Alice Davis remembers the day she heard these words – only men. Standing in the admissions office of the best animation school in the world, she had won a scholarship, and it didn’t matter. She was there to enroll in the program, but there was no place for her. It was one of those moments — we’ve all had them— when your body holds still, and waits for your mind to catch up.
“I started crying,” she tells me, “and I wasn’t the crying type.” It was the third time she had lost her scholarship because she was a woman, and it made her angry, as anyone would be. Alice turned eighty-six this year. Telling the story transports her sixty-years into the past, and you can see it still irks Mrs. Davis.
“I think that women are still not winning the full salary that a man is getting,” she looked at me with an incredulous expression on her face, as if she wanted to confirm — Is this still true? It was difficult to confirm that this was true.
On that day, Alice asked the woman in admissions, “What’s the matter with women? We can hold a pencil in our hand just as well, if not better than a man.” Eventually, the woman said she’d be right back, and a moment later she returned with another woman who wore a smock, with a measuring tape around her neck. “I think I’ve got everything solved for you,” she said. “You can start on Monday at nine A.M.,”
“You’re going to be a Costume Design major!”
She wasn’t the least bit interested.
As a consolation, she was told she could audit one class. “We have a new teacher,” the secretary said. “His name is Mr. Davis, and he’s going to be teaching animated drawing.”
In order to observe the class she would have to call the roll, and be sure Mr. Davis always had at least three pieces of chalk.
She said, yes.
That first day, “He did drawings on the black board,” she said. “All the way around the room, and he would explain how a deer would jump over a fence, and he would draw the deer, and how it moved up, and he’s drawing, and talking, and showing.”
Her hands curve through the air, “There were black boards on every wall in the classroom, all the way around, and by the time he gets finished talking, he’d drawn the whole thing, and you could see this animal running around the room.”
The semester ended, and Alice continued in Costume Design. Mr. Davis moved on in his career, and both were barely a blip on the other’s radar. They had gone their separate ways.
In the meantime, who encouraged her the most?
“My mother,” Mrs. Davis said. “My mother always told me to get an education,” which is sound advice, but it didn’t stop there. “Get an education, then get a good job. Once you get that, find a place to live, and then find yourself a car,” her mother then told her if you have all those, “you can go look for a man.”
Years later Alice got a call from Mr. Davis. Disney Studios was doing Sleeping Beauty, and they needed someone to make the blue dress. They needed to put it on the dancer, and draw her in motion. The costume had to fit, fall, and flow in a way thay they could see the specificity of her movement. She had one week, and he wanted to know — could she do it?
She said, yes.
That’s when it really hit me – like being clubbed on an ice flow – that I’m sitting here talking to the woman who made Princess Aurora’s blue dress. The blue dress. Silver Lake, land of Disney Studios, an eighty-six year old woman who went to Franklin Elementary, married one of the top animators on Disney’s platinum pantheon, and was then hand picked by Mr. Disney to do all the costumes for the Small World Project. This felt like staring into the keyhole of childhood, and conversing with one of the elves that made my favorite magic.
It was Mr. Disney’s secretary who called to see if she would be interested. As Mrs. Davis described it, “You could hear me all the way to China and back,”
Her answer – Yes!
The next day at eight A.M. she was standing in front of Mr. Disney with a career. What was it like to work with Walt Disney?
“He would drop in and say, this is coming along nicely. When would you like to see me, again?” And I would say, “I should have this part done by Wednesday around three.” He would leave, and show up on Wednesday at three sharp. Mrs. Davis claims he never wrote anything down, he was always where he said he would be, and you had better be there, too.
Who would be late for Walt Disney? She looked at me, and said, “No one.”
As Mrs. Davis tells it, “He respected me.” What she describes is a high production work environment, unlimited imagination, and a healthy budget. After completing the program in Costume Design she had gone to work in the garment district where, “they checked every penny and the whole bit, and cheated as much as possible.”
She asked about the budget, and how much did they have, and Disney looked at her and said, “By the way, my name is Walt, and you’re going to call me Walt, and your name is Alice, and I’m going to call you, Alice.” Even five decades later you can tell Alice still struggles to say – Walt.
I had randomly knocked at her door one day, and she happened to be leaving the house with a caretaker, we started to chat as the dogs were wrangled back inside. I asked how long she had lived there, and she had told me she bought her house in 1956, then out came words like Disney, and Sleeping Beauty, and Costume Design, and The Blue Dress. It was only when I came to her house that I saw a love story of her marriage to Mark Davis on every wall, all the art they had collected in all the places they loved to go. For this couple “Love Notes” were hand drawn images, it was a draw and not spell love affair. While Mr. Davis worked abroad in France, Mrs. Davis drew out her love letters.
Today, years later, Alice still lives in the house she bought with her late husband, Mark Davis. It’s filled with their life, and art, and memories. When Mrs. Davis talks her voice has a sing-song cadence, she speaks in short phrases that paint vivid images and they seem to fade in and fade out. When she talks about those days at Disney you can see it was meaningful work in a golden age, and a happy life with a man she loved.
“At what point did you stop calling him, Mr. Davis?” I ask. She thinks about it…
“I think about two days after we were married.”