september 2009

'Little Alice, Chock Full of Curiosity...'

Virginia Davis-McGhee
December 31, 1918-August 15, 2009

The Walt Disney Corp. has often described itself as "an empire built on a mouse," but before a popular rodent named Mickey emerged from Walt's inkwell at his Laugh-O-Gram Studio, a real live human being in the form of four-year-old Virginia Davis put the then-fledgling Kansas City-based business on the cultural map when she starred in Disney's first films as "Alice in Cartoonland," a fictional tyke who had a habit of finding herself interacting with animated characters in fantasy worlds in a then-revolutionary blending of live action with animation. (Winsor McCay pioneered live action and animation in his groundbreaking 1914 cartoon, "Gertie the Dinosaur," in which he interacted with Gertie; his influential effort was followed by Max Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" series, from 1919-1921, which depicted Fleischer at his drawing board interacting with characters that he drew or who crawled from his inkwell to explore the outside world.) The first Alice short, "Alice's Wonderland," was filmed in 1923 at Ms. Davis's home, with Walt directing (his basic instruction to Ms. Davis was "let's pretend!") and his brother Roy Disney behind the camera. In one scene Ms. Davis's mother was to portray herself putting Alice to bed, but being camera-shy she backed out and was replaced by Ms. Davis's aunt. In all, Ms. Davis starred in 14 of the 56 "Alice" films, ending her tenure in a dispute over salary and contract terms but remaining by far the most popular of all the Alices.

Virginia Davis McGhee died at her home in Corona, CA, on August 15 of natural causes.

"The reason my mother took me out of it after the fourteenth Alice picture was that when my contract came up, they didn't want to put me under another contract as such," Ms. Davis told John Province of Hogan's Alley, an online magazine of the cartoon arts. "They wanted to pay me for each day where perhaps I would be photographed for two or three different stories. The contract was for three years and written so that I couldn't do anything else. I would be under an exclusive contract for whenever they wanted me and at their beck and call for one day. It was the same contract they offered me when I was supposed to play Snow White. They wanted to have me under contract for three or four years to do the speaking parts and the live action during its making, but I would only be paid for the days I actually worked. The salary was not acceptable and Mother said no."

It was not Walt Disney who was driving the hard bargain with the Davises; rather, it was his overbearing producer/distributor Charles B. Mintz, whom Virginia believed was trying to replace her with one of his family friends. "Mintz had a big ego and wanted things his way. He really did do Disney dirt," Davis said.

thumbnailCash-poor and debt-ridden, Disney moved his studio to California after completing the first "Alice" movie. Ms. Davis and her family soon followed, less to continue her acting career than because a doctor had recommended a drier climate after the little girl had nearly died from double pneumonia. The first Disney studio in Los Angeles was actually Walt's uncle's garage; brother Roy continued as cameraman, and, according to Ms. Davis, the enterprising Walt was big on using whatever was around as part of and inspiration for his silent shorts, including his own dog, Peggy, and curious passers-by who would stop to watch the filming.

"It was very informal," Ms. Davis recalled in the Hogan's Alley interview. "We used to have a lot of people gathered around. During the silent days we would have a lot of the curious children and the neighbors come around to watch what was going on. They would use some of the children in some of the scenes as they did in one of my favorites-Alice's Wild West Show, where they were used as the audience. There was no Screen Actors Guild so there was no place to go if you needed somebody for a film. You just used whomever was around at the time."

After Ms. Davis's departure from the "Alice" series in 1924, three other actresses assumed the role: Dawn O'Day, her immediate successor, appeared in only one Alice film before moving on to other roles; she in turn was succeeded as Alice by Margie Gay, but the role was changing, at the behest of Charles Mintz, who wanted the character's personality toned down and subservient to the animated characters. "The comedies started going downhill after Mintz began dictating to Disney and demanding more gags and more films for less money," said Ms. Davis. Lois Hardwicke, the oldest of all the Alices at age 11, played the role as the series wound down.

Even though she was finished portraying Alice, Ms. Davis was not through as a Disney actor or employee. At age 16, fresh out of high school, she was invited back by Walt himself to learn how to paint and ink cells. In her late teens she was called in to do several voice tests for the role of Snow White, in the animated Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs; although she did not get the part, one of her voice tests made it into the final cut of the film and she was also the live action model for "a little dance step or two and a curtsy." She went on to voice some of the little boys' parts in the animated Pinocchio.

