Walt Disney’s Snow White will turn 50 with a flurry of carefully orchestrated celebrations that begin this month. Present in person at some of the festivities, and in spirit at all of them, will be Adriana Caselotti, 71, who half a century ago provided Snow White’s movie voice. For Caselotti, who still answers the phone with a cheery “Snow White!,” making the film was a pivotal event. Make that the pivotal event. “Because of it I live in a cloud,” she says. “I’ve been up here for half a century and I don’t think I can come down.”
Not that she doesn’t have a few complaints. She is unhappy, for example, that Walt Disney left her name off the film, reportedly because he wanted to maintain a sense of mystery. She also says that she has received only $14,000 for her work on the film and for public appearances over the years (Snow White has grossed more than $330 million), and she wishes she had a larger role in the anniversary hoopla. “They must think I’m too old to appear in public,” says Caselotti. Responds a Disney spokesman: “This is obviously a very important year to her, and she would like to be even more involved. She’ll be doing plenty of interviews but she’s only part of the focus, not the main focus. No one is neglecting her.”
One thing is certain: Adriana Caselotti, thrice married and now widowed, living in a Tiki hutlike home in Los Angeles, believes there is only one Snow White. She talked to reporter Doug Lindeman.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been Snow White. Because of it I live in a dreamworld. I’m not crazy. I’m doing it by choice. To me, Snow White is very special. I view her as my trust. And no matter what the people at Disney say, I’m the only Snow White. They can ignore me if they want to, but I’m telling you—that film would not have been the magic film it turned out to be without my voice. I was the first girl that Walt Disney and [music director] Frank Churchill auditioned. Walt told Frank: “I don’t believe it! We found Snow White on the first try!” He tested 148 other girls over the course of the next year, but he knew that I was the one he was looking for. So he called me back, and that was that.
I guess it all started from an ad my father, who was a music teacher, used to run in the Los Angeles Times: “Guido Caselotti: Vocal Teacher and Opera Coach” followed with a phone number. Someone from Disney Studios stumbled upon Papa’s ad and phoned our house. I heard it ring and picked it up at the same time as my father. I was listening in on the extension when the man said, “Do you have a student who sounds like a little girl when she speaks and sings, but also has had some operatic training? We want someone who can handle high notes and coloratura.”
My eyes opened wide. I said in a tiny girl’s voice, “Papa!” and then I sang a coloratura passage.
Papa yelled, “Get off the phone!” I pleaded in a little girl’s voice, “I can talk like a little girl! Please let me try. I don’t even know what it’s for, but I want to audition!”
I kept that kid’s voice going until the man said, “Why don’t you send her down? You never know. If she’s not right for this job, maybe we can use her for something else.”
I was 18 when my father took me to my first interview at Disney. It was 1935 and Disney studios, like everything else, was feeling the effects of the Depression. The place was tiny, about the size of a small house. They were poor, those people. They didn’t have anything for my father to accompany me on except an old upright piano.
Papa played an exercise that I knew backwards and forwards. It had no words, just a high-voiced imitation of birds. Frank Churchill worked with us while Walt Disney hid behind a screen, listening. I didn’t know he was there. He didn’t want to view me. He knew if he saw us he might be influenced. When they brought in 13-year-old, raspy-voiced Deanna Durbin, Walt couldn’t see who it was and he asked, “Why are you bringing me a 30-year-old woman?”
After I started on the picture it took another year before they called me back because they ran out of money. They weren’t going to have any Snow White at all. When they were halfway through, Disney went begging to the Bank of America with pieces of the film they’d done so far. He showed it, expecting the worst. Much to his surprise they said, “You’re going to make a lot of money with this,” and gave him the loan he needed to complete the film.
Walt Disney was just a regular guy. He would wear a worn-out white T-shirt. Most of the time he just sat on a stool and watched. He never said, “You’re great!” or “You’re lousy!” But if there was something that I didn’t do correctly, he’d tell me or have one of his animators tell me.
