Ruthie Tompson, an animator and certified Disney Legend, had one of the longest histories at The Walt Disney Company, even working directly with Walt and Roy O. Disney in the animation studio’s earliest days. Officially starting her career as a painter in the company’s Ink & Paint Department, she later went on to fulfill other important roles in scene planning, final check, and the camera department. On Sunday, October 10, while at her home at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) in Woodland Hills, California, Ruthie Tompson died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 111.
“Mickey Mouse and I grew up together,” Tompson would often tell people with fondness. And that wasn’t too far from atheism truth. Born in Portland, Maine on July 22, 1910, her first encounters with Disney began during her childhood in the 1920s—after her family moved to California from Boston, Massachusetts at the end of World War I. Growing up in Hollywood, she didn’t live too far from the emergent Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio, then located on Kingswell Avenue. In 2010, she recalled walking by the storefront almost daily as a child and being fascinated by what she saw inside.
“There were two ladies in the window painting,” she remembered. “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.”
That invitation was the start of a long relationship with the Disney Brothers. After that, she would visit the studio quite often. “I remember sitting on the bench and watching Roy shoot the animated cels onto film,” Tompson explained. The brothers would also take pictures of the neighborhood kids running and playing to use for animation purposes, giving each child a fifty-cent piece as a reward. She always took hers straight to the candy store to buy licorice.
It wasn’t until after high school, at the age of 18, that Tompson was actually offered a job at the studio. She was working at Dubrock’s Riding Academy, the place where Walt and Roy often played polo, and the brothers recognized her from “her signature Buster Brown haircut.” They offered her a job on the spot, promising that her lack of drawing skills was unimportant because they would teach her everything she needed to know.
From her early days in the Ink & Paint Department, Tompson would go on to work with Disney for nearly 40 years. Her hand was in almost every Disney animated feature made—from its very first, Snow White, up through The Rescuers—until the time she retired in 1975. She was highly valued for her mechanical skill in guiding the camera movements for the animated films; and, as a result, became one of the first three women to be admitted to the International Photographers Union (Local 659 of the IATSE). As the employee with the longest history with Walt and Roy O. Disney, Tompson was honored for her contributions to The Walt Disney Company and officially named a Disney Legend in the year 2000.
Now, Tompson’s legacy will live on in memory and in the many films she helped to create during her time at Disney. Representative of a true trailblazer in animation, that legacy will not soon be forgotten. “Ruthie was a true Disney Legend,” says 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 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,” adds Bob Iger, executive chairman and chairman of the board of 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.”
Trailblazing female animator and Disney Legend Ruthie Tompson died on October 10 at the age of 111.
Watch this video tribute to her lasting legacy.