When the sassy fairy Tinker Bell showered her scenes in “Peter Pan” with Pixie Dust, she borrowed a little magic from Margaret Kerry.
In 1953 Kerry was a steadily employed actress in her early 20s when she was called to audition for Walt Disney’s long-percolating film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s beloved play “Peter Pan,” a particular childhood favorite of Disney’s. Departing from the play’s traditional depiction of Tinker Bell, Pan’s high-spirited sidekick, as a simple shimmering spot of light flitting around the stage, animator Marc Davis – who’d previously designed the looks of Disney femmes Cinderella and Alice in “Alice In Wonderland” – was charged with fully realizing the character and looked for an actress to pantomime the pixie’s movements and provide personality inspiration. Once Kerry was cast, she found herself frolicking amid oversized props and acting out Tink’s temperamental outbursts, much to the delight of the animation team.
With “Peter Pan” soaring into Blu Ray in time to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary, Kerry, now 83, looks back fondly at her role in the creation of the feisty fairy that would go on to become an icon indelibly associated with the magic of Disney.
What did you know about the job walking into that first audition?
I understood who Tinker Bell was. I was told she was 3-and-a-half inches high, a little fairy who didn't talk – which was quite interesting for me because I'm a talker! I went in and I'm thinking, ‘What do I show with this?’ And after looking up a couple of reference things I chose the idea that she was about 11 years old, and the world was her oyster. She looked at everything around and thought, ‘Oh, isn't that exciting?’ And when I did the scene that they asked me to do in [lead Tinker Bell animator] Marc Davis's office in pantomime to step on the mirror on Wendy's dresser – she's looking down and seeing herself – I chose to play it as if she was seeing herself for the very first time. Why would they have a mirror on Neverland? And they seemed to like that idea of that youth and that exuberance and they asked me very nicely, ‘Would it be convenient for you to come to work next Tuesday?’
What was the sensation of actually seeing the animated Tinker Bell like? Were you able to see yourself in her movements?
I was called to come to the ‘sweat box’ as they called it, the projection room up on the third floor, to sit down and watch a pencil test of Tinker Bell. And that's the scene where she is in Peter Pan's hat, and he's caught her so that they can sprinkle pixie dust on the children so they can fly - and I [as Tinker Bell] am not happy. So I'm sitting there in the middle of all of these giants of Disney's animation, and they're talking about this, that, and the other, and the lights went down. And they showed about 6 seconds of animation. And you know what? I cried. She was more than I ever expected! But I also will tell you I said, ‘That's me up there.’ That was exactly me. The turn of my head, the way my hands were on my hips, and I didn't know whether to smile or just give a little sob, but it got to me. I really, really felt it.
When did you start to realize that you’d taken part in the creation of an iconic character that was going to be beloved for a long, long time to come?
When you think about it, when the movie first came out it went into the theaters with one screen, you saw it and maybe you could go back and see it again and then it was gone. And as you know, Walt Disney did not like to do sequels. He was tired when working on a project for years. He was on to something new, but when they started the theme park, he was told and asked please not to use any of his main characters like Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse or Goofy because the theme park might not go.
So he told me ‘I'm bringing back Tinker Bell and Jiminy Cricket.’ And that's why you saw Tinker Bell on all of the tickets, on the banners, on the map – every place in the park. He also was so smart that he brought Tinker Bell back every Sunday to take people on that one wonderful, wonderful adventure that you had on ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ [television series] that went on forever. So people understood Tinker Bell, and I understood her – I started to realize how iconic Tinker Bell was and is. The whole thing got bigger and bigger and bigger. And Disney has always been so very, very kind to me. When [legend] said it was perhaps it was Marilyn Monroe who was the reference model, Disney came to my rescue and wrote, ‘Nope – It was little old Margaret Kerry.’
Did you ever have the opportunity to spend any time with Walt Disney himself?
It was serendipity: we were working on the big sound stage and Mr. Disney and a group were working about 30 feet away on a project that I didn't quite understand. He would come over and chat with Marc Davis and the cameraman and the crew. He knew them very well, and of course, there I was. In those days, you did not walk around in a one-piece bathing suit, particularly when the whole crew was nothing but males, so I had a little cover‑up and I would come over and chat with him. I had mentioned to Marc Davis that I had gone to school, Monticello school for girls with both of the Disney girls, I guess somebody mentioned it to him because he said, ‘I understand you went to school with my daughters.’ I was never so surprised in my life!
What do you make of the popularity of Tinker Bell today?
I'll use one word for her: she is beguiling. When she’s very naughty in ‘Peter Pan,’ when she's very, very bad people love her, and when she's very, very good, people love her. And the fact is that she's very free to do what she thinks. I don't call her classic – I call her timeless. I have a book coming out that's called ‘A Tinker Bell Talks: Tales of a Pixie-Dusted Life,’ and of course the highlight of one or two of the chapters is about Tinker Bell. I know when I go out on my speaking engagements, there's 500‑600 people that come up to the table, and we talk about Tinker Bell.