UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Kathryn Beaumont, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan

UltimateDisney.com Presents An Interview with Kathryn Beaumont: Walt Disney's go-to British girl recalls voicing and modeling for Alice and Wendy Darling.

By Renata Joy

Born in London in 1938, Kathryn Beaumont began acting as a young girl. In the late 1940s, she came to the United States under a contract from MGM. There, she appeared in the tropical musical On an Island with You (1948) and also made uncredited turns in Margaret O'Brien's The Secret Garden (1949) and Challenge to Lassie (1949), the cinematic canine's take on Greyfriars Bobby.

Shortly after, Beaumont was cast as both the voice and live-action model for Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney's 1951 animated feature based on from the famous Lewis Carroll book. After Alice, Disney and his studio set their sights on adapting another celebrated piece of English literature, Peter Pan. Disney again turned to Beaumont, then 13 years old, to voice and act out the part of Wendy Darling, the eldest of three siblings who accompany the eternally young title hero to the adventurous Neverland.

Kathryn Beaumont poses alongside a picture of Wendy. Beaumont served as the voice and live-action reference model for the eldest Darling child in Disney's 1953 animated classic "Peter Pan." Kathryn Beaumont appears in a present-day publicity photo. Beaumont was a second grade school teacher in southern California for over 30 years.

Afterwards, Beaumont would essentially retire from acting to attend high school, then college, en route to becoming an elementary school teacher. Nevertheless, her few years in Hollywood -- specifically, her performances as two inquisitive British girls who embark on fantastic journeys -- left her with an indelible legacy. More than 50 years since holding the leading roles, Beaumont's contributions are fondly recalled as an integral part of Disney Animation's second golden age.

Despite spending many years educating the children of Los Angeles, Beaumont lost touch with the Walt Disney Company until the early 1980s. In reconnecting with the studio, Beaumont has had a chance to again lend her voice to her two most beloved characters. From the Alice in Wonderland dark ride and nightly Fantasmic! show in Disneyland to this decade's TV series "House of Mouse" and video game Kingdom Hearts, Beaumont has brought an authenticity to new recordings for her time-tested heroines. In 1998, she was named a Disney Legend.

Like she first did for the original release of Alice in Wonderland and has subsequently done for theatrical and home video reissues, Beaumont is participating in the publicity campaign for next month's Platinum Edition DVD release of Peter Pan. She recently appeared at the opening night ceremonies for the 1953 classic's two-week run at the El Capitan Theatre. This week, she took some time out to talk directly with UltimateDisney.com about her experiences, thoughts, and memories stemming from the two enduring roles that have been part of her life since childhood.

UltimateDisney.com: First of all, how big a deal was it for you to get cast as Alice and then Wendy?

Kathryn Beaumont: Well, at the time, I probably didn't have the realization of how unique and special that was. I do now. I just feel so blessed that I did have that opportunity. I was excited about it at the time, I recall, because I was involved with something that was a classic in England. And I had grown up with Alice and Peter Pan. I enjoyed both roles.
When I was finished with Alice, I thought, of course, that that would be the end, and right away, the talk was that I was a shoo-in (Laughs) for the Wendy role. Because Wendy and I were about the same age, pre-adolescent, and, again, British. It just fell right into place. So I was very fortunate. And I did feel fortunate at the time to continue working at the studio.

Were you a fan of Disney films prior to working for the company?

Oh, yes! (Laughs) Oh my goodness, growing up with Disney, I was so well-acquainted and aware of Disney's wonderful films. And I had seen Snow White and I saw Fantasia. And then it came to Bambi. I don't know how many times I saw Bambi. I even got in trouble. (Laughs) When I went to see the film, and I didn't realize that after the film was over, it would come on again. So I sat through the intermission and watched it a second time. My mother didn't know that I was going to do that. She was very upset when I came home so late.

How exactly were you chosen for the role of Alice and Wendy? How much do you remember of the audition process?

I don't remember too much of the audition process itself except that I do know that Disney was looking for an Alice whose voice was pleasing both to American ears and British ears. I may have read probably a couple of times for the part. They found my voice was the most suitable and so there I was. Signing a contract and starting to work for Walt Disney.

A split-screen video from the "Alice in Wonderland" Masterpiece Edition DVD compares Kathryn Beaumont's live-action reference footage with the animated Alice's movements. Likewise, Beaumont's actions helped Disney animators depict "Peter Pan"'s Wendy in natural motion. This model sheet is found in the character design galleries from the movie's forthcoming Platinum Edition DVD.

I have read that you won the role of Alice over Margaret O’Brien, with whom you briefly shared screen time in The Secret Garden. Is this a true story?

It was true that she also was reading for the part. I don't really know the details on it. I just know that she was American and I think Disney was looking for a voice that had more of a British tone because it's a British classic and he knew it would be shown in Britain. That he wanted to be able to find a voice that pleased both audiences and was credible to the character. So that's how it went.

