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Snow White Premiere Night

On December 21, 1937, the Snow White Premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre changed Walt Disney’s life, and made history.

Snow White Premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre
Once Upon a Time Store
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Walt Disney World, Florida
GPS: 28.35857, -81.559789

When Walt Disney moved to California from Kansas City in 1923, he dove into the film industry, head first. He spent many of his days inside the film studios, 

Tom Sito: “Walt wanted to be in with the movie moguls, because the thing about Hollywood… Hollywood was a new place. And Walt said, ‘Why not me?’ He would attend meetings of what they called ‘The Commission’. Which was the studio heads would meet and talk about what’s happening in town, in Hollywood. And he would go to every premiere. He would go to every function. Playing Polo with these guys. Because he wanted to be part of that group. While they were like, ‘Well, you’re the cartoon guy.’ ‘You’re no threat, you’re a cartoon guy.’

Walt was also in awe of how all of Hollywood would turn up in their finest clothes, with massive crowds gathered, for the premiere of the biggest films. Walt had a dream that one day, all of Hollywood would show up for one of his films. But the problem was, Walt made cartoons, and cartoons were not taken seriously. 

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THE SKELETON DANCE

In 1929, Walt began diversifying.  He took a break from Mickey Mouse and produced his very first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance. At that time, people only wanted Disney to create Mickey Mouse films. They didn’t want anything different. Walt convinced Carthay Circle owner, Fred Miller, to take a chance and book The Skeleton Dance into his theater in August 1929.

The massive success of this short film opened the door for Walt to ask the theater owner for another favor, nine years later.

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SNOW WHITE PREMIERE NIGHT

Carthay Circle Theater would host the premiere of the world’s very first feature-length animated cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

December 21, 1937

Walt had put every ounce of his passion and every dollar he had into this film and this opening. Critics dubbed the film “Disney’s Folly”, for they doubted that anyone would want to see Walt’s film, and that Disney had produced a flop. Walt’s own wife and even his brother Roy had tried to talk him out of making this film.

Animator Ward Kimball: “When I went to the premiere of Snow White at the old Carthay Circle Theatre, we were all very apprehensive, because we had been told by all the big movie moguls in Hollywood that people just wouldn’t sit still for an hour and a half of cartoons. It was OK, six or seven minutes, like the shorts, but an hour and a half, no way! The big reason was, you run out of funny things to do. Their Idea, and of course it was our early idea, was that you had to have a laugh-a-minute. And they couldn’t sit still for an hour and a half because the bright colors would hurt your eyes. They would get up and walk out of there.”

But that didn’t stop Walt from mortgaging his home, his studio, and everything he owned to produce this film, and promote it in the biggest most extravagant way, on opening night.

DWARFLAND

Walt Disney built an elaborate Dwarf Village that stretched two blocks, in the middle of the avenue leading up to the theater. This “Dwarfland” included an exact replica of the dwarf cottage from the film, a working water wheel, and a diamond mine. 

PHOTOS: http://animationwhoandwhere.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html

Bleachers were set up to to hold four thousand fans, but almost forty thousand showed up. A full orchestra and singers from the film entertained the crowd outside of the theater.

It was a massive event and all of Hollywood came to the premiere. Some of the stars were Disney fans and attended out of genuine interest. While other celebrities attended out of obligation. Their attitudes as they entered the theatre were slightly or overtly arrogant. After all, this was just going to be a little cartoon, and a ‘flop’ at that. It was beneath them to be wasting their time on such a thing. These celebrities that attended with varying degrees of excitement or disinterest included:

Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin with Paulette Goddard, Ed Sullivan, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cary Grant, and many more.

It was such well-attended event that neither Adrianna Caselotti, who voiced Snow White, nor Harry Stockwell, who voiced Prince Charming, had a ticket. After being denied entry, Adrianna stated: “But, I’m Snow White and this is Prince Charming!” But, no ticket, no entry. So, Snow White and Prince Charming waited, and snuck in when the ticket lady wasn’t looking. They ran upstairs to one side of the balcony and stood there, watching themselves on the screen.

As the film began, the audience seemed a little anxious. Then they chuckled at the first little gags.  Gradually, there was an energy, a buzz, a joy, that spread throughout the entire theater. 

They not only applauded the songs, they not only applauded the animation, they even applauded the background and layouts when no animation was on the screen.

Layout artist Ken O’Connor recalled this story to the Animation Guild:

“… the audience broke into applause two different times, just for the layouts and painting. No characters were even on the screen. The shot of the queen’s castle above the mist and the marsh received applause. I was sitting near John Barrymore and he was bouncing up and down in his seat he was so excited. He was an artist, of course, and he knew the kind of work that went into something like that, and appreciated it.”

