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!