Virginia Davis: Disney’s First Star

By MARGARET KERRY

— Autograph February 2009

Signed photo of Davis as “Alice” in Disney’s Alice Comedies (1923-25)

Many disney fans are unaware that before the mouse, there was 4-year-old Alice. Virginia Davis is the Disney legend who starred as Alice in the young director’s first live-action animated short film, Alice’s Wonderland, which led to a series of 14 Alice Comedies. As two of Walt Disney’s earliest actors, Virginia and I always have much to talk about. I attended her interview with a biographer for an upcoming book and we got to catch up on old times.

Sitting in the small library in her retirement home, Virginia was stylishly dressed as always, this time in beige slacks with an elegant fitted jacket. Her signature cap was perched over her blonde curls.

“Virginia, you’re as bright as a new penny and as lively as the day Walt Disney spotted you in 1923,” I said.

“That was before there was any thought of a mouse,” Virginia replied emphatically.

It’s hard to believe that this beguiling little lady celebrated her 90th birthday on December 31.

Margaret Kerry: So, tell me, how did Walt Disney find you?

Davis holding the poster for Alice’s Day at Sea

Virginia Davis: He found me on the screen when he went to see a silent movie in Kansas City, Mo. When I was 4 years old, I was picked to be the model for a Warneke Bread advertisement that popped up on the screen between films. I was posed reaching for a slice of the bread and my mouth seemed to say ‘Yum Yum’. Walt was barely out of his teens and he was really struggling to make a go of his Laugh-O-Gram cartoon company. He got an idea for a series of six- or seven-minute live-action animated movie theater shorts titled Alice Comedies and starring a 4-year-old girl.

When he cast you as Alice, you became the little girl who started the Disney dynasty, right?

Davis-signed photo of an Alice the Peacemaker poster

Yes, Alice’s Wonderland, the first Alice Comedies short I did was actually filmed in our family’s house with Walt directing and [his brother] Roy Disney behind the camera. One scene called for my movie mother to tuck me in my bed. Walt asked my own mother, Margaret, to do the scene but she was shy, so my Aunt Louise tucked me in instead.

Did you film all 14 Alice Comedies you starred in while you were living in the Los Angeles?

Alice’s Wonderland was really the pilot, the one filmed in my house. Walt relocated to L.A. and finally got a distributor for the shorts. The contract called for me to be the star. My folks thought the world of Walt so we moved to Los Angeles. During the time I was being filmed playing Alice, I went to school and dancing classes. Good thing, too. You can’t stay a 4-year-old forever.

Signed photo of Davis as one of the 12 “Harvey Girls.” Davis is behind Judy Garland (front center) to the left

As an adult, I danced in many films in the glory days of musicals. I quit the business after making The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland at MGM. I married a wonderful man, Bob McGhee, and settled down to raise two daughters, Laurieanne and Margaret.

And now, I’m back and appearing at autograph shows around the country. Fans are so surprised when they learn of Walt’s earliest days and see the photos that I sign. It’s a great experience.

What are the top three memories of your career?

I loved working with so many top choreographers, dancers, famous directors and actors. I’m particularly pleased at having quite a large part in a movie called Three on a Match, in which I played Joan Blondell as a 12-year-old.

Davis signing a photo with her poodle, Buster

And I know just how special it is that I am one of the very few people who was actually directed by Walt Disney and filmed by Roy. You know, when Walt was directing me he’d say “Let’s pretend,” then he’d tell me the story of the scene. We had to get it right on the first take because Walt and Roy couldn’t afford to buy film for “take two.”

I guess the third highlight would be the time I was given a Disney Legend Award at the Disney Studio. That represented many things to me. But in particular I like to think that those who said over and over ‘It all started with a mouse…’ became aware that Walt Disney’s career really started with a little 4-year-old girl—Me!

Character Actors: Robert Forster

By SCOTT VOISIN
Featured in Autograph January 2009

Signed and inscribed note from Forster to the author.

In Hollywood, changing trends and flavors of the month often dictate the shelf life of many actors, but Robert Forster is a survivor. For nearly 50 years, he has been riding the show biz roller coaster, going from leading man to forgotten has-been to respected supporting player. His story is proof that those interested in acting as a route to fame and fortune are almost always doomed to fail, but serious actors committed to doing their best in any circumstance have a chance of staying in the game.

Forster got his start in acting while pursuing another interest: women. “On the first day of my senior year in college, I followed a girl into the auditorium and was trying to think of something to say to her,” he says. “They were doing an audition for Bye Bye Birdie. I had never seen the play and I hadn’t seen the movie, but I knew it was about a guy in a gold suit doing a parody of Elvis Presley. I thought if I did that, that’s how I could meet the girl. They didn’t give me the part of the guy in the gold suit; they put me in the chorus, which was a big comedown. I almost didn’t do it, but then I thought, Bob, how are you going to meet the girl? So I went back and became part of the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie.”

