Wendy of 'Peter Pan' explains how Walt Disney upended studio tradition to make the classic film

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Wendy Darling meets Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney classic <em>Peter Pan.</em> (Photo: Walt Disney Studios)
Wendy Darling meets Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney classic Peter Pan. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios)

Peter Pan soared into theaters 65 years ago as Walt Disney’s 14th animated theatrical feature, but it also represented a significant first for the house that Mickey Mouse built. Starting with the titular princess in the inaugural Disney cartoon blockbuster Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, whenever a female heroine burst into song, her voice was typically provided by a professionally trained singer, from Adriana “Snow White” Caselotti to Ilene “Cinderella” Woods.

So it was only natural that Kathryn Beaumont — who portrayed the daring Wendy Darling in the 1953 favorite — expected to be relieved of her vocal duties when it came time for her to croon the tender lullaby “Your Mother and Mine” to her brothers and Never Land’s population of Lost Boys. Peter Pan is newly available today on a Signature Collection Blu-ray with fresh bonus features, and it enshrines Beaumont as a Disney Legend.

But as Beaumont tells Yahoo Entertainment, Walt Disney himself apparently had a different idea for the musical number on this occasion. “I remember that they were thinking of some professional voice to fill in to make the song flow better,” the 79-year-old actress reveals, referring to the famous Nine Old Men who formed the core team behind every Disney animated classic in the studio’s heyday. “And because I was not a singer! It may have been Walt who said, ‘This is too professional-sounding; it doesn’t sound like a real child. Let’s see what she can do.'” So a nervous Beaumont — who at the time was only a little bit older than the 12-going-on-13 girl she was voicing — went into a recording booth and performed the version of “Your Mother and Mine” that is heard in the finished film. “It worked out,” she says. “That’s exactly what I think Walt was after — to make it sound real.”

Of course, Disney has become something of a modern-day mythological figure since he died in 1966, but Beaumont speaks of him fondly. “He was always right there for everybody,” she recalls. “When we would go for lunch in the cafeteria, he would go down the line and sat down next to somebody wherever a spot was open, and visit with them while he ate his lunch. He was one of the gang!”

Because Disney trusted his colleagues implicitly, sightings of him were less frequent on the soundstage where Beaumont and her co-stars — including the late Bobby Driscoll, who played Peter Pan — would act out scenes from the film that the animators would later use as visual reference. Fortunately, Walt was only a phone call away when they needed him. “I remember the directors being a little flummoxed about something one time, and they said, ‘What if we call Walt?’ They called his office, and he said, ‘I’ll come right down and see what’s going on, boys!'”

Young Kathryn Beaumont performs a scene from <em>Peter Pan.</em> (Photo: Walt Disney Studios)
Young Kathryn Beaumont performs a scene from Peter Pan. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios)

While Never Land is a lush environment onscreen, Beaumont and her young co-stars had to use their imagination to turn the sparsely decorated soundstage into a place that children wouldn’t want to leave. The actress and novice singer also recreated her “Your Mother and Mine” moment on that set, lip-syncing to the recording she had made previously. “There was hardly any scenery — just a couple of rocks, and you would imagine a pathway. The idea was to film the movements of the characters, so it would be easier for the animators to make more fluid drawings.”

Walt Disney may not have been a stern figure on set, but Beaumont says that the young cast members had a tutor employed by Disney who kept a sharp eye on them, making sure they stuck strictly to the required “three hours of school and four hours of work” timetable for child actors. Annoying as that regimented schedule might have been at the time, it paid dividends for Beaumont later in life, when she moved on from acting and into the classroom as a teacher.

But even then, the memory of Wendy Darling was never far away. Whenever Peter Pan escaped the Disney Vault for theatrical re-releases and various home entertainment editions, Beaumont made new generations of fans among her pupils. “I remember one student who sort of hovered by the door of my room, and said, ‘I just wanted to know — were you Wendy?'” said Beaumont, who is now retired. “I said yes, and he was so flabbergasted that he ran out the door! I had those experiences during my [teaching] career.”

Peter Pan has been added to the Walt Disney Signature Collection, now available on Digital and Blu-ray