There were moments when Disney Legend Kathryn Beaumont was speaking where I wanted to pause and tell her how much she sounds like my childhood. Growing up, animated classics like Peter Pan were the stories I watched the most. The lyrical, almost sing-songy upticks in her tone, and that audible gentleness and kindness that made her the perfect Wendy in 1953 are still discernible in her voice 65 years later.
Not only did Beaumont voice Wendy in Peter Pan, but she also voiced Alice in Alice in Wonderland! I spoke with Beaumont and historian and author Mindy Johnson recently to celebrate the release of Peter Pan on Digital and Blu-ray. Read on to learn about Kathryn’s experiences as a live-action reference model (in addition to her work as the voice of Wendy), the significance of reference models, and Kathryn’s memories of Walt Disney.
How does it feel to be part of something so historic that means so much to so many people?
Kathryn Beaumont: Wonderful. To have that opportunity at such a young age, to participate in Walt Disney films, to be part of that. I had grown up as a small child, knowing Walt Disney’s movies having seen them, admiring everything about him, [so] I was in total awe when I first came here and got the part for Alice.
What was Walt Disney like?
KB: I was so surprised because he was such a hands-on person in terms of, most of the Studio heads, you never really saw them … Walt Disney was right there, watching all stages of development. He would come to where the animators were sharing things, or doing the storyboard conferences. He would walk in and sit in and see what was going on. Then there were times where, some of the directors were flummoxed about how to do a particular thing, and we would try one thing and then another and they would say “Well how about we get Walt down here and have him watch?” They called Walt’s office, a few minutes later he comes roaring down, [and said] “Well, what’s the matter?” … Finally, he did sit down and listen in, and he said “Well, actually, I think what you did the first time was just fine!” He was really hands on. That was what I got from a lot of those experiences.
For your work as a live-action reference model on Peter Pan, you were even rigged to harness on a stage and actually flew. What was that like?
KB: Especially for someone who was afraid of heights, that was an interesting experience … It was a long way up to the ceiling of the stage, and I thought “How am I going to get around this one?” because it was a long way down … But the directors were aware, and said “we’re going to put the harness around you, and then we’re going to lift you around a little bit, we’re not going to go any higher than this and we’ll just float you around and see how it is. Then we’re going to lift you up a little bit further but you have to tell us when you’re uncomfortable.” We actually did that on a few different days, but in the course of the few days of practicing with me, I was getting more used to what was going on … I knew I was safe, because I was harnessed. Then I could do the scene. But it was interesting how they put it together to help me, so I would get used to it.
Mindy, was the set-up always this elaborate for live-action reference models?:
Mindy Johnson: Well, that evolved too. Going back to the early Silly Symphonies, they began using live-action reference, and certainly Snow White, Marge Champion, really defined that quite a bit. For feature length, they began to realize how important that was. That sort of thing had been applied to other studios, but not to this extent. By the time you got to Cinderella, the entire film was put together through live-action reference … It gave the artists a sense of placement, timing, movement, and suggestion, and ideas. Walt wanted to ensure that it was all covered. By the time you get to Alice in Wonderland, [Kathryn was] doing quite a bit on Alice, and then in Peter Pan it was very key, because you have multiple ages: the Lost Boys and the Darling children, but then you have pirates, and Peter flying. So what does that look like? How can we convey these characters in a believable sense? The application of live action was critical, it was a major part of it… This really is a major part of the great classics and how this was done.
Kathryn, what is your favorite memory of working on Peter Pan?
KB: There were so many wonderful experiences. With Peter Pan, I’m thinking that with the live-action in particular, what was so nice was that I really was working with other characters. I think that was the big thing that was special for me for Peter Pan … I so admired Hans Conried [who voiced both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling]. I came from England, and I started listening in those days to stories on the radio. I began listening in the early evenings to some of these stories. I began to recognize this voice, and suddenly I knew “Oh, that’s the voice of Hans Conried.” I was really glued at that point.
MJ: He gave such a definitive Hook performance. And he also did Mr. Darling.
Kathryn, what was it like the first time you saw the movie?
KB: I was in awe. I saw it in various phases, because I was invited up to screenings … Then, later on, when things were getting more developed, I would get to see part of that too. Seeing the process, seeing the development of it was what really impressed me.
Have you seen the movie recently? What was that like?
KB: It brings back wonderful memories.
We have wonderful memories of Peter Pan as well, and many of them are largely due in part to Kathryn and her iconic performance. It was a joy and honor to talk to Kathryn and Mindy about it and to relive all of the magic of Peter Pan!