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The Original Story of Dumbo

The Original Story of Dumbo

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Hey, gang!

Jim Hill here. Talk about your belated Christmas presents. After a far-too-long-absence, Wade Sampson has returned to JimHillMedia.com.

"So where has Wade been these past few months?," you ask. Well, Mr. Sampson has been absent from JHM for the latter part of 2004 because he was busy dealing with a family tragedy and some related financial challenges. A good friend of this site, Disney historian Jim Korkis, took some time from his own whirlwind life to encourage Wade to return to sharing his insights into Disney history with JimHillMedia.com readers. Thankfully, Korkis' effort worked. Which is why we're now going to see some more stories from Mr. Sampson.

So thanks Jim and welcome back, Wade!

And now -- without further ado -- here's Mr. Sampson's story about Dumbo's original story ...

Several months ago, I wrote a column about wanting to know more about Helen Aberson.

The Disney feature film, "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. It appeared as a Roll-A-Book. 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 known 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. 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.

While visiting Disney historian Jim Korkis during Mousefest, my eyes popped out and my mouth dropped to the ground when he pulled out from his private collection a copy of that book edition. He told me that it had taken him over two decades to locate a copy and discovered it by accident at a flea market in Central Florida.

It is only 36 pages long (counting covers) and the bright yellow cover declares: "Dumbo the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl" with no mention of Disney at all. The cover features Dumbo with a red, white and blue color and a yellow clown hat with a red ball on it. Dumbo is waving a flag with red and white stripes (no blue square with white stars).

The book was published by Whitman Publishing Company and there are two copyrights: 1939 by The Roll-A-Book Publisher, Inc. and 1941 by Walt Disney Productions. It is roughly 8 by 11 inches.

In the illustrations, Dumbo looks very much the way he does in the feature film, although how many variations are there when it comes to drawing a baby elephant with huge ears? The artwork is very rough almost like quick black pencil sketches or charcoal. There is very little detail. Some pictures of humans are little more than stick figures with a dot for an eye.

The design of the book includes eight full page pictures (leaving barely twenty-four pages of text mixed with drawings that often take up half a page). There doesn't seem to have been a model sheet for Dumbo or his mother as their appearance and proportions seem to fluctuate from drawing to drawing. Not to mention that some of Dumbo's expressions are odd in the sense that they don't communicate the innocence of his better known cinematic incarnation.

"Spring seems to be the season for circus babies. Anyway, this particular Spring was. There was a new baby lion, a new baby zebra, a baby bear, a baby hippopotamus, a baby camel, a bay giraffe and a new baby elephant. Everyone made a great fuss over the baby elephant because he was the cutest of all. His Mother Ella was very proud of him. She caressed him with her trunk while she listened to the other elephants praise him.

'You can tell by his ears that he's going to be a big fellow,' said one elephant.

'Why, he'll probably be a regular Jumbo,' remarked another.

And right then and there Mother Ella named him JUMBO."

The circus is in its Winter quarters in Florida and is preparing to visit hundreds of cities and will be transported by a proudly puffing train. As they went from city to city, all the circus babies grew except for Little Jumbo who even though he ate his bale of hay each day only his ears grew and he often tripped over them.

While both Mother Ella and Little Jumbo were unhappy that everyone made fun of him because of his ears, they were happy when Jack, the elephant trainer decided to give the little elephant a part in the new elephant act. So Mother Ella scrubbed Little Jumbo extra clean, sprayed him with water from her trunk and hung him out on the line to dry. (The title page has a picture of this with two clothespins on each ear holding him to a clothesline while he looks at them with an annoyed glance.)

When the big day came, it was a balancing elephant act with the first one balanced on a large red wooden ball and five other elephants climbed on top of the first elephant. The illustration shows a plank on the back of the first elephant for the others to stand on.

Little Jumbo was "to climb up to the very tip-top of the highest elephant and stand up bravely, waving a little American flag. Mother Ella kissed him for good luck. Holding his little flag in his trunk, Jumbo started to climb up on the big elephant. He was so happy that he looked back to smile at Mother Ella."

At that moment, he tripped over one of his big ears and fell while the crowd shrieked with laughter. He rolled over and over and hit the wooden ball and all the elephants tumbled and they "landed with such terrific bumps that the high-diver's tank bounced into the air, the trapezes danced about crazily, the people fell out of their seats, and the tent began to topple!! Animals and people alike ran for safety! And when the tent collapsed completely, who should come crawling out but little Jumbo smiling and waving his American flag!"

"That night, the circus train carried two very sad elephants. One was Mother Ella. The other, little Jumbo. They had put him in the donkey car. And on his water pail, they had crossed out the 'J' in Jumbo and painted a big 'D'. And from that moment on, little Jumbo was known as DUMBO."

