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In Search of Dumbo's Mother: Helen Aberson Mayer

In Search of Dumbo's Mother: Helen Aberson Mayer

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"Right from the beginning, 'Dumbo' was a happy picture," stated Walt Disney. "It started out from a simple idea, but, like Topsy, 'it just grew'. Since we weren't restricted by a set story, we gave our imaginations free play. When a good idea occurred to us, we just put it in the picture. And we all had a wonderful time...It has often been said that the attitude of the people engaged in making a motion picture is reflected in the finished product. 'Dumbo' was a fun picture to make and the result is a fun picture to watch."

"The story's original authors, Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, steered us in the direction of simplicity. They gave us a skeleton line that we could build on with little touches without destroying it or changing it much," said Ken O'Connor who was one of "Dumbo's" art directors.

"I knew that the picture had great simplicity and cartoon heart. To me, it is one feature cartoon that has a foolproof plot. Every story element meshes into place, held together with the great fantasy of a flying elephant," recalled Ward Kimball who first heard the simple story when Walt Disney told it to him in the Disney Studio parking lot.

"Dumbo" is probably my favorite Disney animated feature. Every thing just seems to work and works so effortlessly to create a funny and heart-warming story. Animator and historian John Canemaker does an excellent, detailed commentary track on the recent DVD release of "Dumbo". He reveals information that exists nowhere else. However, he fails to elaborate on one of the great mysteries about the "Dumbo" film, a mystery that is not covered in either Leonard Maltin's "Celebrating Dumbo" featurette nor in the art gallery nor in any other written discussion of the film.

That mystery is "Who was Helen Aberson and what did the original Dumbo story look like?"

"Dumbo" originated with a story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, and was adapted for the screen by the great story team of Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Production of the feature took just a year and a half, and although Disney's previous animated features had cost more than two million dollars each, "Dumbo" cost less than half that amount. Disney animator Ward Kimball was quoted as saying that "the Disney cartoon reached its zenith with 'Dumbo'. Every story element meshes into place, held together with the great fantasy of a flying elephant."

Tracking down information about Helen Aberson Mayer and her original story is difficult. It is known that she was born June 16, 1907 in Syracuse, New York and died at the age of ninety-one in New York City, New York on April 3, 1999 of Parkinson's Disease. She was married to Richard Mayer and had a son named Andrew who was living on Staten Island at the time of her death.

She received a Bachelor's degree in 1929 from Syracuse University and during the 1930s was the host of a Syracuse talk-radio program before her marriage. Apparently, she later did clerical work in Manhattan but also used the time to create a menagerie of animal characters.

Her son, Andrew, has mentioned that she liked to create animal characters and that the plots for stories she devised were often based on people or situations she had been in. She returned to Syracuse where she wrote 'Dumbo" which apparently was a little autobiographical in representing Helen's struggles.

"Yes, there is trial and travail (in the story of 'Dumbo') but he persevered, and in the long run, he was successful. At times (my mother's) life was difficult," cryptically commented Andrew at the time of her death.

Andra Frank who was four years old when 'Dumbo' was written was the next door neighbor of Helen Aberson and remembers being a one-girl test audience for the story.

Harold Pearl (identified in a sole account as Helen's husband but there is no other documentation of that fact that I could find nor can I find any other writing or illustrating credits for him) illustrated the story that Helen wrote and the two were listed as its co-authors when it was published in 1939 by a company called Roll-a-Book.

The special collections section of the Bird Library at Syracuse University have the papers of artist Helen Durney. At the time the story of "Dumbo" was written, she was working for the Museum of Fine Art on James Street in Syracuse and supposedly did the pre-Disney illustrations for the "Dumbo" story. She had worked for the Knopf Publishing Company in New York City for several years. Durney passed away in 1970 and apparently this is another loose end to the mystery of "Dumbo".

A Roll-A-Book was a distinctive format. It featured about a dozen illustrations which appeared on a short scroll that was built into a box and the reader would twist a small wheel at the top of the box to get to the next panel illustration. Apparently no copies of this original Roll-A-Book survive today and Helen's family had never heard about the Roll-A-Book version of the story.

Storyman Joe Grant remembered in an interview that he only saw the Roll-A-Book for 'Dumbo': "It was sort of a little novelty idea. As you rolled the little wheels on top, the pictures would appear like they would in a film."

Shortly after the Roll-A-Book version, the story and illustrations were reprinted in a regular book edition of no more than one thousand copies.

How Walt Disney came across this oddity seems lost to the ages although he purchased the rights to the story very shortly after its original publication. Helen's husband remembers that after Disney bought the rights to her story, it was republished again in book form almost exactly as she had originally written it.

Helen's son remembered that Disney asked his mother to go to California in 1939. "She was out there until 1941. She was on the premises and they were consulting with her," said Andrew.

However, Disney Archivist Dave Smith could find no official record of a "Helen Aberson" ever being an employee of the Disney Studio but added that it is still possible she did come out and work briefly at the studio. Storyman Joe Grant vaguely remembers meeting Helen and seeing her look at the preliminary drawings for the film.

Helen apparently kept on writing children's stories into the 1960s but none of them were ever published and it is unclear what ever happened to copies of those stories and they may be lost to the ages.

"Dumbo" was an incredibly fast production taking roughly a year and a half to make. "Walt was sure of what he wanted, and this confidence was shared by the entire crew. 'Dumbo' from the opening drawing went straight through to the finish with very few things changed or altered," remembered animator Ward Kimball.

"Dumbo" is the shortest in length of the Disney animated features and at the time RKO complained about it but Walt refused to pad the movie. The film opened October 23, 1941 and received rave reviews. In fact, little Dumbo was to appear on the cover of an early December issue of TIME magazine but the attack on Pearl Harbor bumped him off that cover spot. When the film was released, there were no interviews with Helen Aberson and apparently no comments about her impressions of how her simple story was translated to the big screen.

Again, it is my hope that by sharing what little information I know will spark someone else to do some additional research or uncover some previously unknown information to fill in this gap in Disney history.

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  • Everett Whitmyre, the Syracuse publicizing operator behind Roll-a-Book, offered the story to Walt Disney Productions in 1939. The story was enhanced with delineations by Helen Durney. Aberson-Mayor may have earned about $1.000, a few sovereignties, and credit rights for the deal. A progression of Disney Golden Book adaptations of the story started distribution in 1940

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