“I’m 87, I’m healthy, and I’m having a ball.”
Margaret Kerry is a talker. After an 83-year career in show business (she started when she was 4) she has a wealth of stories about working in Hollywood as an actress, dancer, voice artist, radio personality and video producer.
Her most enduring creation, though, never said a word.
Kerry was the model for Tinker Bell, the naughty fairy in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated classic “Peter Pan.”
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Over nine months in 1950-51 the then-20-year-old actress repeatedly donned a swimsuit and pantomimed Tinker Bell’s actions while a Disney film crew recorded her movements.
The enchanting sprite animators created from those films generated controversy — some thought Tink a bit too sexy. Still, she became the silent spokeswoman for the entire Disney empire, opening each episode of Disney’s Sunday night TV show by flying across the screen and sprinkling a colorful shower of pixie dust.
Kerry — the author of the new memoir “Tinker Bell Talks! Tales of a Pixie Dusted Life” — will share her memories of Disney, Tinker Bell and a life in entertainment as one of the main attractions of Kansas City Comic Con next weekend at Bartle Hall.
Her appearance is sponsored by Thank You, Walt Disney, the local nonprofit group raising funds to create a Disney museum at 31st Street and Forrest Avenue in the building that housed Disney’s first animation studio.
As a child actress, Kerry appeared in the 1935 hit “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and in the “Our Gang” comedy shorts. She played opposite Eddie Cantor in the 1948 feature “If You Knew Susie” and the next year co-starred with Hollywood veteran Charlie Ruggles in NBC-TV’s “The Ruggles,” one of the original television sitcoms.
She was dancing at 20th Century Fox when she got a call from her agent.
“He told me to get over to Disney, that they were auditioning for someone to do the animated modeling for a 3 1/2 -inch sprite who doesn’t talk,” the twice-widowed mother of three said in a recent phone conversation from her home in Glendale, Calif.
“By that time I’d worked for just about every studio, but the idea of working for Disney … that had me really excited.”
Before meeting with Marc Davis, who would animate the character, Kerry worked up a pantomime routine in which she played a small boy waking up, yawning, stretching and preparing breakfast, dropping an egg on the floor in the process.
“Then he asked me to do the scene where Tinker Bell lands in front of the mirror on Wendy’s dresser and looks at herself. I played it as if she’d never seen a mirror before.”
She got the job. Every few weeks over the next year Kerry would be called to the studio to enact business dreamed up by the writers and animators.
“Mr. Davis and Gerry Geronimi, one of the directors, would show me their sketches for a scene. I’d work with props, whatever they had.”
Kerry had no idea what sort of costume the animated Tinker Bell would wear. She did her performing in a swimsuit. “What they wanted was the outline of the body, the way Tinker Bell moved her hips.”
Being a dancer helped. “If you look at everything Tinker Bell does, even her walk, it’s a dancer’s walk. She rolls her foot from heel to toe, her hands fly up to gesture.”
She met Walt Disney several times during her visits to the studio and was amazed that unlike other studio heads — who were held in awe by their employees — Disney was friendly and approachable.
Kerry was invited to the studio to see a pencil test animation of Tinker Bell in action.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but lots of people on the lot thought Tinker Bell wouldn’t work, that she was too curvy and sassy. And up to that time Disney’s animated women were either evil or heroine/victims.”
The third-floor projection room was crammed with animators, many of whom were standing against the back wall.
“I heard the door behind me open and a voice says, ‘Here, Walt, take a seat.’ And Walt says, ‘No, I’m fine.’ ”
The snippet of film, only a few seconds long, showed Tinker Bell sitting in Peter’s upturned cap, hands on her hips and furious with her master.
“She was beguiling, charming, everything Walt wanted her to be,” Kerry recalled. “They showed it again and again and again. I actually started crying, because that was me up there.”
Though her career would continue for decades — as a voice-over artist she would work on 229 episodes of the animated TV series “Clutch Cargo, on the animated “The New Three Stooges” as well as on radio commercials and documentaries — Tinker Bell will always be Kerry’s favorite role.
“Early on I asked Marc Davis, ‘Do you want her to be ditzy, like Betty Boop?’
“And he said, ‘No, Margaret, I want her to be you.’ ”
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s stories at ButlersCinemaScene.com.
Kansas City Comic Con
The fantasy and sci-fi convention runs from 1 to 7 p.m. Aug. 12, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 13 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 14 at Bartle Hall downtown. Look for Margaret Kerry among the booths. See KansasCity-ComicCon.com for more info.