INTERVIEW: Tinker Bell reference model Margaret Kerry talks creating the feisty pixie for Disney’s classic “Peter Pan”

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV

Tinker Bell

In the 65 years since the release of “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell has become one of the most well-recognized Disney characters in the world. To create the loveable fairy, Disney animator Marc Davis enlisted the help of actress Margaret Kerry, who brought Tinker Bell to life with vibrant, live-action performances.

Kerry spent nine months on a sound stage at Walt Disney Studios, acting out scenes as the petite pixie. The footage of her performance was then sent to Disney animators, who used her as a reference when drawing Tink. During her time on set, Kerry worked closely with Marc Davis, one of Walt Disney’s famed Nine Old Men, and “Peter Pan” director Gerry Geronimi, and even met Walt Disney himself.

Next month, Margaret Kerry makes an appearance at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco for “Tales of Tinker Bell with Margaret Kerry,” and she took time to chat with me over the phone about her fond memories of becoming the most famous fairy in the world.

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Cristina Sanza, Inside the Magic:  What is your strongest memory from being on set as Tinker Bell?

Margaret Kerry:  My strongest memory was the day I got to drive across the gate to go into Disney Studios. I was at Fox when I got the call that they were interviewing for Tinker Bell. They didn’t tell me it was her, they told me it was a little, three and a half inch sprite who didn’t talk. The biggest thing was, I was going over to Disney Studios! This was like magic.

Then I met this wonderful man named Marc Davis. He would bring me the ideas for the scenes, and I would work them out, and I would be on sound Stage 1. They would film that with 35mm film and give that to the animators, who would then draw Tinker Bell just the way that I looked.

That was brand new. Disney had kept it secret. So, not only was I meeting Marc Davis, one of the Nine Old Men, but I saw the pictures of this adorable little, three and a half inch sprite named Tinker Bell from the famous play called “Peter Pan.”

Do you remember when Tinker Bell lands on the mirror and looks at herself? I did that in his office and he said, “Would it be convenient for you to come to work next Tuesday?”

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ITM:  What was it like day-to-day on set?

Kerry:  We were doing just two days at a time here and there. It took nine months. I was working at ABC at the same time doing a network show, and I was also doing my own television show on Channel 13 here in Los Angeles, and doing radio. So, they would find days where it would be convenient for me to come to work.

They would say to me, “Margaret, what time do you want to get here?” I had never been asked that before! I would usually say 9:30 AM. They said, “Fine, go over to hairdressing and wear your one-piece bathing suit because we’re not making a costume for you.” They would do my hair up like Tinker Bell, a little bit of makeup, not much. I would put a cover-up over my bathing suit because you did not walk around in those days in a bathing suit, even a one-piece.

Then I would go over to Stage 1, and I would often meet Marc Davis and Gerry Geronimi, one of the directors. We would walk in and there was Stage 1 all set up with the camera crew. The lighting was extensive, and the cyclorama [a cloth stretched tight in an arc around the back of a stage set] was the background. And I stepped up, and then Marc Davis would show us what he had. Often, I would have props, and I would work out whatever it was and where they wanted me to end up. They would film it twice. We had lots of fun, lots of laughs.

Marc Davis was such a dear. You want to know how long ago this was? I would call him “Mr. Davis.” Never by his first name.

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ITM:  Did you become friends with Marc Davis after the movie?

Kerry:  Not really, but after Walt Disney had Disneyland going and Tinker Bell became the icon for the park, I was in and out of Disneyland and the studio many times and then started to travel for her. That’s when I really became friends of these people.

About 30 years later, I was having lunch in Club 33 and Marc Davis and his darling wife, Alice, a genius artist in her own right, was sitting there between us. I said something funny and perky, and Marc leaned over and said, “Margaret, you are still Tinker Bell.” And I said, “Marc, I think that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me.” Except maybe, “Would it be convenient for you to come to work next Tuesday?”

ITM:  How often did Walt Disney come to the set?

Kerry:  I met him about four or five times. You must remember, at that time, nobody knew who anybody was. There was no internet. I had no idea for the longest time when I was working who the three directors, who came down and had their picture taken with me, were.

Walt Disney would come over to say hello to Marc Davis and Gerry Geronimi, and they invited me into the conversation. I thought, “I’ve got to get my bathing suit cover-up! I’m not going to see Walt Disney without my cover-up!” So I got that and went over, and I was thinking on the way over, “He’s the head of the studio!”

I had been working since I was four years old, and I was taught that whoever was the head of any studio was almost God. You never saw them. If you did see them, you bowed down or curtsied. The first couple of times I met him, I was stunned because I was talking to the head of a studio. That was just beyond me.

He didn’t stay there very long, he looked at the sketches that Marc Davis had in his lap. And then the next couple of times that he came over, I thought, “Hey, stupid, that’s Walt Disney!” Then I really got nervous. But he was charming. I went to school with his daughters and he mentioned that to me, and I couldn’t think of anything to say.

You talk about magic at the park? There was magic at the studio. It was the second happiest place on earth. I still walk over there and get the same feeling.

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ITM:  Can you talk about Tinker Bell’s friendship with Peter Pan? A lot of people view her attitude towards Wendy as romantic jealousy.