Ms. Davis started school at age 7, but continued her acting career in small parts in 1941's Weekend In Havana and 1946's The Harvey Girls; she and the one-and-out Alice, Dawn O'Day, both appeared in director Mervyn Leroy's 1932 film, Three On a Match, starring Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. In 1942 she married Navy aviator Robert McGhee, and they were together 59 years, until his death in 2002. Mrs. Davis-McGhee is survived by two daughters and three grandchildren.

Asked by John Province how she felt about being acknowledged as Disney's first star, Ms. Davis said she was "privileged to part of the whole. When you think how it began with a movie viewing and a little test film, and cartoons and everything. I really think Walt was a great man and one of a kind. To be part of all that majesty and animation history is just heartwarming for me and I really feel privileged to have been part of it. Even now, it's heartwarming. It makes me think that perhaps I did accomplish something that is indeed a part of Walt Disney's history. It makes me very happy!" —David McGee

'Little Alice, chuck full of curiosity, pays her first visit to a cartoon studio.'
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'Alice's Wonderland,' 1923, the first of Walt Disney's 'Alice' silent shorts blending live action and animation, starring four-year-old Virginia Davis. When arriving at the cartoon studio, Alice is greeted by a young Walt Disney at his drawing board, which becomes animated when she sits in Walt's chair as he explains his work to her. Also shown is the first team of animators Disney assembled at his Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City. After this film was completed, Disney, burdened by debt, moved his business to California. Photography is credited to Rudolph (nee Rudolf) Ising and Disney's indispensable visionary, Ub Iwerks. However, Ms. Davis asserts Walt's brother Roy was behind the camera for this production, which was shot in the Davis family's home.

Two Disney Alumni Chat It Up

The following interview with 90-year-old Virginia Davis appeared in Autograph magazine in February of this year. It was conducted by Margaret Kerry (shown above in a Disney publicity still), herself a Disney legend as the animated model for both Tinkerbell and the red-haired mermaid in the Neverland sequence in the animated Peter Pan. Ms. Kerry also has had a long career as a voiceover actor, her credits including the voices (and lips) for characters on 260 episodes of the groundbreaking children's television show, Clutch Cargo, including major characters Paddlefoot and Spinner.

Margaret Kerry: So, tell me, how did Walt Disney find you?

Virginia Davis: He found me on the screen when he went to see a silent movie in Kansas City, Mo. When I was four years old, I was picked to be the model for a Warneke Bread advertisement that popped up on the screen between films. I was posed reaching for a slice of the bread and my mouth seemed to say "Yum Yum." Walt was barely out of his teens and he was really struggling to make a go of his Laugh-O-Gram cartoon company. He got an idea for a series of six- or seven-minute live-action animated movie theater shorts titled Alice Comedies and starring a four-year-old girl.

When he cast you as Alice, you became the little girl who started the Disney dynasty, right?

Yes, Alice's Wonderland, the first Alice Comedies short I did was actually filmed in our family's house with Walt directing and [his brother] Roy Disney behind the camera. One scene called for my movie mother to tuck me in my bed. Walt asked my own mother, Margaret, to do the scene but she was shy, so my Aunt Louise tucked me in instead.

Did you film all 14 Alice Comedies you starred in while you were living in the Los Angeles?

Alice's Wonderland was really the pilot, the one filmed in my house. Walt relocated to L.A. and finally got a distributor for the shorts. The contract called for me to be the star. My folks thought the world of Walt so we moved to Los Angeles. During the time I was being filmed playing Alice, I went to school and dancing classes. Good thing, too. You can't stay a four-year-old forever.

As an adult, I danced in many films in the glory days of musicals. I quit the business after making The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland at MGM. I married a wonderful man, Bob McGhee, and settled down to raise two daughters, Laurieanne and Margaret.

And now, I'm back and appearing at autograph shows around the country. Fans are so surprised when they learn of Walt's earliest days and see the photos that I sign. It's a great experience.

What are the top three memories of your career?

I loved working with so many top choreographers, dancers, famous directors and actors. I'm particularly pleased at having quite a large part in a movie called Three on a Match, in which I played Joan Blondell as a 12-year-old.

And I know just how special it is that I am one of the very few people who was actually directed by Walt Disney and filmed by Roy. You know, when Walt was directing me he'd say "Let's pretend," then he'd tell me the story of the scene. We had to get it right on the first take because Walt and Roy couldn't afford to buy film for "take two."