What was the Disney studio like in the 1950s?

It was a fabulous place to work. I had a chance to do a bit of comparing because MGM was a studio typical to most studios, probably, at that time in Hollywood. Basically, when I got to Disney, everybody there seemed so relaxed and involved with the creative process. And Walt was very accessible. That was one of the best surprises: that he was around, you saw him. He would come down at lunchtime and go to the line at the cafeteria, the large studio cafeteria. He would sit with whomever, wherever there was free space at the table. When I was at MGM, the head of the studio was someone you heard about, but you really didn't meet or know that much about. He was sort of invisible. So that was quite a different experience. And I noticed that everybody who worked there, they were very creative, but it was also a community kind of effort. No one really stood out as "This is what Walt wants" or "We need to do this for Walt." It was really a composite of thinking of all of the creative people who were involved, who contributed, and brought together these wonderful films that Walt Disney made.

What are your memories of working with Walt?

Well, you know, the unique thing about my situation was that I was just a child. So I didn't have that kind of rapport that you would have if you were working with peers. Yet, I did have some situations where I did get to know Walt. And I feel proud that I did get to know him somewhat personally. As a child, I felt very comfortable with him because, as I look back, I realize he had two girls who were not too much older than I was. He was used to dealing with children, so he was very comfortable with that. Therefore, he was comfortable with me and made me feel that same way. And the fact that he was so accessible just made it a very pleasant situation. I just feel proud that I knew that much about him.

Walt Disney appears with Kathryn Beaumont, dressed as Alice, in one of Walt's earliest television specials. Soaring above Captain Hook with a wire and harness might sound like great fun to most kids, but not to pre-adolescent Kathryn Beaumont! Kathryn Beaumont gives "Peter Pan" animators live-action reference for how Wendy Darling might move.

How exactly did the process of live-action reference work? Did you record you lines before performing the role live, or was it the other way around?

It was exactly as you say. The first part of the process was the recording and then we would go into a sound booth and read the lines. And in those days, the other characters for that particular scene would be present. And we would go through the whole scene together. Sometimes, it was broken up in parts, depending on what it was they wanted you to do. Then, a little while later, they would go to the live action. And I was asked to help with what they call the live action, which was really a reference work for the artists. And it's where you present yourself on the soundstage, which is the stages where they have the cameras and the sets. But it was a very rudimentary set. There really wasn't much there except boards and planks, things of that sort. It was mainly so that the artists would be able to see the human figure moving in different kinds of ways, so that the figure looked credible when it was drawn. Because the human figure was the hardest to do as opposed to all the animals that they had worked with in the past. So that was the second part of it. And usually, that process involved a rehearsal day, or maybe a couple of days depending on the length of the sequence, and then a shooting day. And that was repeated throughout the process of my portion of being involved in the film.

On the Peter Pan DVD, there are pictures of you acting out scenes alone in front of a group of animators. Did such a performance feel awkward in any way?

Well, there were really interesting experiences.
You know, they want to get the ideas of movements of shoulders, arms, something that's lucid, something that's natural looking. And one of the things that naturally for Peter Pan, there were flying sequences. And animators had not dealt with the problem of weightlessness and movement in the air. So, they had to sort of simulate that, which they used the ideas from the stage. Where, you're attached to a wire and harness, and then you float back and forth across the stage while you're being filmed. (Laughs)

And I do have a memory of, you know most children would think "Oh, what fun!", you know, "you get to swing back and forth and it is a neat experience." But I was somewhat afraid of heights, even then. So I was thinking, looking down, "Oh, my God, it's so far down there. I'm so frightened!" But the person who was Peter Pan, who was doing the live-action Peter Pan -- he had been a dancer -- he was just very comfortable with all these kinds of ways you move and using equipment such as that. So he said "Okay, we're going to just bring you up and you won't go up more than a couple of inches. And we'll just sort of play around." What he was doing was getting me used to the idea and going up a little higher away from the ground, a little higher, in stages so that I felt comfortable. And then I was okay and then it was fun. (Laughs)

It looks like you and the actors playing John and Michael had fun acting out scenes. Did you have much interaction off-camera?

You know, that's a good question. Actually, our situation was unique because we were children. Therefore, we had a commitment to the studio. We had a commitment also to our school. For children, there was in full work day, there was a 3-hour school day and a 4-hour work with the studio day. So when we weren't involved with the scene, we were whisked off to the other side of the soundstage that was quieter and we did our schoolwork. Probably what mostly happened was that assignments were given through the school. And it was a quiet time because they would have their reading and paperwork to do. And I would have the same thing, but it was measured in time, so that you knew you got schooled. We had a teacher at the premises and she would watch to make sure you got the full 3 hours of schoolwork. So, as a result, there really wasn't a whole lot of interaction. And it was also a long time ago, the memories kind of fade in terms of what we did but that does make that situation a little unique because we didn't get to sit and visit or get to know each other all that way.