As further punishment, Jack and the ringmaster turned Dumbo over to the clowns. They painted a big clown grin and silly looking eyebrows on Dumbo and put a dunce cap on his head. Then twice each day, Dumbo had to perform the "fireman trick" where the clowns chased him up a ladder to the window of a toy house. The flames forced Dumbo to jump into the paper net the clowns were holding and Dumbo would fall through the net into a tub of mud while the audience laughed.

Dumbo was heartbroken and would cry himself to sleep. One day, after the performance and dripping with mud, instead of returning to his mother, he walked right out of the circus grounds. He just wanted to get far, far away.

Before he got very far, he heard a cheerful little voice say, "What's the matter, little fellow? Did someone throw mud at you?"

That cheerful little voice belonged to a little robin in a red vest and a pearl-gray derby. The robin's name was "Red".

When Dumbo told Red his sad story, the robin decided the problem was that Dumbo had a complex about his ears and so he decided to take Dumbo to a friend of his, Professor Hoot Owl, M.D., Ph.D., M.A., L.L.D. Psychiatrist and Notary Public, who lived in a large tree.

Doctor Hoot Howl tapped Dumbo with little hammers, tickled him with feathers and shot guns off under his chair and finally questioned him about his dreams. Shyly, Dumbo admitted that he dreams about flying.

"What's stopping you?" the Doctor shouted at Dumbo. "If you want to fly, go ahead and fly! Ten dollars, please."

Red told the owl to charge it to his account and when he asked the doctor how Dumbo should begin flying, the doctor boomed, "That information will cost you ten dollars more---and this time it will be cash!" So Red decided he would figure out a way for Dumbo to fly.

Red's plan was to have Dumbo repeat "I CAN FLY" a hundred times and then he took Dumbo to the top of a high cliff and had him jump off. Dumbo fell towards the ground with his legs, ears and trunk all flapping.

Red flew alongside and shouted, "Spread your ears! Soar! Pull yourself out of it before you crash!"

Suddenly, Dumbo wasn't falling but flying. Every day, Dumbo practiced with Red flying alongside, giving him instructions. "And soon, he learned to loop the loop, spiral, glide, dip and soar just like a bird."

"We're going back to the circus, little fellow. But you mustn't say a word about all this to anyone. I have a plan that'll make us rich and famous, but we must wait until the time is ripe," counseled Red.

Mother Ella was very thankful to see her son again and pleased to meet his new friend, Red. Dumbo was able to tolerate the hateful "fireman trick" because Red was there to encourage him and because of the wonderful secret.

After a few weeks, the circus came to Madison Square Garden, the most important stop on the circus schedule. The clowns even made the platform for Dumbo much higher, hoping the people would laugh harder. However, on the opening day performance as Dumbo was about to jump, Red flew up and whispered to him, "Now's the time, Ace! Let 'em have it!"

Dumbo was frightened and when he jumped he couldn't remember how to fly so he closed his eyes and kept falling. Red shouted instructions at him until he was almost in tears. Suddenly, Dumbo straightened his ears, dipped low and flew.

The audience and circus performers gasped. Dumbo flew in and out of the trapezes. "He looped the loop, dipped, circled, and soared. Then he swooped down low, scooped up a trunkful of water from the high-diver's tank and shot it at the clowns. And he spanked the ringmaster with his trunk! Then he soared right through the door out into the street. Outside he caused a general panic. Women screamed! Men hid in doorways! Policemen blew whistles! Automobiles jumped curbs! Dumbo, scared at what he had done, flew back to the Garden. He was greeted with wild cheering and applause. He came to a graceful landing and bowed to all the people" and then ran over to Mother Ella and kissed her.

Dumbo became the star of the circus and all the posters advertised "Dumbo the flying elephant" and the ringmaster introduced him to audiences as "the eighth wonder of the world! The only flying elephant in captivity!" He had his own private car in the circus train and his name was painted on it in gold letters. In addition, he had servants to wait on him and his mother and Red.

"And the last we heard, they were on their way to Hollywood. For Dumbo is going to act in the movies!"

And the final picture is Red in his derby holding papers that say "contract".

Once again, I would like to thank Jim Korkis whose love of the film "Dumbo" even exceeds my own for allowing me to share with the readers this lost piece of Disney history.

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  • Thank you so much for posting this. I've always wondered about the original story! Thanks again.

  • Thank you for this great post. Now I want to see the movie again.  It is such a marvelous story. The American flag adds a wonderful historical touch, before we entered into World War II. Any chance of a reprint?

  • Thank you very much for your great effort!

  • i love elephants

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  • Good read. I find out something totally new and difficult on personal blogs I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It's always exciting to read simple things content material posted by authors and use a little something from their internet sites.

  • I enjoyed the original story.  Flying elephants rock!!  Thank you for the post!

    I wonder if other stories Helen Aberson wrote could have been adapted by Disney to become classics.

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  • Thanks for posting this. Most people don't know about the original story. The circus has winter headquarters in a little town called Gibsonton, so i always figured that where Dumbo was born.

  • So very special to me and to the history of storytelling. Thank you so much!

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