Remembering Disney Legend Ruthie Tompson

Ruthie Tompson, who began her career at The Walt Disney Studios as a painter in the Ink & Paint Department, and went on to major roles in final check, scene planning and the camera department, passed away peacefully in her sleep Sunday at her home at the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills, California. She was 111 years old. Tompson worked at The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1975 after completing work on The Rescuers (1977). Among her many accomplishments, she became one of the first three women invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE, in 1952. The employee with the longest history with Walt and Roy O. Disney, Tompson was named a Disney Legend—the prestigious honor bestowed upon individuals in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to The Walt Disney Company—in 2000.

“Ruthie was a legend among animators, and her creative contributions to Disney—from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Rescuers—remain beloved classics to this day,” said Bob Iger, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board, The Walt Disney Company. “While we will miss her smile and wonderful sense of humor, her exceptional work and pioneering spirit will forever be an inspiration to us all.”

“Ruthie was a true Disney Legend,” added filmmaker Leslie Iwerks. “As a young girl who began as an ‘extra’ in the 1920s Alice Comedies—she was directed by Walt Disney himself and watched over the shoulders of Roy O. Disney and [Disney Legend] Ub Iwerks, working the silent cameras—and living to 111 years old, she was the one person still alive who had known Walt Disney since his earliest Hollywood years.”

“Ruthie and I had great times together; she was fun, wacky, sharp as a whip, talented, and a dear friend to our Iwerks family,” Iwerks continued. “I’ll never forget the road trip with Ruthie in my convertible driving up to the Grand Opening of the Walt Disney Family Museum, Thelma and Louise-style, two happy girls on a fun adventure with a happy ending. She will be greatly missed.”

Born in Portland, Maine, on July 22, 1910, Tompson was raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Her family moved to California in 1918, arriving first in Oakland on November 11, Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I. Tompson’s association with Disney began long before she was a studio employee. As a child growing up in Hollywood in the 1920s, she lived a short distance away from the fledgling Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio on Kingswell Avenue.

As she recalled in a 2010 oral history with Disney’s Animation Research Library, “I was walking by the storefront, and there were two ladies in the window painting.  I never saw this before, so I stopped to look. And every day, I had to stop and see what they were doing. Curiosity almost killed this cat. I did it so often that somebody came out and said, ‘Why don’t’ you go inside and watch them?’ I think it was Walt because he roamed around quite a bit. I saw how the fellows flipped the drawings. [Disney Legends] Les Clark and Ub Iwerks were there, and Roy was in the back shooting what the girls were painting over backgrounds. As a kid, I was fascinated. I’d sit on the bench beside Roy, he had an apple box for me to sit on, and as it got late, he would say ‘I think you’d better go home. Your mother probably wants you to come home for dinner.’ Walt would engage all of the kids in the neighborhood and take pictures of us running and playing and doing things, for animation purposes. He always gave us a quarter or fifty cent piece, and, of course, I went right to the candy store for licorice.”

Tompson later attended Hollywood High School. At age 18, she took a job at Dubrock’s Riding Academy in the San Fernando Valley, where Walt and Roy frequently played polo. Walt offered Tompson a job as a painter in the Ink & Paint Department, where she helped put finishing touches on the studio’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). That film became her favorite to revisit over the years alongside younger generations in her family. “We worked into the night, day after day, until we got it exactly right!” she later said.

Tompson was soon promoted to final checker, reviewing the animation cels before they were photographed onto film. By 1948, she again transferred to animation checking and scene planning. “After I got into scene planning, that was the part where I felt like I was really a part of the institution, because I was helping the animators and I was helping the background painters,” she once said. As Bob Broughton, former Disney supervisor of special photographic effects, later recalled, “Ruthie was mechanically inclined. She was excellent at figuring out the mathematical and mechanical logistics of camera moves.”

As a result of her adept skill at guiding camera movement for animated films, Tompson was invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE. As animator and Disney Legend Floyd Norman would later recall, “I’ve often said, Ruthie was our computer before computers were invented. Whatever the technical problem, Ruthie could usually solve it.”

In addition to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Tompson worked on such feature films as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), The Aristocats (1970), and Robin Hood (1973). After dedicating nearly 40 years to The Walt Disney Company—and working on virtually every Disney animated feature up through The Rescuers—Tompson retired from the Company in 1975. Although she worked on projects for other studios for another 10 years, she later said, “It is always my Disney experience that is filled with truly unforgettable memories.” Given her storied history with the Company, Tompson would fondly tell people, “Mickey Mouse and I grew up together.”

A lifelong fan of two things—Disney and the Los Angeles Dodgers—Tompson last year shared some words of wisdom with D23 to mark her milestone 110th birthday. “Have fun,” she said. “Try to do as much as you can for yourself. Remember all the good things in life.”

Mindy Johnson, Disney historian and author of Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, said, “The best way to describe Ruthie is simply ‘remarkable.’ She was perhaps the last link from the earliest origins of animation in Hollywood. Ruthie was a living witness and vital contributor to the progress and growth of the animation industry as we know it today.”

Calling her a “trailblazer,” Johnson said Tompson will be missed dearly. “In addition to conducting Ruthie’s oral history at the Academy, in 2017 I was honored to feature Ruthie as part of a landmark celebration recognizing the contributions of women to early animation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We are indebted to her ingenuity and so deeply blessed to have known her,” she said. “It will continue to be one of my greatest joys to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of this remarkable woman! She was a true treasure and a dear friend. I’ll miss her quick wit, warm laughter and entertaining Dodger updates!”

Tompson is survived by two nieces, Judy Weiss and Calista Tonelli, and a nephew, Pierce Butler III. Donations can be made in Tompson’s name to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.