Ruthie Thompson, trailblazing Disney animator, dead at 111

Disney and fans have bid farewell to pioneering female animator Ruthie Thompson, who died on Sunday at 111.

As an illustrator and storyboard planner at Disney, her work on some of their most iconic animated films in history, including including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), “Mary Poppins” (1964), “Robin Hood” (1970) and “The Aristocats” (1970), was largely uncredited.

She also took part in bringing “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940) and “Dumbo” (1941) and others to the silver screen.

“Mickey Mouse and I grew up together,” Thompson has said.

The artist passed away at the home for Hollywood’s most influential seniors, the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, California, The Hollywood Reporter reported on Monday.

At 18, Ruthie Thompson was hired by Walt and Roy Disney to work as an inker on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Alamy Stock Photo

Born on July 22, 1010 in Portland, Maine, Thompson moved from Boston, to Oakland, California and, ultimately, Los Angeles in 1924. In a twist of fate, her family would just so happen to move-in down the block from Disney studio founders Walt and Roy, who were lived with their uncle Robert Disney when they first arrived in LA.Their homes were in close proximity to the original Disney Bros. Studio on Kingswell Avenue.

“Once Roy asked us neighborhood kids to play tag in the street, while he photographed us with a movie camera,” said Thompson during her Disney Legend honors interview, 21 years ago. “I suppose it was for the ‘Alice Comedies;’ he paid each of us a quarter, which I was glad for because I could buy licorice.”

Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia"
Disney animator Ruthie Thompson joked she and Mickey Mouse “grew up together.”
Alamy Stock Photo

At 18, she befriended Roy and Walt as adults while working at Dubrock’s Riding Academy, where the brothers often played polo. There, they invited her to work as an “inker” — “We’ll teach you what we want you to do,” they promised her, according to Variety — and later moved to the Paint Department, while launching the studio’s first motion picture, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“I never wanted to do what I was supposed to do,” she said in the 2014 short film “Showfolk,” a documentary covering the few residents of the MPTF home. “My nose was just leading me to what I call trouble. That’s when I ran into Walt Disney.”

Dumbo
Ruthie Thompson made history again as one of the first women invited to join the International Photographers Union, in 1952, after helping to produce such works as “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio.”
Alamy Stock Photo

She continued that work on “Bambi” before being promoted to animation checker during World War II, a time in which many women assumed roles traditionally held by men. Thompson would help produce training and educational videos for the US Army that featured signature Disney characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

In 1952, she was lauded as one of the first of three women to join the International Photographers Union in 1952.

Mary Poppins
Graduating from painter to scene planner, then supervisor, Ruthie Thompson would see more of her work become American classics, including “Mary Poppins.”
Alamy Stock Photo

“Apparently the boys were impressed with my curiosity and decided that, [because of] what I did mechanically with the camera moves, that I should be a part of the camera union,” she said in “Showfolk.” “I was one of two women that were taken in. I thought, ‘That feels good’.”

Thompson’s ascent continued as scene planner for several more classic works, such as “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961), “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “The Rescuers” (1977) before retiring from the studio in 1975 — though would return to work in 1978, on Ralph Bakshi’s animated “The Lord of the Rings” and “Metamorphoses.”

In the year 2000, she was officially recognized as a Disney Legend for four decades of work, including that which she was not originally credited.

Disney CEO Bob Iger said in a statement, “RIP Ruthie Thompson…a true animation legend.”

Her contributions,” he continued, “remain beloved classics to this day. While we will miss her smile & wonderful sense of humor, her exceptional work & pioneering spirit will forever inspire us.”

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