — that was painting. Whites and blues and grays and stuff.
She started out working on Lonesome Ghosts and later moved onto being a supervisor.
During the interview with EW, she talked about being there when Walt Disney was working on Disneyland and particularly about a photograph with a stage coach around 1955 where she is sitting on top.
Before the park opened, [Disney] had a fellow who was a master carpenter build a stagecoach, and this was the first day that the stagecoach came out to see everybody. Of course it’s build five-eighths to scale. It’s not as big as a regular carriage. We were sitting on the front lawn at lunchtime on a Saturday, and working overtime because ‘Saludos Amigos’ was having paint troubles — the paint was sticking and we had to redo a lot of stuff, and of course it was last minute. And Walt gets up there [on the carriage]. I got up on the thing, and he looked over at me, and said, ‘Ruthie could drive these in the park!’ He decided not to do it because ponies get frisky and kids might scare ’em or something.”
How exciting that we are still lucky enough to have Ruthie Thompson with us to share her memories and talk about what it was like to be a woman in animation. I actually originally wanted to be an animator, and we even accepted to a school that worked with Disney for internships, but ultimately I decided I wanted to teach instead. Hearing stories like hers makes me happy to know that women like me have been at Disney Studios from the beginning and it’s just gotten better and better.
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Stage Coach Image: Getty Images