Kerry:  If I may use a widely-used word, Tinker Bell was his groupie. That’s the best way to say it. She wants to go on every adventure, because it’s “Adventure, ho!” with her.

She sees that this big ugly girl might be taken on the adventure instead of her. That’s the jealousy. Now, we have a different culture from when the movie was done. In our new culture, everything is romantic or sexual, and it wasn’t then.

So, when you see Tinker Bell land on that mirror, I played her as if she was a nine or ten-year-old little girl who had never seen a mirror before. Why should there be a mirror in Never Land? She’s looking at herself like, “Oh, is that what I look like? Oh, wait a minute – my hips are too big!” But it has changed over the years to “Oh, aren’t I gorgeous? Aren’t I wonderful?” That’s not her, but culture does that.

She was jealous of Wendy because she was afraid Wendy was going to take her place as a groupie. And as far as Wendy and Peter, the first thing Peter does when they get to Never Land is he abandons Wendy and goes to talk to the mermaids in the lagoon. If you remember, he asks her to come to Never Land to be a mother. He has no romantic interest in her. What twelve-year-old boy would, you know?

ITM:  Did you ever get to watch the footage they recorded of you as Tinker Bell?

Kerry:  No, and they lost it. Scott McQueen, who redid the films for Disney, he tried to hang on to them, but they didn’t. It was really before the [Disney] Archives got started. Thank God that they did, and thank God for Dave Smith and Becky Cline, and those wonderful people at Archives.

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ITM:  When did you realize Tinker Bell had become such an iconic character?

Kerry:  It was when they started to have Disneyana clubs all over, and when I started to get phone calls from people who wanted me to give talks and vendors who wanted me to sign things for them. It was around 1984, that’s when I started to get an inkling.

I was told at Disney Studios not very long ago that Tinker Bell is recognized in outer Mongolia. That’s how famous she is.

ITM:  You also provided the voice of the Red-Headed Mermaid in “Peter Pan,” and you were the reference model for that character as well?

Kerry:  Yes! We were all working toward getting our faces in front of the camera, and June Foray [voice of Rocky J. Squirrel, Cindy Lou Who, and many more] was too. We got this call — would I not only like to be the reference model but do a voiceover? I said, “Of course!”

Connie Hilton was there, it was the three of us, and we slithered around on these supposed rocks they had. I was up about 10 feet off the deck slithering around, and the two ladies were lounging at the bottom.

We got finished with doing the voiceover and we knew we were going to do the actual body work in about a week and a half, after they processed the lines we just did. We’re standing outside the soundstage and we looked at each other and said, “Why are we beating ourselves to death to get in front of the camera?” This is the way to go — voiceover. You don’t have to put on makeup, you come in during the afternoon because your voice is strong. You don’t have to do your hair, you don’t have to wear a costume, you don’t have to learn lines. This is it!

And we all decided right then and there, that’s what we were going for.

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ITM:  Since you love doing voiceover work, is there any other Disney character you wish you could have played?

Kerry:  June Foray’s character in “Mulan” [Grandmother Fa]. The last time I saw June, I said, “You had the punchline of the whole movie.” She said, “I did? What was that?”

You remember Mulan with all the medals, she’s riding the beautiful white horse with beautiful saddle, and she’s bringing that back to the family. The grandmother says, “If you ask me, she should have brought home a man!”

ITM:  Tell us about your book, “Tinker Bell Talks – Tales of A Pixie Dusted Life.”

Kerry:  It has 160 photos, some of them very rare, of me on the soundstage and the time I met Walt Disney on the soundstage. Also, as the Red Headed Mermaid, there are some beautiful pictures that Walt Disney Archives let me have for the book.

They’re short stories, no more than six pages long. They’re all funny and they’re all about working in Hollywood, and meeting Walt Disney and Marilyn Monroe. People kept saying that she was the model for Tinker Bell, and I have the letter from Dave Smith over at the studio saying, “No, no, it was Margaret.” But I have pictures of Marilyn that I took of her and she took of me.

So, there is all this fun stuff in my book and I will be presenting those at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

To purchase a copy of “Tinker Bell Talks,” click here

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ITM:  What else are you working on at the moment?

Kerry:  I’m starting a new book with a very famous artist from Disney. It’s about the very funny stories that have happened to voiceover people. There’s not been a book that I know of written about them. Hal Smith (“The Andy Griffith Show”) did a lot of voices for Disney. He did about 1,000 voices during his career and I was on the other side of the microphone doing about 400 of those with him, so I have lots of fun stories to tell.

But you know when we go to these big shows, and they have celebrity shows? For example, Bill Farmer, a good friend of mine, does the voice of Goofy. He sits there and he really has no product. He has photos, but that’s not it. So, we all decided that we would have voiceover artists send their stories to me and we’d put together an anthology of fun things that have happened in voiceover sessions.

The book is called, so far, “Voiceover Acting: It’s All In Your Head.” I hope to get it out by my 91st birthday.

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Margaret Kerry will appear at the Walt Disney Family Museum on Saturday, August 4 at 1:00 PM for “Tales of Tinker Bell with Margaret Kerry,” where she’ll also meet and greet with attendees. To purchase tickets, click here, and be sure to visit her website, TinkerBellTalks.com.

Photos courtesy of Margaret Kerry and Disney.

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