A Forgotten TV Commercial

Back in the fifties, our little animation team was tasked with creating a series of television commercials for Walt Disney’s Commercial Unit. Actually, the order came from the woman Walt had put in charge of his profitable division. The formidable Phyllis Hurrell was the executive in charge. Stop and think about this for a moment. Way, way back in the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney had chosen a woman to head up his commercial division. The man often reviled as a “gender bigot” was years ahead of most Hollywood studios when it came to giving opportunities to women. However, we can talk more about that later.

When Walt Disney decided to make the move to television back in the fifties, decisions were made about the use of the classic Disney characters. Because there were still questions regarding the new electronic medium, it was decided Walt’s world famous characters would not immediately appear on the television screen. This explains the use of Jiminy Cricket instead of Pinocchio. That’s why Tinkerbell appears on the Disneyland TV show and not Peter Pan. So, when it came to hawking Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tinkerbell, not Peter became the “pitch person.” I was assigned to work with my old pal, Freddy Hellmich on the Peanut Butter spots. A Disney veteran, Freddy and I would later be teamed up to complete the fairy animation on Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” However, this group of television spots was our current assignment. I still remember Freddy’s choice of drawing tools and how those choices influenced me. He roughed his animation using a mechanical pencil filled with magenta lead. Working over the rough magenta sketches, we would finalize our drawings with a 2B or HB pencil. Every lead animator had his or her own way of working. I remember adapting my drawing style and pencils I used depending who I was following.

In one particular television commercial, the little sprite, Tinkerbell was required to skip across the screen clapping her hands to a delightful little tune. I remember it was difficult to animate the magical little sprite and have her hit her marks just right. We quickly decided we needed live-action reference to make our animation convincing. Well, lucky for us, the live-action model for Tinkerbell was still available, so we quickly brought in actress, Margaret Kerry to film the cute little action we needed for our animation. Decades later, Ms Kerry was visiting the Walt Disney Studios and much to our delight she was able to remember and perform the same little dance as though it was yesterday. I found a stack of those animation drawings in my garage. The same animation sketches we did back in the fifties for the Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial.

Finally, some might wonder why the drawings differ so much from the original models used in the feature films. That’s easy to explain. Because of the poor resolution of most television reception back in the fifties, our animation drawings were usually simplified to accommodate television’s less than stellar resolution. All the Disney characters were simplified in order to appear sharper and clearer on TV. Most of this Disney design makeover was the work of character designer, Tom Oreb. Tom had a way of simplifying every Disney character including Mickey Mouse. You may even remember Mickey with the odd, squared off ears. For the most part, Tom created a design that worked. Our Tinkerbells were somewhat stylized and simplified even though we were able retain the look and appeal of the magical little sprite. You might also wonder why directing animator, Marc Davis wasn’t involved with the commercial spots. If you remember, Marc Davis was already hard at work on another Disney animated feature that featured two important women. A lovely princess named, Aurora and an evil fairy we all know as, Maleficent. So, you see. Marc had little time for TV commercials. 

The nineteen fifties was a magical time at the Walt Disney Studios. My career was only beginning but everything that came my way was a challenge and a joy. The assignments, whether big or small were opportunities for learning and I look back on those marvelous days with a profound sense of delight. Every time I open a tattered box or a worn folder from days past, it sparks wonderful memories of a Disney that once was… and can never be again.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.