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.
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.
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 & Floyd Norman share a table at the Screenland TheaterPhoto 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
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.