I guess the third highlight would be the time I was given a Disney Legend Award at the Disney Studio. That represented many things to me. But in particular I like to think that those who said over and over 'It all started with a mouse...' became aware that Walt Disney's career really started with a little four-year-old girl—me!

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'Alice's Tin Pony' (1925) features Virginia Davis and a burgeoning new Disney animated star, Julius the cat, modeled after the early, near-surreal Felix the Cat, right down to his detachable tail. Note the presence of an impish rodent troublemaker here.


'Each show that you do is a success within itself'
Sammy Petrillo
October 24, 1934-August 15, 2009

Duke Mitchell (left) and Sammy Petrillo in their heyday

Jerry Lewis lookalike SAMMY PETRILLO, who teamed with a Dean Martin lookalike, Duke Mitchell, in a nightclub act and in one of the worst movies ever made, 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, died on August 15 in Bronxville, NY. A native of the Bronx, NY, he lived in Tuckahoe, NY. No cause of death was listed. He is survived by his mother and a brother. His deceased father, Abraham Patrello, was a dancer who performed at Catskills resorts.

thumbnailIronically, Sammy Petrillo got his show business break when Jerry Lewis cast him to portray the baby Jerry Lewis in a skit with him in a 1950 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour. He was paid $60 for his appearance. Moving to Los Angeles a year later, he teamed up with crooner Duke Mitchell in a nightclub act centered on their impersonations of the wildly popular Martin & Lewis team. In their movie debut with Bela Lugosi, they portrayed nightclub performers stranded on a tropical island. By all accounts, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin lost their sense of humor about the knockoff duo after seeing Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Gary Lewis, Jerry's oldest son, told New York Times reporter Dennis Hevesi, "When Sammy and the other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my dad and Dean saying, 'We got to sue those guys—this is too much." The suit was dropped after Duke Mitchell pointed out a flaw in the prosecution's case, but Gary Lewis remembers any mention of Petrillo and Mitchell resulting in "a tense moment" with his father.

In an interview with Dave the Spazz at (, Petrillo said working on "that gorilla movie" was "a thrill for a young kid from the Bronx. Did you know that Duke and I were one of the first teams that worked in jeans? We worked in Levis outfits at times. People wouldn't do that in the fifties. Also, if you look closely in the movie you'll see that I was wearing those pointy 'Beatles' boots ten years before the Beatles!"

When Martin & Lewis broke up in 1956, Petrillo and Mitchell were offered, and turned down, a 52-episode TV series. Years later, Petrillo could not explain why they walked away from the offer. "We turned it down," he told Dave the Spazz. "I don't know why we did that—we must've been real jerks. We thought we were flying high anyway. We then found that Dean Martin was behind that offer. He was really great. I remember when we did the Colgate Comedy Hour, Dean was very fast, very funny—a real ad lib comic. At that time he was known as the straight man so the people didn't know how funny he really was. I used to say, 'Yeah this guy is really fast and funny' and people would say, 'You're just saying that because you look like Jerry and you're having problems!'"

Petrillo went on to his own short-lived, self-titled show (Tiny Tim was among his guests); starred in his own kids show, Uncle Sammy; directed infomercials for a law firm, starring Al Lewis from The Munsters; and also appeared on The Steve Allen Show and had small roles in several soft-core nudie movies (1961's Shangri-La, photographed by WeeGee and 1972's Keyholes Are Made for Peeping), and, well ahead of the Jerky Boys, released an album of prank phone calls in 1962 titled My Son The Phone Caller.

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Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla: Bela meets Duke and Sammy

Before teaming up with Petrillo, Mitchell was a regular, and popular, nightclub attraction in Palm Springs, CA, and had anointed himself "King of Palm Springs." After he and Petrillo parted ways he continued his nightclub and acting careers, appearing in four more films (including 1978's The Executioner), and he provided Fred Flintstone's singing voice in several episodes of The Flintstones TV series. He died on December 2, 1981.

To Dave the Spazz Petrillo offered his definition of success: "A lot of people are doing jobs that they're not really happy doing. But it's nice to dream-it's nice to do what you can do, when you can do it, for some kind of fulfillment. Just living and being able to pay your bills and being able to eat—that's a form of success in itself. People who strive to do show biz but still do regular type jobs and they have to do show business on the side, there still is a fulfillment in that. There's an old saying and I believe in it—'Each show that you do is a success within itself.' Whether you perform for a hundred thousand people or for two people—to make them happy and to be able to lift them into another world momentarily—that's a form of success."

Sammy Petrillo was a beautiful man. May he rest in peace. —David McGee

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