During her early days as a school teacher in Southern California, Kathryn Beaumont had some conversations that got curiouser and curiouser. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re a former child actor who has given voice to two of Walt Disney’s most famous young heroines.
Beaumont, now 72 and living in Burbank, recently recalled one of the encounters: “The children were lined up outside my door for coming in,” Beaumont said. Also outside was a student’s mother, who said, “I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I took my daughter to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ” The daughter insisted that Alice was now her teacher, and she and the mother had argued about it.
“So I had to tell her,” Beaumont said. “She was really in shock.”
Beaumont told that bewildered parent that she had been the voice of both Alice and Wendy in “Peter Pan.” It says a lot about the enduring power of Disney’s classic animation that even now those 1950s roles echo in the life of Beaumont. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment just released the 60th-anniversary edition of the classic on Blu-ray and standard DVD. Beaumont is featured on two of the Blu-ray extras, introducing a companion’s guide to “Wonderland” as well as newly found pencil test of Alice in a shrinking scene. She also returned to the Disney fold in the 1980s as the voice of Alice and Wendy for theme parks, attractions, video games and TV programs. And in 1998, she was named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company.
Beaumont was all of 10 when she was cast as the voice of Alice in Walt Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.” She said she has especially fond memories of working with Walt himself. “It was a very special experience. He made me feel so comfortable. I was very comfortable around him.”
Born in England, Beaumont’s first role was in the 1944 British film “It Happened One Sunday,” which caught the attention of MGM. “I wasn’t able to read yet, so I said the lines and I memorized them,” Beaumont said. “MGM was planning to have films with British characters and British-type stories. However, as ideas come and go, they must have shelved the idea because they brought me over and put me under contract, then nothing happened.”
That changed when word spread around Hollywood that Disney was looking for a British voice for Lewis Carroll’s plucky bookshelf heroine who goes down the rabbit hole. “Disney was a stickler for authenticity,” Beaumont said. “He was looking for a British voice but he also wanted one that Americans would be comfortable with. All kind of little girls were reading for the part and I also read. They called me back for another reading.”
Beaumont said she felt as if she stepped into a Wonderland, but one without the surreal surprises. “MGM was a typical studio and run very well,” Beaumont said. “Then I got the voice of Alice and I walked into Disney studios and I immediately felt a whole different atmosphere. It was so relaxed and everybody seemed to be so friendly and happy.”
Beaumont said she was made to feel that she was very much a part of the creative team.
“I would sit at those storyboard conferences,” she recalled. “That is when the story had been worked out and just before they would actually do recording. Winston Hibler was the voice director and they invited me to sit in on that. It was the most wonderful experience.”
Beaumont would first record a scene from the movie, which would be sent to the animation director. Then Beaumont would report to a sound stage dressed as Alice and act out the scene for cameras, so the animators would have a live-action reference from which to create the character. “It was a bare stage,” Beaumont recalled. “It had a camera and lights and maybe a few boards around to give you perspective.”
Because many of her scenes took place opposite such beloved animal characters as the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, Beaumont was frequently alone on the stage. “I would have to imagine here is where the Cheshire Cat is. Of course, there were some scenes with Jerry Colonna and Ed Wynn, and those scenes you shot with another person.” She even showed up as Alice on Disney’s first Christmas TV special, 1950’s “One Hour in Wonderland,” as well as “The Walt Disney Christmas Show” in 1951. “Alice in Wonderland” aired on the second installment of his ABC series, “Disneyland,” on Nov. 3, 1954.
Not long after she did “Alice,” Disney cast her as the voice of Wendy in “Peter Pan,” his 1953 animated version of the James M. Barrie book. This time, she was part of an ensemble that included Hans Conried as Captain Hook and Bobby Driscoll as Peter. So she had company on the soundstage during the live-action filming. “It was a whole different situation,” she says. “Wendy was more of a supporting role, so I didn’t have as many scenes as I did in ‘Alice.’ But we did work together as a little group. That was a nice experience.”
But soon after “Peter Pan,” Beaumont left show business, went to high school, graduated from USC and taught grade school for years in the L.A. Unified School District. “It just satisfied so many things within me,” says Beaumont, who never had any children. “It was working with these little children and seeing growth and development through the year. I loved working on all the projects and things with these little kids.” And, yes, she loved the looks on their faces when she told them that she was the little girl who once visited Wonderland and Never Never Land.
– Susan King
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