Disney Legend Alice Davis, Costumer for Classic Rides, Dies Age 93

Alice Davis, a costume designer who dressed some of Disney Parks’ most recognizable animatronics, died Thursday, November 3 at age 93. The news was shared by former Imagineering designer Christopher Merritt on LinkedIn. Merritt is also the author of Marc Davis in His Own Words, a biography of Davis’ husband who predeceased her in 2000.

Born Alice Estes in Escalon, Calif. on March 26, 1929, Davis showed great artistic talent in high school and received a scholarship to study at the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts). Though she had wanted to study animation, the end of World War II and a flood of GI Bill students meant the only course with an open seat for the semester was costume design. But, she did get permission to attend a night class in animation, which happened to be taught by Marc Davis.

Alice Davis and one of the Audio-Animatronics she costumed for “it’s a small world” [ph source: The Walt Disney Family Museum]
After graduation, Davis took a job designing for Beverly Vogue  & Lingerie House in L.A., where her skill quickly earned her respect and reputation in the industry, as well as two lines of fashion lingerie designed herself. Her life with Disney began when Marc called her in the mid-1950s, saying he needed a costume for dancer Helene Stanley to wear for the live-action reference footage of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. The former teacher and student grew close, and married in 1956.

As well as winning over her husband, Davis made an impression on Walt Disney himself, who hired her as costume designer for the live-action 1960 feature Toby Tyler. She did costumes for The Magical World of Disney TV series and then, in ’63, Walt assigned her to assist his “favorite artist” Mary Blair in designing the Audio-Animatronic children for the company’s New York World’s Fair attraction, “it’s a small world” — researching cultures all over the world and translating them into 150 different costumes. Simultaneously, she costumed the children in General Electric’s Fair attraction “Carousel of Progress.”

During this project, she set up manufacturing, quality control and refurbishing processes still used by Walt Disney Imagineering today. “it’s a small world” proved so popular that it was permanently installed at Disneyland, and duplicated at Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Marc Davis and Alice Davis pose with one of the characters she costumed for “Pirates of the Caribbean” [ph source: The Disney Addicts]
In 1965 Davis “went from sweet little children to dirty old men overnight,” as she told author Joshua Shaffer in Discovering the Magic Kingdom: Walt had assigned her to created the sea-worthy threads for the Audio-Animatronics in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a job that totaled 47 different costumes that put a “Disney flair” on 17th and 18th century fashions. The same years, she costumed the Mission Control characters for the revamped “Flight to the Moon” attraction.

Known for her eye for detail and sense of humor, upon noticing that the plastic “skin” of the “Pirates”  dancing girls tended to tear, she covered them with knickers. When Walt saw the change, he shouted up a ladder at Davis, “How come you put pantaloons on the Can-can girls?”

“You told me you wanted this to be a family show!” she replied.

Davis followed her husband into retirement in 1978, but continued to consult on Disney projects — including Pixar’s Up — and attend events. In the last several decades, she began receiving recognition for her career achievements, being honored with the Disneyana Fan Club Disney Legend Award in 1997, being officially inducted as a Disney Legend in 2004, having a window on Disneyland’s Main Street dedicated to her in 2012 and being honored with ASIFA-Hollywood’s June Foray Award for a significant impact on the art and industry of animation.

Alice Davis poses with her Disneyland Main Street window in 2012. [ph source: The Disney Blog]
Remembered as an extraordinarily generous person, Davis enjoyed welcoming friends and even fans into her art-adorned Los Angeles home, filled with pieces collected on the couple’s trips to New Guinea as well as paintings by Marc and other friends. Davis was also known as a great hostess and gourmet chef, servicing elaborate meals.

“I was initially excited to meet Marc and Alice because of all they’d accomplished, but quickly became even more enamored of them as people,” Oscar-winning director and Pixar Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter said of the couple. “I never called Alice without being invited over, and never visited without being fed.”

Oscar-winning animator and historian John Canemaker described Alice Davis as “one of the kindest and most generous artists I’ve ever known.”

Davis is survived by a loving family including her sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, grand nieces, grand nephews and beloved, adopted family members. Those wishing to honor her memory may send contributions to CalArts, Save The Redwoods League and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Thanks to Yvette Melvin of the Davis Family Trust for providing additional details about Alice Davis’ life. 

[Source: Laughing Place]

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