Friday, December 21, 2012

75th Anniversary of Snow White's World Premiere

December 21, 1937. It was on a Tuesday evening 75 years ago that Walt Disney unveiled to the world his great feature-length experiment, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The Carthay Circle Theatre was located at 6316 San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles. The theartre itself was set back off from the road. This allowed plenty of space for all the crowds and commotion that occurred over the years at its many festive movie premieres.

Aerial photo circa 1926

The Blue Carpet...

The Snow White screening was scheduled for 8:45 pm. Hollywood celebrities who attended that night were dropped off at the street curb. From there they would walk down the blue (not red) carpet which stretched under a canopy all the way to the theatre doors.

1937 Snow White Premiere. Image via D23.

The theatre grounds were transformed for the big night and included a towering Christmas tree placed to the right of the canopied walkway.

 Press Release scan courtesy of the David Lesjak Collection via Vintage Disney Collectibles.

The Snow White Garden...

Closer to the theatre was a flower garden populated with character figures.

Snow and the Dwarfs look on from their garden plot.

The photo below would have been snapped looking west from under the canopied walkway.

The Art Exhibit...

On the opposite side of the walkway was a covered exhibit featuring images and info on the film.

Set atop the roof of this pavilion were large papier-mâché heads of the princess and all the dwarfs. Along the bottom lattice were more figures. According to researcher David Lesjak, these appear to be point-of-sale store display pieces manufactured by Disney licensee Old King Cole.

Art Exhibit photos courtesy of the David Lesjak Collection via Vintage Disney Collectibles.

The exhibit included photos from the making of the film.

Drawings and layouts.

Also cels.

Well before opening night, tickets were being offered by the Disney studio to members of the motion-picture industry and for sale to its own employees. At $5.50 a person, the admission was roughly five times the price of a regular screening for an adult. (See an original Snow White ticket stub from the Whittier Theatre in an earlier post.) The capacity of the Carthay Circle was around 1500 people, and the premiere had been sold out for some time. Yet, over a thousand more still gathered outside, a good number of whom waited eagerly in a long line at the advance tickets box office to purchase seats for future showings.

The Grandstands...

Several sets of bleachers were erected and packed with onlookers. One section ran out to San Vicente Boulevard in front of the Security First National Bank. A spotlight truck was parked nearby.

 Press Release scan courtesy of David Lesjak Collection.

A larger crop of this photo reveals trolly tracks and overhead wires running down the street, probably the main means of transportation for the average moviegoer back in 1937.

Image via Disney Parks Blog.

Another row of grandstands was placed adjacent the street curb next to the entrance of the canopied walkway.

A motley-looking crew of dwarfs pose for a picture with the walkway and second set of stands behind them. The ramp in the foreground leads to a raised platform where NBC announcer Buddy Twiss was stationed to catch interviews with the arriving celebrities.

A third set of bleachers sat inside the Carthay courtyard, behind the garden plot and facing the theatre entrance.

And a fourth ran perpendicular to it.

Looking from the stands towards all the action...

For crowd control, a higher than usual number of Los Angeles police officers were brought in along with the theatre's own security team. Some theatre employees probably wore identifying ribbons like the one seen in an earlier post. Usherettes were dressed in Snow White costumes.

The Stars...

Snow White brought out the Hollywood royalty. Among them were Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., fresh off their Lux Radio Theater performance of The Song of Songs from the previous night.

Comedians Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, George Burns, and Gracie Allen.

Fred MacMurray with wife Lillian Lamont (left); Preston Foster (right).

Shirley Temple with friends, parents and dwarfs.

Image via Daveland.

Comedian Bob Burns with the Seven Dwarfs...

Other celebrities included Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Ed Sullivan, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden (of Amos and Andy fame), John Barrymore, Frank Capra, Spencer Tracy, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, George McCall, Paulette Goddard, Gail Patrick, Joe Penner, Helen Vincent, Fred Perry, Norma Shearer and many more.

Walt arrives.

The Radio Broadcast...

Live coverage of the event came by way of a half-hour radio broadcast on the NBC Blue Network. Announcers Don Wilson and Buddy Twiss described the evening's festivities, stopping to hear comments from the Hollywood elite as they walked by. As mentioned above, a slightly raised platform was placed near the entrance to the canopied walkway where Twiss would speak with celebrities. Wilson was located closer to the orchestra's band stand.

