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The female artists & animators who changed Disney Studio’s “boys will be boys” culture

The female artists & animators who changed Disney Studio’s “boys will be boys” culture

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There’s a mistaken notion that back in the 1950s the Walt Disney Studio was strictly a man’s world and women were not even allowed in the Animation Building. It was believed that women employees were restricted to the “women’s work” over in the Ink and Paint Department where they dutifully traced the pencil drawings onto sheets of acetate while others painted in the colors.

Such was not entirely true. While male artists certainly outnumbered the women, it might surprise you to know that Disney had its fair share of talented female artists working away at the drawing tables on the Disney classic feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.”

Should you stroll into D-Wing on the first floor of the Animation Building you would find a fair size room with three or four young women doing beautiful clean-up animation on the film’s lead character, Briar Rose. The young women turning out these exquisite drawings were Doris Collins, Fran Marr, and another artist named Mary, although I can’t seem to recall her last name. The drawings were delicate yet masterful, and certainly seem to benefit from a woman’s touch.

Of course, there were other young women who labored in the Animation Building back in the 1950s. There were so many that I can’t even recall their names. Lois Blumquist, Elizabeth Case, Eva Schneider, Bea Tomargo, Jane Shattuck and Sylvia Frye to name a few. Though no woman had yet to crack the animation “glass ceiling” and become an animator, they were clearly making their presence known.

The delightful Lois Blumquist, one of the many women artists at Walt Disney Studios in the 1950s
The delightful Lois Blumquist, one of the many women artists at
Walt Disney Studios in the 1950s 

However, women were also represented in Disney’s coveted background department and talented painters such as Thelma Whitmer and Barbara Begg proved they could wield a paintbrush as well as any guy.

I don’t recall women’s issues being a big deal back in the 1950s, although there were certainly incidents that might be a cause for concern. Some artists regularly featured Playboy pinup calendars in their offices, and secretaries were often referred to as “girls.” However, the women I talked to took it all in stride and maintained an attitude of “boys will be boys.” I remember sitting on a studio park bench and chatting with animation artist Kay Silva about the situation. Unlike most women today, she simply laughed it off.

On the other hand, some of the veteran women artists could be as tough as any guy at the studio. Should you be foolish enough to turn in a poorly drawn scene, one rather tough, chain smoking female artist could provide a “chewing out” that would make Milt Kahl proud. Since Disney artists back in the day were known for their noontime “thirst,” one attractive brunette was known for her ability to drink many a man “under the table.”

By the 1960s, women were finally moving into Disney’s once all male layout department, and working alongside the men. Talented layout artists such as Sylvia Roemer and Sammie June Lanham began creating layouts for “101 Dalmatians” & “The Sword in the Stone.”

Animation artist Charlotte Huffine was married to veteran Disney background artist Ray Huffine
Animation artist Charlotte Huffine was married to veteran Disney
background artist Ray Huffine

Veteran animation assistants Retta Davidson, Grace Stanzell, Sylvia Niday and Charlotte Huffine were eventually joined by newbies Joan Drake and Kimi Tashima. Times were changing, and their male superiors did not as easily intimidate this new generation of young women. I still gleefully remember a confrontation with Joan Drake and Milt Kahl. The bombastic directing animator was intent on bawling out his young assistant, and he read her the riot act. The young woman looked at him and laughed in his face. The fearsome animator simply wilted on the spot. He turned and stomped back to his office clearly defeated.

As the years passed, Disney animation moved through several transitions as fresh young talent came on board. The old guard that once dominated animated filmmaking was moving on, and more opportunities for young artists were becoming available. Unlike years past, many of the women would now become animators, story artists and even directors.

However, let’s not kid ourselves. We know that men still dominate motion picture film production and that includes animation. However, it might be worth a reminder that even back in the 1950s, women were not exclusively consigned to duties in the Ink and Paint department. Among the hundreds that labored at the Walt Disney Studio a fair percentage of the artists were women. This is a very real fact that any serious student of Disney animation history should not forget.

Photographed in the 1950s, Jane Shattuck Baer would someday run her own animation studio
Photographed in the 1950s, Jane Shattuck Baer
would someday run her own animation studio

And speaking of forgetting, don't forget that Floyd Norman currently has several books on the market that also talk about the many amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had while working in the animation industry.

Floyd’s most recent effort – “’Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age” – is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman’s original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" – is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo.

And if you still haven’t had your fill of Floyd … Well, then feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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