Walt drove me home twice in his little old Essex. It was the middle of the Depression, and sometimes I didn’t have the money for carfare. One day he took me to lunch across the street from the studio. I remember him saying, “Adriana, see what a nice dinner we’re having? It’s 50 cents each. You can always come in here and eat.” What he didn’t know was that I didn’t have 50 cents. Until I started getting paid for each day I worked, sometimes I’d only have 10 or 15 cents. My mother would give me a candy bar to sustain me while I was doing Snow White all day long.
I was getting $20 for every day I worked, and most of that went to help my mother. Then right before we finished, someone told me that the actors who did the voices of the dwarfs were being paid $150 per day. I was very hurt. I’d been with the project for close to three years and thought that maybe they’d give me a raise. I got $50 for the final three days. That made my total pay $970. The rest of the $14,000 was earned doing occasional publicity work for Disney Studios over the past 50 years.
The film premiered on Dec. 21, 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. I had no idea about how the final production would look. I’d never seen any of the rushes and hadn’t heard the final, assembled sound track.
Harry Stockwell [the voice of Prince Charming] called me and said, “Adriana, let’s go to the premiere.” I said, “That would be wonderful!”
We went to the door and the girl said, “May I have your tickets?” I said, “I’m Snow White, and this is Prince Charming.” The girl said, “I don’t care if you’re the witch. You’re not going in if you don’t have a ticket.”
Harry was furious! We didn’t know what to do. So when she wasn’t looking, we sneaked in. The audience was filled with people like Carole Lombard, Judy Garland, Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin—all applauding for me, and I’m standing upstairs in the very back of the balcony looking down because there weren’t any seats for two of the film’s stars.
Harry was so darned angry. I didn’t mind, though. I was having so much fun. Each time any little thing happened, whether it was happy, sad or cute, the audience would clap and cheer. It was an amazing situation.
When the credits came on every animator, illustrator and ink girl had their name up there. But I didn’t get any mention at all. It was like I’d been part of the orchestra.
Shortly after the film opened, I was invited to sing at a famous Los Angeles night spot called the Trocadero. I did the Snow White songs with the orchestra. Jack Benny was there. He came over to me and said, “Snow White, I love you! Can you be on my show in about two or three weeks?” I said, “I certainly can!” It was the big break I was dreaming of. Jack Benny had the most popular radio show in America, and I was going to launch my career as a singer on it.
Unfortunately, Jack Benny’s producers called Disney to get clearance for the songs. They came back and said, “Walt says no.” He wouldn’t allow me to appear because he thought it would ruin the Snow White illusion.
I think one of the reasons nothing much ever happened with my career after Snow White was that people would have to call you-know-who to find me. No one knew how to get me, except by going to Disney. He would have stopped it right there. That was when a manager would have come in handy, but I didn’t really know about that sort of thing.
The last time I saw Walt Disney was in 1949. I remember being in Atlanta on a promo tour with him. He put his arm around me and said, “There are a lot of people lined up outside waiting for the parade. Let’s go out on the balcony and wave to them.” I was so happy, because then I knew he approved of me doing publicity work for him.
But Disney never used me as an actress or vocalist again. I sent him a letter in 1949 when I was having a couple of hungry days. I wrote, “Is it possible that there isn’t a little chance for me to do a tiny girl’s voice, because I do everything from baby cries on up. Would you please see if the casting office might be interested?” I got a letter back from Walt Disney saying, “I have referred your letter to Roy Disney [Walt’s brother and business partner]. You may hear from him.” I didn’t pursue it, because I was too shy.
I’m still shy. That’s why I think I’ve never done anything much to speak of, except for helping out when Snow White is reissued. I’m always doing one of those darned things. I kept thinking that someday Disney would use me.
But I guess everything happens for the best. Everything for a reason. I have been loved and married by three men, three Prince Charmings, and I got to be Snow White. I think I’m living happily ever after.