Disney still the first name in escapism
By ANDREW MCGINN
Keep your eyes open and your phone handy. Consult multiple sources. Swipe that Breaking News notification regardless of the hour.
I try my level best to be an informed citizen, which can quickly become something of an all-consuming hobby these days.
There is, however, a natural limit to what the mind can process. And for that reason, I think it wise to focus my column this week on something momentarily and totally benign — for my sanity and yours.
The reopening this past weekend of the Sierra Community Theatre after 73 days got me thinking about how movies have historically given us respite from truly the worst of times.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Hollywood’s “golden age” occurred concurrently with the 16 years of strife that began with the Great Depression and ended only when America vaporized two Japanese cities.
Then and now, the first name in escapism has always been Disney.
And when we’re not using Disney movies as a gateway drug to escapism, we’re introducing new generations to them.
Seeing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” for the first time is nothing short of a rite of passage.
Upon release in 1938 — it actually premiered just before Christmas, 1937, but didn’t begin circulating until February — the movie was the technological marvel of its day; the first feature-length animated film.
Nowadays, feature-length animated films are like the Dollar General of movies: there are scores of ’em, and only a few are decent.
On the other hand, “Snow White” was superb. (So superb, in fact, that it’s one of the few “old” movies that holds audiences of all ages even after 82 years.)
The movie arrived in Jefferson on April 3, 1938, a major win for the management of the Iowa Theatre (today’s Sierra) so soon after its national release. It was such a coup that the film’s impending arrival in town made Page 1 of the Jefferson Herald on March 31, 1938, complete with headshots of each dwarf. (In newspaper-speak, all headshots are referred to as mugshots, as in a person’s book-in photo at jail. Funny enough, we’ve since published many actual mugshots that could be described as dopey, grumpy, sleepy, bashful, etc.).
Movies were regular items of note in those days on the front page, but “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” couldn’t have arrived in the nation’s theaters at a better time. The country’s embattled economy was on the mend from the Great Depression, but that recovery sputtered and stalled in the spring of ’37.
Unemployment spiked back up to near 20 percent. Just like that, hard times were here again.
Today it’s known as the “recession within the Depression” — a double-dose of hurt that probably felt like the equivalent of rubbing salt in an open wound. It’s believed that the government withdrew economic support too early, causing a relapse. (Talk about a cautionary tale as lawmakers squabble over whether or not to push ahead with another coronavirus relief package. Unemployment hasn’t been this high since the Great Depression.)
Like the charming prince who shows up at just the right moment to free Snow White from a coma (oh, sorry, spoiler alert), “Snow White” was received with open arms. The Iowa Theatre didn’t even bother with showtimes, announcing that the film would be on a continuous loop for its two-day run.
Shows on Sunday ran from noon to 10 p.m., and from 1:15 to 9:45 p.m. on Monday. If you wanted to see it, you apparently waited around for 83 minutes, at which point management would rewind the print and crank it up again for a new crowd.
That went on for two days — and still didn’t accommodate crowds.
The theater was filled to capacity at every show, the local press reported, leaving many unable to attend. So management arranged to hold “Snow White” over for an additional three days, moving it down State Street to the Howard Theatre.
The Howard — which stood near today’s Junkyard Cafe and has long since been demolished — had opened in 1936, specializing in singing cowboy movies.
The advent of cable, home video and video-on-demand has, in many ways, cheapened (literally) the moviegoing experience. At one time, however, the only way to experience (or re-experience) a picture was to wait for its re-release to theaters.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” returned to the local theater at least eight times between 1938 and 1987. (Do you remember when you first saw it? For me, it was probably the August 1983 engagement at the Sierra Theatre, the same month “Return of the Jedi” came to town. What a month to be a kid.)
But, arguably, none of those re-releases was as poignant (or so needed) as the one in the spring of 1944, with the nation at war on multiple fronts. With the forces of evil so deeply entrenched, there seemed to be no end in sight for weary families. D-Day was several months away.
Disney predicted that “Snow White” would be just the right kind of escape, and even mounted a promotional tour to make the re-release a bona-fide event.
That tour visited Jefferson in March of 1944, with performances for students at both the elementary and high schools.
Local girls were presumably enchanted by the sight of Snow White, Disney’s first princess, in person.
In reality, Vera Collins was a high school senior from Ohio who had won the honor of donning Snow White’s gown, 11 years before the opening of Disneyland. (The paper reported that Miss Collins was accompanied on tour by her mother, but didn’t specify whether she was a wicked stepmother.)
The tour’s real star, however, was Pinto Colvig, the voice actor and a future Disney Legend.
Colvig was the voice of Goofy who also provided Pluto’s woofs. For “Snow White,” he voiced the dwarfs Grumpy and Sleepy. (While working for another studio during a brief split from Disney, he also voiced Bluto in the original “Popeye” cartoons.)
The paper reported that Colvig performed his many voices for the crowds of kids in Jefferson.
Can you imagine? It’s 1944. Disney’s characters are so universally beloved that they often are used to adorn the noses of fighter planes and bombers overseas.
Now, suddenly, Goofy shows up at the pink school in Jefferson?
It’s an oft-repeated item of local history that Denison native Donna Reed once appeared in Jefferson to sell war bonds. Reed would go on to star in “It’s a Wonderful Life” after the war.
I’m just gonna say it: Goofy was the bigger star. Change my mind.
Even a bad imitation of his hayseed guffaw will instantly be recognized. But hearing it from the original voice actor himself would really have been something.
It may have been the smallest and most comforting of treats when the world seemed doomed.