When Walt was about eight or nine years old, he and his brother Roy broke into their piggy banks to buy tickets to a road tour performance of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, with Maude Adams in the title role. Walt’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, was a whistle-stop midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, and the Marceline performance was a one-night-only event between two longer engagements in those cities.
Maude Adams was the biggest Broadway star of that era, and during road trips, she toured the country in a private railroad car called Tinkerbell. Her performance as Peter Pan was said to be radiant and enchanting. One of those who fell under her spell was young Walt Disney.
Disney historian Jim Korkis records Walt’s account of that experience. “For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends,” Walt said. “I took many memories away from the theater with me, but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air.”
Maude Adams’ magical performance inspired Walt and Roy to produce their own version of Peter Pan at Marceline’s Park Elementary School. Roy manned the block and tackle, and Walt dangled at the end of the rope — and, as Walt recalled, “I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience.”
Walt launched his animation studio in the 1920s, and released his first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. The memory of Maude Adams’ magical performance maintained its spell on Walt’s imagination. In 1939, Walt acquired the film rights from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London for five thousand British pounds (the play’s author, James Barrie, had assigned the hospital all rights to the play in 1929).
Walt immediately started work on the film. In 1940, he contacted his muse for the film, retired Broadway actress Maude Adams, inviting her to work with him on the project. Walt hoped that Miss Adams would bring some of the original magic that first made him fall in love with the story. But she rejected his invitation, and Walt sadly concluded in a letter to Disney merchandising executive Kay Kamen, “I would say that Miss Adams is simply living in the past.”
Walt suspended production of Peter Pan during World War II, but by 1950, work on the picture was again in full swing. Walt filmed the entire picture as a live action film as a reference for the animators. The studio built sets for the Darling house, Captain Hook’s pirate ship, Peter Pan’s tree house, and more. Actors performed in front of cameras, and scenes were filmed from multiple angles.
Walt cast thirteen-year-old Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy Darling. Disney Studio technicians sent Kathryn soaring through the air on cables and pulleys. My writing partner on How to Be Like Walt, Pat Williams, interviewed Kathryn. She told him, “Most kids would say, ‘What fun!’ But I was nervous! I was hoisted up in the air in a harness and I was thinking that the floor of the stage looked so far down.”
After three years in production, Peter Pan was released on February 5, 1953, at a cost of $4 million. In its original theatrical release, the film earned $14 million — and it went on to earn more than $87 million in subsequent releases. Like Peter Pan himself, the movie never ages — and neither does the Peter Pan’s Flight dark ride, which has been a part of Disneyland since 1955. The ride still has the longest lines in Fantasyland.
Maude Adams, the actress who inspired Walt’s lifelong fascination with Peter Pan, retired from the stage in the 1930s. She died at age eighty at her summer home in Tannersville, New York, on July 17, 1953, five months after the London premiere of Disney’s Peter Pan, and two years (to the day) before the opening of Disneyland.
Walt was always fascinated by the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. It’s not hard to understand why. When Walt saw Peter Pan soaring through the air, suspended on nothing but pixie dust and magical thoughts, he saw himself.
One of the pirate ship ride vehicles from the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland. When Walt was building Disneyland, he assigned two of his top artists, Claude Coats and Herb Ryman, to design Peter Pan’s Flight. Walt always wanted to achieve the impossible with his Fantasyland attractions, and Peter Pan’s Flight was no exception. Coats and Ryman would show him their drawings, and he’d say, “Couldn’t we fly the pirate ship over the backyard? And could we have the dog, Nana, float up in the air like she does in the movie?” If they ever said, “We can’t do that,” Walt would frown and the air would crackle with tension. Ryman and Coats learned that the only acceptable answer was, “We’ll find a way.”
ABOUT JIM DENNEY AND WALT’S DISNEYLAND: Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at Amazon.com; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.
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