Ruthie Tompson, animator who worked on classic Disney films including Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo – obituary

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Ruthie Tompson, animator who worked on classic Disney films including Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo – obituary
© Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for TCM Ruthie Tompson in 2018 at a screening of the film An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation – Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for TCM

Ruthie Tompson, who has died aged 111, enjoyed a prolific career working at the Walt Disney Studios from the mid-1930s until her retirement some 40 years later, by which time she was managing an expert team of animators and scene planners.

Ruth Tompson was born on July 22 1910 in Portland, Maine, later moving with her family to Oakland, California. By the early 1920s her parents had divorced and she had moved to Los Angeles with her mother, who worked as a film extra. A neighbour was Robert Disney, the uncle of Walt and his brother Roy, and she met them when they stayed with him after arriving in Los Angeles.

The brothers’ Kansas City company Laugh-O-Gram Studio had failed, and with little money left they had decided to try their luck in LA with the Alice Comedies, a series of silent shorts which combined live action and animation, starring the child star Virginia Davis and Julius the cat. Ruthie Tompson would take a daily detour on her way home from school to peer through the window of the Disney brothers’ studio.

One day she was invited in, and after striking up a friendship with Virginia Davis was given a series of cameos in the Alice Comedies. “Walt just called me in and showed me around the studio. He paid me a quarter for the Alice Comedies,” she recalled. “I had no desire to be the next Pola Negri or Gloria Swanson. I was happy to be able to afford liquorice.”

A keen horsewoman, after leaving school Ruthie Tompson took a job with the Dubrock Riding Academy in the San Fernando Valley, a favourite haunt of the Disney boys, who would often go there to play polo. As their friendship blossomed, Walt offered her a job as an inker and scene planner. “It was a magical moment for me. Whereas I loved horses, I loved to sketch too.”

One of her first jobs was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which opened a few days before Christmas 1937. Within two years the film had made so much money that Disney were able to build their studio complex in Burbank. More staff were hired – and Ruthie Tompson was promoted to animation checker, responsible for reviewing each of the animation cels before they were photographed for the film.

“The girls in ink and paint were called ‘the nunnery’,” she recalled. “I loved it, and I loved having some money in my pocket. It was great.”

Later she was appointed manager of the scene planning department, supervising the teams on Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo, as well as the 1940s live-action animated musicals, The Three Caballeros and Song of the South, and much later, in 1964, Mary Poppins.

In 1948 Ruthie Tompson was put to work on her most challenging job yet, the opening scenes for Sleeping Beauty (1949), with its multi-layered cels and extensive cast of characters.

In 1952 she was one of the first three women invited to join the International Photographers’ Union.

In her 40-year career, Ruthie Tompson worked on virtually every Walt Disney animated feature, including The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), and her last, The Rescuers (1977). She also worked on the 1960 television series Popeye the Sailor and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (1978). She was inducted into the Walt Disney Hall of Fame in 2000.

Ruthie Tompson – whose principal passion outside her work was the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team – lived quietly after her retirement and was feted at Disney festivals and screenings. In 2010, shortly before her 100th birthday, she moved to the Motion Picture Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, California.

A decade on, she celebrated her 110th birthday in Covid-19 quarantine; undaunted, she attempted to raise $110,000 in support of a post-production suite at the retirement complex.

Ruthie Tompson was unmarried.

Ruthie Tompson, born July 22 1910, died October 10 2021

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