Animator Ward Kimball

“I sat about two thirds of the way back, and here were all of the luminaries of Hollywood, all around. … Especially, I saw Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, and the rest of them. And the laughs just came in a steady stream. But when Snow White bites that poison apple, ands becomes unconscious, and she’s laid out on the bier, as they call it, the picture gets very serious.  And this is where Walt knew what he was doing. Even though these are a bunch of cartoons and these grossly exaggerated little guys with the big noses were in it, everybody in that theatre was crying. I heard the sobs. I couldn’t believe it. It’s supposed to be just a cartoon, and everybody is crying.

In another interview Ward Kimball recalled that they were seated behind Clark Gable and Carol Lombard. And when Snow White was poisoned, Clark Gable, one of Hollywoods biggest manly-man celebrities, needed to borrow a handkerchief from Carol Lombard.

Tom Sito: “When they have the scene at the bier, and all the dwarfs are crying, Initially there was several lines of dialog there.  Disney wound up cutting them. He said, ‘The dialog is going to take away from the moment, and that’s enough.’ When that was run in the theater, looking around the audience, with a lot of Hollywood luminaries, and watching them sniffle. People like Marlene Dietrich, and Gable and Lombard, and John Barrymore. That was a big deal, that they were able to make that happen.”

Ward Kimball: “When the picture was over, and ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’, and they ride off into the sunset, and the lights go on, I watched them. I stood in the foyer. The biggest stars in Hollywood, Irene Dunn, you name ‘em, were are all wiping the tears out of their eyes. Now this sounds implausible, but it happened.”

As the house lights came up, the audience — which was already applauding, rose to its feet. It was the most enthusiastic audience any of them had ever seen.

Walt, who many years prior had dreamed of the Hollywood elite coming to see one of his films, appeared on stage with his wife, and said: “l always dreamed that one day I would attend a gala premiere in Hollywood of one of my cartoons. Tonight you’ve made it come true. You make me feel like one of you.”

As the stars exited the theater, they searched their bags for dark glasses so photographers could not get photos of them after they had been crying. 

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Snow White played at the Carthay Circle for four months.

The final box office gross for the first release of Snow White was close to $8.5 million, making it the highest-grossing Hollywood film up to that time. 

This was when the average ticket price for adults was quarter and a dime for children. 

So even though Walt claims that ‘it started with a mouse’,

It took a princess to hit the jackpot.

SNOW WHITE’S ACADEMY AWARD

At the Academy Award ceremony on Feb. 23, 1939, Walt received a special Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

It was one large statue and seven small Oscars. 

The inscription read: “To Walt Disney for ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ recognized as a significant screen innovation 

which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.”

It was presented by 9-year-old Shirley Temple who had been at the premiere and posed for pictures with the costumed dwarfs that were just slightly taller than her.

Shirley Temple: I’m sure the boys and girls in the whole world are going to be very happy when they find out that the daddy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Ferdinand, Mickey Mouse, and all the others, is going to get this beautiful statue. Isn’t it bright and shiny!

Walt Disney: OH! It’s beautiful!

Shirley: Aren’t you proud of it Mr. Disney?

Walt: Well, I’m so proud, I think I’ll bust. You know, I think that Mickey Mouse, and Ferdinand, and Snow White and all the Dwarfs, are going to be very proud that you presented it.

Shirley: I’m Glad!

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CARTHAY CIRCLE AT DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Once Upon a Time store is an homage to this landmark theater, that played the host to not only the first Silly Symphony, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but Disney’s Fantasia as well.

If you enter this replica of Carthay Circle Theater and walk to the back of the store, you will find photos from the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

When the store was first opened, if you listened closely, you will hear the actual radio broadcast from the film premiere, being played throughout the store.

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RESOURCES:

Interview with Tom Sito
June 09, 2023

Attractions Magazine
Little Known Facts about the Carthay Circle Theater
http://www.attractionsmagazine.com

The Revised Vault of Walt by Jim Korkis
Chapter: Snow White Christmas Premiere
Theme Park Press (www.themeparkpress.com)

The Animation Guild
TAG Blog: The Ken O’Connor Interview
animationguildblog.blogspot.com

Filmic Light – Snow White Archive
“Dwarfland” at Snow White Premiere
filmic-light.blogspot.com

Animation Who and Where
Snow White at the Carthay
animationwhoandwhere.blogspot.com

Disney Parks Blog
Opening Night, 1937: ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ Premieres at Carthay Circle Theatre by Erin Glover
disneyparks.disney.go.com



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