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Remembering the Other Retta: Disney Feature Animation's Retta Davidson

Remembering the Other Retta: Disney Feature Animation's Retta Davidson

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Perhaps some of you are knowledgeable about Disney's first female animator, Retta Scott. Ms Scott has a credit on the Disney feature, "Bambi." And I'm willing to bet she has been an inspiration for a lot of young women hoping for a career in animation.

Unfortunately, I never met Retta Scott. But I did meet and work with another Retta. And she -- not Ms Scott -- is the subject of today's column

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I've heard a lot of talk about animation having little appeal for women. Yet, when I think back to my arrival at the Walt Disney studio in the fifties, I recall an animation department filled with women. Animation had an appeal for a lot of young artists, and a fair number of them were women.

"Sleeping Beauty" was the feature film currently in production and the animation in this Disney movie required a high level of drawing ability and meticulous attention to detail. It seems women were particularly adept at doing this job. One of the many women I met and had the pleasure of working for was Retta Davidson.

Retta Davidson had always wanted to be an artist, and she began her career right out of high school when she was only seventeen. The Disney studio hired her as a painter on the feature film "Pinocchio." When Disney moved to the new studio in Burbank, Retta continued working in ink & paint on the films' "Bambi" and "Fantasia."

World War II took many of the Disney artists into the armed forces, and the shortage of manpower at the studio provided opportunities for women to be considered for jobs in the animation department. Retta was one of the few to be considered for training as an animator. However, wartime requires sacrifice. And Retta left this rare opportunity for advancement to join the Navy. She served her country for four years, working in Washington before returning to Hollywood to finish her service.

After the war, Retta returned to Disney where she worked as an assistant animator for a number of Disney's premiere animators. Good assistants were highly sought after, and Retta was always in demand. I never heard Retta express any desire to become an animator. Being a key assistant animator was a tough enough job, and Retta seemed to find satisfaction in that assignment.

If I could use one word to described Retta Davidson, I think it would be "chipper." She was an upbeat and very funny lady. Retta always had a joke or funny story to tell, and could keep us kids entertained for hours.

Retta was a little older than most of us young upstarts at the Disney studio. She often seemed like our "den mother" when we worked for her. Tough and demanding when it came to work, Retta could also be sweet and gentle as a mom when necessary. When she was pregnant, she worked up until the last moment because she knew she only had to go across the street to St. Joseph's Hospital to have her baby.

Some may consider this insignificant, but I think it was indicative of Retta's professionalism. I loved the way she dressed. No scruffy sneakers, torn jeans and sweatshirts for this woman. In the fifties and sixties animation professionals dressed like adults, not junior high school students.

I took this photo of my pal, Retta Davidson
when we were both working on "The Sword in the Stone."

Oddly enough, Retta and I both left the Walt Disney studio in 1966. Perhaps the death of Walt Disney affected her as much as it did me. Retta worked on television commercials as a freelancer in Hollywood, and eventually moved to Montreal Canada as an animation teacher. Retta taught animation at Concordia University in Montreal and Sheridan College in Toronto. Retta later told us she had a ball in Canada.

Retta returned to the Walt Disney studio in the early eighties to train young animators working on "The Black Cauldron." As luck would have it, I returned to Disney as well. It was great to see Retta again, and to learn she had finally been promoted to the position of Coordinating Animator. Finally, another Retta had become a Disney animator. Once again, Disney history had been made.

Even though she was now a grandmother, Retta embraced her new job with her usual enthusiasm. She hoped that her position would open up greater opportunities for other young women who were currently in training as Disney actively began rebuilding their animation department. I remember speaking with Retta in the hallway of the animation building. She was excited about an upcoming vacation to Walt Disney World, and encouraged me to take some time off as well. That was Retta, after all. Even though I was now in my forties, she was still the "den mother."

The Disney publishing department moved off the studio lot in the early nineties, and I lost track of Retta. I heard she enjoyed her retirement near Dana Point, and spent a lot of time with her grandchildren. Unfortunately, I never saw Retta again. I received news of her passing in 1998.

Over the years, Retta Davidson has often been confused with the Disney Legend, Retta Scott. Yet, like Ms Scott, Retta Davidson will always be a legend in my book. She was my boss, my colleague, and one of the nicest women I ever knew.

Floyd Norman has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons on the market. All of which take an affectionate look back at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • It's not often we hear of the many great female Disney animators.  It's great that you shed some light on a woman who obviously had a big impact in your life.  I think it's great that Ms. Davidson went into the Navy, came back to Disney, left, and came back again - that's dedication.  
    Thank you for the article, Mr. Norman!
  • I feel another book coming on..

    "The Women Animators Of Disney"
  • Didn't Ms. Davidson also train young animators at Ralph Bakshi's studio in the late seventies?

  • World War II has drawn many Disney artists into the armed forces, and the lack of workforce in the studio has allowed women to be considered for work in the animation department. Retta was one of the few who was considered an animator for training. However, war requires sacrifice. We can get that site from them. And Retta has missed out on this rare opportunity for promotion to join Navig.

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