October 20, 2001

An Interview with Alice Davis

by Christian Willis

On Saturday, I was honored to meet with a very well-known and loved member of the Disney team, Alice Davis. Wife of the late legendary Marc Davis, she designed and produced the costuming for some of the most beloved Disneyland rides we still enjoy today, including Pirates of the Caribbean and It's A Small World.

Alice Davis and Christian Willis

Alice Davis, her dog Virgil, and I (Christian Willis) standing in front of a small fraction of the Davis' extensive and impressive collection of New Guinean art.

Part One: The Interview

As we all sat down on the veranda overlooking the other quaint houses dotting the lush hillsides of Silverlake, Alice brought out four binders of Marc's work for us to peruse. It was truly amazing seeing his conceptual sketches from some of my favorite Disneyland rides, including America Sings, Country Bear Jamboree, and the Haunted Mansion. She then awed us by pulling out the character sheets she drew for each nationality represented in It's A Small World. The attention she paid to each small detail of the dolls' costumes were amazing. I now have a new appreciation for the ride.

Alice's admiration of Disney's work began at an early age. "I loved Disney from the time I can first remember, and on my eighth birthday my mother took me to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And I was absolutely fascinated by it, and I think the organ, with Grumpy playing the organ and all the little whistles and so forth, that fascinated me. From that time I wanted to be a Disney artist."

Alice won a scholarship to Chounaird Art Institute, which she attended in 1947. Marc started teaching at the institute that same year. "The first chore that I had was every Tuesday night, ten minutes to seven I was to take two pieces of perfect white chalk to Mr. Davis so he could draw on the blackboard. So that's how I met him." Marc's chalkboard drawings were so popular, in fact, that they were always left up on the board throughout the week for other students to take notes from. Other teachers had to bring in a portable chalkboard because they couldn't erase his drawings!

The institute had a two-year waiting period, yet by fortune she was admitted to fill the one last space they had open. Because of this, she was forced into costume design, which she began to really enjoy. After she and Marc had become well acquainted, he approached her one day and told her of a problem he was having with Aurora's dress in Sleeping Beauty. "He said, 'If I gave you a sketch of Aurora and tell you how I want the skirt to move, could you make the costume for me?' and I said sure. And he said, 'Good, you've got a job.' And that was my first job with Disney."

Shortly after she was married to Marc, she received a call from the Disney studio asking if she would work on costuming for Toby Tyler. Then, in 1960 she was sitting with Marc in one of Walt Disney's favorite restaurants, the Tam O'Shanter Inn, when Walt himself walked over and told Alice he would give her a call when he found something for her. Four years later she would find herself saying yes to working on the production of the costumes for It's A Small World.

When I asked her what her favorite project was that she worked on, she replied "It's hard to compare, you know, going from sweet little children to dirty old men; I think Small World, because when I was a child we were lucky to have food and clothes, much less toys. I really never had any dolls to play with, so it was like providence that I got the job. Being able to play with dolls, and being paid for it too."

Having found out that she met Marc one year after he was an animation director for Song of the South, I asked her what she could tell me about Marc's involvement in the film. He is mostly credited for having worked on Brer Rabbit, but also many other scenes as well. "When we would be watching the film," Alice recollects, "he would say 'That's my animation there.' and point things out.

"He liked the film very much. He liked the actor who played Uncle Remus [James Baskett] very much. He said he was fascinating because he could talk very very fast, he could talk very slow, he could do a voice that would fit the character that he was doing the voice for." Alice also confirmed for me the long-standing gray area involving the off-screen marriage of Ruth Warrick (Sally) and Erik Rolf (John), the acting parents in Song of the South. "Oddly enough the actor who played the father in the film was married to Ruth Warrick at the time but nobody knew it. She told me that they were and she had two sons by him."

Alice also recalled attending a special ceremony at what she remembers to be the 30th anniversary of Song of the South in 1976. The ceremony was located in Atlanta, Georgia, at the home of Joel Chandler Harris, The Wren's Nest. All the proceeds of the celebration was to go to restoring the house and converting it into a museum. Among the speakers were the Governor of Georgia, the Mayor of Atlanta, and Ruth Warrick. Marc Davis was to follow after with a speech of his own, and Alice recalled with laughter that as Ruth Warrick stepped down from the stage and it was Marc's turn to speak, "she had said everything that he was going to say." So Marc ended up mostly ad-libbing and speaking on the talent of James Baskett. She also recalled humorously that as Ruth Warrick walked down the isle to give her speech, all the kids in the audience chattered "Oh, Aunt Phoebe! There's Aunt Phoebe!" Alice leaned over to Marc and exclaimed "You know what soap opera their mothers watch!"

Part Two: The Tour

The remainder of the afternoon was almost surreal as she led us into room after room of Marc's framed paintings. It opened my eyes to a whole other side of him—the non-Disney side. It was absolutely amazing to see so many completely different artistic styles coming from one man. Equally amazing were his many awards. I'm not sure how many people have had the honor to hold a Mousecar (the Disney equivalent of an Oscar), let alone Marc Davis', but it was truly a humbling experience. To think that that man was the creator of so many of my fond Disney memories.

Also highly worthy of note was the strong and loving relationship Marc and Alice shared. It was so touching to see cards that they drew for each other hanging on the wall right next to Marc's work, a clear indication that their love is worth equally as much if not more to them. I came away that evening vowing that someday I will find a woman to share that same kind of happiness with, no matter how many tries it takes. But I digress.


Alice's 60th birthday card, drawn by Marc. Note Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Mr. Bluebird on Marc's shoulder!

In addition to all these fantastic paintings and drawings adorning the walls, the Davis' collection of New Guinean art and artifacts were equally impressive. Marc's drawings and studies of the various tribes' clothing hung right alongside their collection.

Alice then took us over to the other house (yes, the other house) that housed Marc's studio and most of his Disney work. I was humbled ten times over again as I saw his original Disney drafting table and desk and the "chair that Walt Disney would always sit in" when he came in to talk to Marc. As if that weren't enough to make my jaw drop, I soon found myself looking at original cels from Snow White and 101 Dalmatians.

We then made our way down to their lower garden, complete with a fountain and lush greenery all around. It was a Disneyland away from Disneyland. She pointed out to us a humongous tree and informed us that it was originally one of the trees alongside the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland when it first opened. Marc brought the tiny sapling home in his cigarette case and she planted it.

After a few more pictures and a request to see a couple more America Sings items, it had turned to evening and was time to say goodbye. She hinted at an "upstairs" in the second building we hadn't seen, so maybe, just maybe, there may be a Part Two to this story! I certainly hope so! This is one of the most memorable experiences I've had. A huge thanks goes to Alice for her hospitality and kindness, and to Patti Denys, my teacher, who introduced me to her, and to Mary Holmes, for coming along and helping with the pictures. All three of us helped keep our jaws off the floor. :)

– Christian Willis

Patti Denys
My teacher, Patti Denys, above. This interview would not have been possible without her. Thank you Patti! I will always remember this trip with fondness. I'd love to do it again sometime!
Patti Denys and Alice Davis
Patti Denys and Alice Davis.
Mary Holmes, Patti Denys and Alice Davis
Left to Right: Mary Holmes, Patti Denys, and Alice Davis. Here, Alice is showing us the original drawings of her costume designs that were used on all of the Animatronics in "It's A Small World".

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