Ruthie. Ruthie started her career at The Walt Disney Studios in 1965 as a painter in The Ink & Paint Department. She then moved on to play major roles in scene planning, final check and camera department. On Sunday, she passed away at her Woodland Hills home at The Motion Picture and Television Fund. 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 will never forget the trip Ruthie took in her convertible on the way to the Grand Opening of the Walt Disney Family Museum. It was a great 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 is located 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. This was the first time I had seen it, so I stopped and took a closer look. Every day I stopped to look at what they were doing. This cat almost died from curiosity. It was so common that someone came out and asked, “Why don’t you go inside and observe them?” Walt is the one I believe because he walked quite a lot. I was amazed at how the men flipped the drawings. [Disney Legends] Les Clark, Ub Iwerks and Roy were also there. Roy was behind the scenes shooting the backgrounds the girls were painting. I was fascinated as a child. Roy would have an apple box that he gave me to place on his bench. I remember sitting on it as a kid. He would then say, “I think you should go home.” Your mother probably wanted you to come home for dinner. Walt would take pictures of all the children in the area and capture them running, playing and taking photos for animation. 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). This film was her favorite movie to watch over the years, along with younger generations of her family. She later stated that she and her family worked tirelessly until the film was perfect.
Tomson was quickly promoted to final reviewer, reviewing animation cels before they were printed onto film. By 1948, she again transferred to animation checking and scene planning. She once stated that she felt part of the institution when she became involved in scene planning. “It was that part where I felt like I was truly a part of it, because I was helping animators and the background painters,” she said. Bob Broughton, a former Disney supervisor for special photographic effects, later remembered that 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. Floyd Norman, animator and Disney Legend, later recalled that Ruthie could usually solve any technical problem. 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. She said, “Have fun.” Try to do as many things as you can for your own good. Ruthie was a living witness and vital contributor to the growth and progress of the animation industry as we know it today. Ruthie was an active witness to the growth and progress of the animation industry
Johnson called her a “trailblazer” and said that Tompson will be greatly missed. “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. She said that we are grateful to her intelligence and feel so blessed to have had the privilege of knowing her. It will be a joy to continue to celebrate and honor the achievements of this extraordinary woman. She was a treasure and a dear friend. Her quick wit and warm laugh, as well as her entertaining Dodger updates
Tompson, will be missed. She is survived by Judy Weiss and Calista Tonelli and Pierce Butler III, a nephew. Donations can be made in Tompson’s name to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.