Perhaps some of you amateur Disney historians are knowledgeable about Disney’s first female animator. After all, the talented young woman even has a credit on the Walt Disney feature film, “Bambi.” It’s not surprising that Retta Scott has been an inspiration for a many a young woman hoping for a career in cartoon animation. Unfortunately, I never met Retta Scott, but I did meet and work with another Retta. This particular Retta, (not Ms Scott,) is the subject of this animation profile. Over the years, I’ve heard a fair amount of talk about animation having little appeal for women. Yet, when I think back to my arrival at the Walt Disney studio in the middle fifties I recall an animation department with no shortage of women. Animation had an enormous appeal to a lot of young artists and a fair number of them were women. “Sleeping Beauty” was the feature film currently in production and the animation in this particular Disney movie required a high level of drawing ability and meticulous attention to detail. It seemed women were particularly skilled at doing this job. One of the many women I met and had the pleasure of working with was Retta Davidson. Years earlier, a young Miss Davidson, who had always wanted to be an artist, began her career right out of high school when she was only seventeen years of age. The Walt Disney studio hired her as a painter on the feature film, “Pinocchio.” When Walt Disney created his sprawling, utopian facility in Burbank, Retta Davidson continued working in the ink & paint department on the movies’ “Bambi” and “Fantasia.”
In the nineteen forties, the United States found itself on a war footing and many a young man left the comforts of home to join the military. This included several Disney artists, who put down their pencils and brushes to join the war effort. Because of the shortage of manpower at the studio, many Ink & Paint women were suddenly being considered for jobs in the animation department. Retta was one of the few considered for training as an animator. Putting service to her country over her own personal ambitions, Retta left this opportunity to join the United States Navy where she served for four years before returning to Hollywood to complete her military service. Once the war ended, Retta accepted a position as an assistant animator at the Walt Disney Studio where she worked for a dozen or so animators. Good assistants were highly sought after, the Retta was always in demand. Never expressing any desire to become an animator, Retta found being a Key Assistant was a tough enough job, and she seemed to find satisfaction in that assignment.
If I could find one word to describe Retta Davidson, I think it would be, “chipper.” She was an upbeat and very funny lady who always had a joke or funny story to tell. As you can imagine, she could keep us kids entertained for hours. Being a little older than most of us young upstarts at the studio, she could easily be mistaken as our Den Mother and she conducted herself as such. Tough and demanding when it came to work, Retta could also be sweet and gentle as a mom when necessary. When she was pregnant with her first child, she worked up until the last moment because she knew she only had to make a short trip across the street to St. Joseph’s Hospital to have her baby. Before long, Retta was back at the drawing board doing inspired sketches for the latest Walt Disney feature film, “The Sword in the Stone.” I moved to the story department on our next film, “The Jungle Book,” and it would usher in the end of an era. As we completed our story reels for the third and final act, The Old Maestro, Walt Disney, passed away. With the passing of Walt Disney both Retta Davidson and I said goodbye to the studio we both loved.
Retta Davidson continued to work in animation as a freelancer in Hollywood, and eventually moved to Montreal Canada as an animation instructor. Retta taught animation at Concordia College in Montreal and Sheridan College in Toronto. Years later, Retta recalled the joy of living in Canada and the wonderful time she had there. Suddenly, there was a call from the Walt Disney Studio and the opportunity to train young animators working on the new film, “The Black Cauldron.” As luck would have it, I returned to Walt Disney Studios as well. Naturally, it was great to see Retta again and learn she had finally been promoted to Co-ordinating Animator. It may have taken decades, but finally another Retta had become a Disney animator. This was no small matter in a studio once dominated by men.
Retta Davidson embraced her new job with her usual enthusiasm. She hoped that her position would open up greater opportunities for other young women who were currently in training as Disney actively began rebuilding their animation department. I remember speaking with Retta in the hallway of the Animation Building one afternoon. She was excited about an upcoming vacation to Walt Disney World, and encouraged me to take some time off as well. That was Retta, after all. Even though I was now in my forties, she was still the den mother. In time, our department moved offsite, and being away from the Walt Disney Studio lot, I eventually lost track of Retta. Sadly, I would never see her again. I had heard she enjoyed her retirement near Dana Point in Southern California and spent a good deal of time with her grandchildren. Unfortunately, Retta Davidson passed away in 1998.
Over the years, Retta Davidson has continually been confused with the Disney Legend. However, in my book Retta Davidson will always be a Legend. She was my boss, colleague and the nicest woman I ever knew. More mature than the rest of us crazy, Disney kids, Ms Davidson always kept us in line. A gracious mentor, she was all that and much more. Retta Davidson was a Disney animator, supervisor and mentor. Most importantly, she was the very special den mother in Walt’s animation department.