Forster not only met the girl, he married her, and the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1967. It was then that he got the call to audition for legendary director John Huston for the film, Reflections in a Golden Eye. “I’m introduced to Huston, who’s this tall, old guy, and he says, ‘What have you done?’” Forster recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I haven’t done much. I did one Broadway play, I wasn’t bad and I don’t make myself as an actor. I never did a movie, I don’t know how they’re made and I don’t know what the tricks are, but if you hire me, I will give you your money’s worth.’ Huston said, ‘You’ll be hearing from us.’ I figured that was the kiss-off. When somebody says that, you never hear from them. Two hours after that meeting, they made a deal with my agent. John Huston hired me on the basis of a three-minute meeting.”

Robert Forster as Miles C. Banyon in the short-lived 1970s TV series, Banyon.

Reflections starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, and although he shared the screen with two Hollywood heavyweights, Forster made a strong impression on critics and casting agents. He soon graduated to leading man status in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 experimental classic, Medium Cool. The spontaneous nature of the film forced the actor to flex creative muscles he never knew he had. “I was playing a news cameraman,” Forster says, “and I had no experience being a news cameraman, but one time after another, I was required to make it up. Haskell is shooting me as I’m interacting with people and interviewing them, and he made it into a different picture than what we had on paper. We shot twice as much than was in the script. I learned that as an actor, you may be required to do material that is not written for you, and you’ve got to be able to be that character in the shot. You’ve got to be able to make something out of whatever it is they give you to do.”

With his star on the rise, Forster entered the 1970s as an actor in demand, headlining two TV series (Banyon and Nakia) and big-budget studio films like Disney’s sci-fi epic, The Black Hole. But as he soon discovered, it takes more than talent to stay at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. “I got lucky at the beginning of my career, and if you don’t get a hit the second time or the third time to keep the ball rolling, you start slipping,” he explains. “Your agents can only put you up for good stuff for so long, and if you’re not in hits and breaking records, then you start sliding. Every time I thought I had a picture that was going to give me a little traction, it didn’t. It’s very hard to get going again when you’ve started slipping.”

By the 1980s and ’90s, Forster had been reduced to taking roles in low-rent, direct-to-video projects such as Satan’s Princess, Body Chemistry III and Scanners IV. “I was doing crappy stuff, really dopey stuff, anything I could find because I had four kids and two ex-wives,” he says. However, in 1996, his roller coaster career took another turn for the unexpected. “There’s a restaurant where I’ve got a little corner spot that I always sit in where I read my paper and read scripts. I’ve been sittin’ in this spot for 18 or 19 years, and one day, in walks Quentin Tarantino.” Tarantino was Hollywood’s hottest filmmaker, and everyone in the industry was waiting to see what he would do as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning crime drama, Pulp Fiction. “I didn’t know Quentin but I had read for him on Reservoir Dogs,” Forster continues. “So I call him over, he sits down and we bull— for awhile. Six months later, I walk into this restaurant and there he is, sitting in my spot. I approached the table, he hands me a script and he said, ‘Read this and see if you like it.’”

 Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

The script was Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch. “I went home and read the script, and I couldn’t believe he was thinking of hiring me for a big picture like this,” Forster says. “We had breakfast together three days later, and I said, ‘This is great and I’d love to do it, but I’m not sure they’re going to let you hire me.’ Quentin said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ Only at that moment did I start to believe that maybe this thing could actually happen. There were a few more bumps and worries because everybody in town wanted this part. Big actors wanted to do the part of Max Cherry, but Quentin hung in there for me. It was one of the greatest gifts an actor can ever get.”

As it turns out, it was a gift that kept on giving. Jackie Brown was released in 1997 to great acclaim, earning Forster an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His first reaction was shock, but as the day went on and he fielded congratulatory phone calls, another feeling washed over him. “It was a feeling of belonging, a feeling of acceptance. After 20-something years in this business and being long forgotten—after being on the top and going all the way to really, really low-end stuff—it was so generous for the members of the Academy to write my name down. They actually had to write my name, not just check-off a box. It was the most warm, generous feeling I ever had.”

Although he didn’t win the Oscar, Forster happily takes the loss in stride. “The difference between being nominated and winning is like a 10-pound box of chocolates and a 12-pound box of chocolates: they’re both pretty sweet.” Even sweeter was the renewed respect shown to him by Hollywood. Since Jackie Brown, Forster has worked at a feverish pace in projects both big and small, a combination he enjoys. “As an actor, getting a day’s work is one of the great opportunities,” he says. “Somebody calls your name, you step up to the plate and when somebody says, ‘Action!’ you get a chance to hit it out of the park. A low-budget movie requires an awful lot more participation of the actor. He’s required to do more things, to work with less and to get more done. For those reasons, little pictures add something to your day as an actor. However, big pictures can be fun, and you can make a better day’s pay.”

Now in his fifth decade in show biz, Forster has experienced the euphoric highs and depressing lows of life as an actor. Still, he remains enthusiastic about the possibilities that lie ahead. “I try to keep working, I’m ready to work and we’ll see what comes out of left field. An actor never, ever knows what’s coming next.”