Scripts had been prepared for both Walt and Supervising Director David Hand to use. It's clear that Hand reads directly from his. Yet Walt, talking with Buddy Twiss, sort of just wings it and humorously can't remember all the names of the Dwarfs.

Image via The Fairest One of All by JB Kaufman, p.232.

Immediately following Walt's radio interview, Buddy Twiss tries to turn it over to Don Wilson, but he pauses and says, "Just a moment." After a few seconds of dead air, he finally sends us back to Wilson who is waiting with voice actors for Minnie Mouse (perhaps Marcellite Garner or Thelma Boardman) and Pluto (probably not Pinto Colvig who left the Disney Studio in 1937 following a fallout with Walt). Mickey then joins in, most likely voiced by Walt himself. This would explain the delay in the broadcast from Buddy Twiss, as Wilson had to wait for Walt to get over to him.

Another clue that Walt is Mickey on this night is in his response when Wilson asks, "Mickey do you wish you were in the picture?" The mouse replies. "Not me. I need a rest." The gang is then joined by Clarence Nash voicing Donald Duck.

Possibly the first-ever costumed Mickey, Minnie and Donald were also on hand.

Another shot of the mice reveals that on this evening, both were being played by women. To the left in the photo is the back side of a spotlight positioned to shine in the direction of Buddy Twiss as he interviewed the celebrities.

Image courtesy of Daveland.

The Orchestra...

Don Wilson spoke about the orchestra that night and how it was the same Disney ensemble which had recorded the music for the picture. The one notable exception being that this live performance was directed by big-band leader Manny Harmon rather than composers Franck Churchill or Leigh Harline.

In regards to the orchestra's location, I had at first more questions than answers. When Wilson introduces the show, he says that he's right beside the band stand. To his left is the box office "advance window" where a long line of fans wait to buy tickets for future screenings. To his right is the canopied walkway which stretches out to the street. These remarks would seem to place him and the band very close to the theatre entrance. Yet is this correct?

Although this aerial photo is dated roughly eleven years prior to the premiere, circa 1926, we still get an idea of where everything was situated. I have marked two possible locations for the orchestra, "A" and "B". (Also take note that the art exhibit was set in the side courtyard between the theatre and the back of the building which faced San Vicente Boulevard. This building did not exist in the 1926 image so I Photoshopped one in.)

Initially, I was picturing Don Wilson and the orchestra at location A. Looking from San Vicente Boulevard, it would have been to the left of the walkway and close to the theatre, sort of near the art exhibit. This seems to fit with Wilson's description, especially since he said the box office window was to his left. However, not much exists in photographic evidence to support this idea. From the few images we have of the area, it looks as though the police security wasn't letting the general public approach the theatre entrance, and the main ticket windows don't appear to have the long lines that Wilson described. Yet it's difficult to say for sure without more photos.

Location B is another possibility. Here the orchestra may have been stationed closer to the street, up against the wall of the Security First National Bank. The photographic evidence for this is not great either, yet there does appear to be some.

In this first image, we can see what looks like a temporary canopy with hanging mesh curtains next to the building. What purpose would this canopy serve except to protect the musicians from the elements? The curtains are closed, but it seems as though there might be musical instruments or other equipment next to them.

Zooming in a bit closer, we see what could be a few men in penguin suits seated out in front of the curtain. Members of the orchestra? We also get a better look at the gentlemen standing near the Christmas tree. It's likely that one of these is Buddy Twiss. Could the fellow just to the left of the glaring light be Don Wilson? Can't say for sure.

If this canopy was indeed where the orchestra was set up, what about the advance ticket window that Wilson mentioned was to his left? Could it actually have been located on San Vicente Boulevard, perhaps behind the grandstands? This is just speculation, but it's possible that a temporary box office could have been arranged in this area since it would have been most accessible to the crowds that night.

In this next pic, the mesh curtains are now completely opened. Does this indicate that the radio broadcast is underway and the orchestra is now playing? Is that music director Manny Harmon conducting?

