The year must have been around 1955: Walt Disney is sitting in the front of a stagecoach pulled by ponies. These stagecoaches were originally intended to circle the soon-to-be-opened Disneyland, a plan that was later scrapped, but for now, Walt was just showing off the design and testing it with employees at his Burbank studio. The carriage is filled, with at least four women inside and two more sitting on its top. One of the women, smiling, is Ruthie Tompson.
“Before the park opened, [Disney] had a fellow who was a master carpenter build a stagecoach, and this was the first day that the stagecoach came out to see everybody,” said Tompson, looking at the photograph. “Of course it’s build five-eighths to scale. It’s not as big as a regular carriage. We were sitting on the front lawn at lunchtime on a Saturday, and working overtime because Saludos Amigos was having paint troubles — the paint was sticking and we had to redo a lot of stuff, and of course it was last minute. And Walt gets up there [on the carriage]. I got up on the thing, and he looked over at me, and said, ‘Ruthie could drive these in the park!’ He decided not to do it because ponies get frisky and kids might scare ’em or something.”
Tompson, who turned 108 years old on July 22, is one of the oldest living people in the United States, and certainly the oldest living animator. She worked for The Walt Disney Company for 40 years, from 1935 to 1975, contributing to feature films including Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “I just got in on the tail end of Snow White,” Tompson said. “I got in on the dirty work, more or less. It was at the end of it where you had to clean cels and patch up little things that might have popped off, and do legwork. I was a gopher, really.”
Ruthie Tompson grew up in the same neighborhood as Walt Disney, and when she walked to elementary school, she would pass the storefront where the animator was working on his earliest projects. “They were sitting right in the store window, painting, and I’m going by on the way to grammar school,” Tompson said.
Disney paid the kids in the neighborhood with quarters to photograph them playing — running and leapfrogging, movement he could reference for animations — and it was Disney who encouraged Tompson to go to night school so she could begin to work in animation.
“I went to night school and did what they told me to do, and the result is one of these things,” she said, holding up a nitrate cel she saved all of these years, with Mickey Mouse in a mid-jump position. “The first night I went, I went in inking. Inking was the main thing they needed. The girls that ink are really artists.”
She gestured again towards the cel. “This one managed to stay alive, the rest of them all popped off. After I inked this, these cels, two or three of them, the head girl in the inking department came over and gave me a little hug and she said, ‘Honey, I think you better go into painting.’”
And so Thompson went into painting, filling in the color for the characters that had already been inked. “The first one I did was Lonesome Ghosts — that was painting. Whites and blues and grays and stuff.” She would eventually go on to become a supervisor.
Tompson, who lives at the Motion Picture and Television Fund campus in Woodland Hills, California, was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2017. When asked the secret to longevity, Thompson laughed. “I smoked and I drank, but not that much.”