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Remembering Virginia Davis (1918 - 2009)

Jim Hill

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Remembering Virginia Davis (1918 - 2009)

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When talking about the Walt Disney Company’s origins, the cliché that people usually default to is “It all started with a Mouse.”

Which isn’t exactly true. A full five years before Mickey came on the scene, Walt was trying to get his “Alice Comedies” series off the ground. And the little girl that Disney chose to frolic with his crude cartoon characters was one Virginia Davis.

Then only 4-years-old, Ms. Davis didn’t have a whole lot of acting experience. But Virginia still lit up the screen in “Alice’s Wonderland.” So much so that – after Walt had moved out to California and found the funds necessary to continue the “Alice Comedies” series – M.J. Winkler (i.e. the woman who underwrote the cost of producing these live-action / animated shorts) insisted that Disney use little Miss Davis in the follow-up films.

Virginia Davis as a young girl

So Walt convinced Virginia and her family to relocate to California. And from 1923 to 1924, they made 13 “Alice Comedies” together. Starting with “Alice’s Day at Sea” and eventually ending with “Alice Hunting in Africa.”

Now what’s fascinating about watching these 13 live-action / animated shorts nowadays is that you get to see Mr. Disney & Miss Davis learn their craft. Sure, by today’s standards, the “Alice Comedies” are pretty crude. But if you watch these films in the order that they were produced, you can actually see Virginia become a more polished performer and Walt become a much more confident filmmaker.

Mind you, in order to keep the “Alice Comedies” fresh, M.J. Winkler eventually insisted that Disney replace Miss Davis with another performer. And while this series would continue for another 53 installments with three other girls playing the title role … To be honest, the “Alice Comedies” really lost something, a certain star quality when Walt let Virginia go.

Alice Comedies Poster

So when you get right down to it, The Walt Disney Company wasn’t really “all started with a Mouse.” Truth be told, Virginia Davis was Disney’s first star. It was her performance in those first 13 “Alice Comedies” that really put Walt and his Disney Brothers Studio operation on the map. If it weren’t for Virginia’s Mary Pickford-like hair, her natural vivacity, this little girl’s ability to make believe that there were really cartoon characters there for her to interact with while the cameras were rolling … Well, who knows what would have become of Walt & Roy?

If it weren’t for the success of the “Alice Comedies,” there’d have been no Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, no Mickey Mouse, Snow White et al. It was that first small success (which built on the camera-ready appeal of one 4-year-old girl) that made everything that followed possible.

Those of us who got to know Virginia over the past 20 years – thanks to her many appearances at Disney fan events like 2005's "Thank You Walt Disney, Inc." fundraiser event in Kansas City, MO. – will tell you that that fun-loving little girl was still alive inside of that 70+ year-old body. That all you had to do to bring “Alice” out was put Virginia up on stage. Where she’d then regal audiences with her memories of working with Walt.

Virginia Davis and Floyd Norman
Virginia Davis & Floyd Norman share a table at the Screenland Theater
Photo by Dan Viets

FYI: Miss Davis’ experiences at Walt Disney Studios weren’t restricted to just working on the “Alice Comedies.” Virginia often talked about how Walt tried to recruit her as Snow White’s live-action reference model. Miss Davis dearly wanted to work on that project, but Virginia’s mother wasn’t exactly thrilled with the term of the contract that Walt was proposing. So she turned that deal down for her daughter and the live-action reference role on Disney’s first animated feature eventually went to Marge Champion.

But Walt still had an obvious fondness for his very first star. Which is why – just a few years later – Disney hired Miss Davis to do some voicework for “Pinocchio.” He also gave Virginia a try-out in the studio’s ink and paint department.

But by then, Miss Davis was losing her taste for show biz. And though she had sung & danced in popular motion pictures like “Flying Down to Rio,” Virginia had had enough of Hollywood by the late 1930s / early 1940s. And after putting in one last appearance in the 1946 MGM musical, “The Harvey Girls,” Miss Davis and her husband – Navy aviator Robert McGhee -- turned their back on the business.

Virginia Davis McGhee
Virginia Davis McGhee (1918 - 2009)
Photo by Dan Viets

From what I hear, Robert & Virginia had a very happy life together. They were married 59 years, had two daughters (i.e. Margaret Sufke of Boise, IA and Laurieanne Zanderbergen) as well as three grandchildren that they loved very much (i.e. Krisitanne Barron, Nicole & Juliette Zanderbergen). Plus all of those fans that the McGhees met & all the friends they made over the past 20 years’ worth of appearances at Disneyana events.

So when this 90-year-old passed away this past Saturday … Sure, it was a sad occasion. But when you’ve had a life as full as Virginia’s was, particularly one where you receive lots of acknowledgment for your accomplishments so late in life, it’s not like this lady didn’t know that she was loved & appreciated. I mean, just four short weeks ago, Miss Davis McGhee was in Anaheim once again being honored by the National Fantasy Fan Club.

That said, if you’d like to honor Disney’s first star in person, a memorial service is being held at the Holy Cross Mortuary in Culver City, CA. on August 27th. In lieu of flowers, Virginia’s family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Autism Society of America – Inland Empire Chapter.

The entire JHM staff wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences to the friends & family of Virginia Davis McGhee during their time of sorrow.

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