Do you feel like having to do schoolwork detract from the experience in any way?

No, not at all. I suppose it was more difficult to concentrate because obviously there were distractions because there were things going on that you would still hear in the distance. You learn to sort of tune it out because you had a responsibility for your other work and that that was important too. So you sort of dug in and did the best you could.

Kathryn Beaumont stands between Tommy Luske (left) and Paul Collins (right), who voiced and modeled for Wendy's younger brothers Michael and John Darling, respectively. As Wendy, Kathryn Beaumont objects to the plans of Peter Pan, portrayed here by Disney veteran Bobby Driscoll, who also voiced the title part.

I've seen pictures of a "date" that you and Bobby Driscoll [the voice actor and model for Peter Pan] for, I think, publicity purposes. Do you have memories of that?

Well, you're right. When you said that, it did spark a memory. I do remember for a publicity press, he and I went on sort of a tour of the Hollywood area and took in several different places.
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As Bobby was taking Alice into the Wonderland of Hollywood, sort of. He was really friendly, just as he appeared on the screen, and just as he appeared in person. He was a friendly nice young man. We had a lot of fun together. I can remember there was an ice cream place where they wound up. And we just had a wonderful time having ice cream and just enjoying talking together.

What has it been like to revisit the roles of Alice and Wendy for more recent venues such as video games and theme park attractions?

I just was surprised that I found, or Disney found, that my voice was okay (Laughs) to revisit these characters for the rides and for different things that happen and also for some of the work on the shows. It was so nice to go back and redo these lines. And I remember at the time when I was first asked about it, I said "I'm not sure that my voice as an adult now is going to work." "Well, electronically, maybe we can raise the voice just a little bit. Let's just play around and see what happens." And, at that time, as a result, we did read lots of things and you know, we didn't really have to do too much. It was maybe just a hair higher. And we got the inflection, we got what we wanted. What of course they were after, the Disney Character Voices is really involved with authenticity. They wanted to get that authentic sound that this was Alice, or that this was Wendy, that people were hearing. And they were very satisfied with that. And I was thrilled because I was called back to sort of relive a little of what was so wonderful when I was a child.

Seeing that you have done recent voice work for Disney, it would have been great to hear you play grown-up Wendy in the 2002 sequel Return to Never Land. Were you ever asked or interested to reprise the role?

I did. And they did go through the entire story and I did play the Wendy role. But they, after, you know how in many films, once they get things done, they're satisfied with the story, they're not satisfied with certain things. They stopped and they completely changed a lot of things about it, from what I understand. And they changed characters. So I ended up not being a part of that, although I was the first time around.

As Alice, Kathryn Beaumont checks up on an animator's rendering. As Wendy Darling, she does the same. Wendy's adventures in Neverland marked a second journey into the fantastic for Kathryn Beaumont. "Peter Pan" returns to DVD on March 6th, this time as a 2-Disc Platinum Edition.

What made you decide you move away from acting?

I don't know whether it was a conscious decision or that I felt that I needed to have the experience of finishing school. It was time for me to be in high school by then and I would go in as a freshman. I felt like a breakaway at that point might be a good idea and I threw myself into the activities and all the things that kids do in high school. And I really enjoyed the experience. Then I continued through college. Perhaps because I didn't have the strong motivation for furthering an acting career, I got a teaching credential and I started teaching and I found that that was very satisfying. So my career change was to that instead of the entertainment field. You know, I never regretted it because I did get so much pleasure in working with children and watching their development through the school year.

One more question. Where would you prefer to visit - Wonderland or Neverland?

(Laughs heartily) Oh, that's an unfair question, just because they both have something very unique and special about them, so I'm gonna leave it at that. (Laughs)

Kathryn Beaumont's Disney Films:

Alice in Wonderland: Un-Anniversary Edition DVDAlice in Wonderland

Special Un-Anniversary Edition DVD Review
Buy the Un-Anniversary Edition DVD
Top Animated Classics Countdown (#12)
Top 100 Disney Songs Countdown (#98, 73, 67, 55)
Disney Villains Countdown (#15)
Disney Heroines Countdown (#17)
Peter Pan: Platinum Edition DVDPeter Pan

Platinum Edition DVD Review
Buy the 2-Disc Platinum Edition DVD
Report from Opening Night at El Capitan
Top Animated Classics Countdown (#7)
Top 100 Disney Songs Countdown (#44, 29)
Disney Villains Countdown (#7)
Disney Heroes & Heroines Countdown (#11M, #21F)

Recommended Reading:
Esther Williams Collection DVD Review - featuring Kathryn Beaumont in On an Island With You
KathrynBeaumont.com - biography, interviews, vintage articles and photos

Kathryn Beaumont's Other Films on VHS:
On an Island with You (1948) • The Secret Garden (1949) • Challenge to Lassie (1949)

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Interview conducted February 20, 2007. Published February 23, 2007. All images copyright Disney.

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