Just recently I was contacted by collector Michael Filippello who owns the original 1938 Snow White pressbook. Pages 2-3 of the book highlight the successful Carthay Circle premiere.

And pictured clearly is the 40 piece orchestra under the side canopy next to the bank. We have our answer!

Pressbook scans courtesy of the Michael Filippello Collection.

The orchestra performed a number of instrumentals throughout the evening including Whistle While You Work and The Dwarfs' Washing Song. In addition, the same choral singers from the film sang Dig, Dig, Dig and Heigh-Ho.

At about 10 minutes into the program, and after several celebrity interviews with Buddy Twiss, the broadcast went back to Wilson who introduced the next piece, With a Smile and a Song. He states that "it will be sung for us tonight by Snow White herself." And indeed, it is Adriana Caselotti who's there to sing live, but she's never mentioned by name.

As we saw in the Carthay Circle Playbill (earlier post), Walt did not want to identify the actual voice actors from the film. He felt it would "heighten the audiences' acceptance of the voice as part of a character" if the actors were not associated with the roles they portrayed. As a result, both Adriana Caselotti and Harry Stockwell that evening were referred to by Don Wilson simply as Snow White and the Prince.

Harry sang One Song and Adriana returned to perform Some Day My Prince Will Come. After that, the two of them went to get their tickets at the box office. In a story often told by Caselotti in later years, the attendant said that their names were not on the list. The stars of the film not only went uncredited for their work, they also went uninvited to the premiere!

"Tickets? We don't have any tickets. I'm Snow White and this is Prince Charming!" The attendant, of course having no idea who these two were, refused their request. They were forced to step aside. Yet Adriana, always full of spunk, waited until no one was looking. Then the two quietly slipped inside and upstairs to watch the premiere from the balcony.
Adriana Quote via SWATSD: The Making of the Classic Film by Brian Sibley and Richard Hollis, pp. 35-36.

Walt and Lilly Disney inside the theatre.

Image via The Fairest One of All by JB Kaufman, p.232.

The screening without question was a massive success. The animators who attended were often quoted on just how amazed they were by the emotional and enthusiastic response their film elicited. The audience applauded and cheered throughout and gave a spirited standing ovation at the movie's conclusion. Walt stepped out on stage with his wife and said, "I 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."

The buzz inside the theatre was electric, so much so that folks didn't want to leave. People hung around the lobby for an hour after the movie had ended trying to put into words what they'd just experienced.

Animator Ken Anderson once told Disney historian Paul Anderson...
We were never prepared for this type of reception. And boy they were crowding around Walt. And each of us. They crowded all around, 'What did you do?' And such and such. We're standing out there in the foyer and these people just went on and on and on and on about this marvelous picture.

What a night it was! Happy 75th Snow White...and many more!


An excerpt from the 1938 RKO release, How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made, featured a few newsreel clips from the premiere. Plus, the entire half-hour NBC radio broadcast can be found on the 2001 Platinum Edition DVD home video of Snow White

In addition, a short RKO newsreel on the event was also included on 2001 DVD extras...

Video posted by fireurgunz

Special thanks to David Lesjak of Vintage Disney Collectibles for supplying invaluable information about the premiere plus a number of the images seen here. Also to Jim Korkis for his assistance and the article A Snow White Christmas Premiere. And to Brian Sibley and J.B. Kaufman for their kind input too.

For more on the buildup to the premiere, see the earlier Dwarfland post.


  1. Congratulations on a great post Robert!

    1. Thanks David for the use of your photos and the valuable info you supplied.

  2. A superb post, Robert. Congratulations on your research. A real treat for us snow-men – and gals! :)

    1. Thank you Brian. Hoping more photos will surface in the future to shed more light on the subject.

  3. Amazing post, thank you so much for this great look back to such a momentous occasion!

    1. Glad you liked it Nick. It certainly was the turning point for Walt and the entire Disney empire to come. :)

  4. Wonderful post. Fantastic job on all the research. It's a great to get all the details of the premiere from the beginnings of Disney history.

    1. Thank you INB. It was quite enjoyable piecing it all together. Before this, I wasn't clear about a lot of the details myself.

  5. Wow, what a great in depth post of the premiere. Very cool.