photo of child actress Virginia Davis

Remembering Virginia Davis

Virginia Davis McGhee, Walt Disney’s first star and the lead child actress in his landmark silent “Alice Comedies,” passed away at her home in Corona, California from natural age-related causes on Saturday, August 15. She was 90 years old. Virginia made a total of 13 “Alice” films for Disney (with such intriguing titles as Alice Hunting in Africa, Alice’s Spooky Adventure, Alice’s Wild West Show, Alice Cans the Cannibals and Alice Gets Stung) and went on to appear in other roles as a child and supporting actress (including Three on a Match and The Harvey Girls). She frequently participated in a variety of Disney fan celebrations, including a recent Disney historical gathering in Kansas City, Missouri, in May 2009 and an event in Anaheim in July 2009, hosted by the National Fantasy Fan Club. In 1998, The Walt Disney Company honored McGhee for her contributions by naming her a Disney Legend.

Virginia Davis was just four-years-old and living in Kansas City, Missouri, when she first came to the attention of a struggling filmmaker/cartoonist named Walt Disney. Walt had seen her in an advertisement for Warneker’s Bread, and, in 1923, asked her to act in his short film called Alice’s Wonderland, which combined a live-action female child with an assortment of animated characters. That film, which also featured an on-camera role by Walt Disney himself, was partially filmed at Davis’ Missouri home.

Commenting on Virginia’s passing, Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for The Walt Disney Company, said, “Gini was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio’s history. In fact, she liked to remind everyone that it all started with Alice, not Mickey Mouse. Gini never lost her enthusiasm and childlike spirit, and was great fun to be around. My Uncle Walt certainly found the right personality and talent when he cast her to be his very first star, and she did an outstanding job holding her own against her scene-stealing animated co-stars.”

Disney historian J.B. Kaufman, author of several books including Walt in Wonderland, added,

“As the star of the ‘Alice Comedies’ in the early ’20s, Virginia was charming, energetic, and irresistible.

What’s even more remarkable is that she still had those same qualities 80 years later. The ‘Alice Comedies’ were Walt Disney’s first successful series of films and they marked the beginning of his Hollywood career. In those early films with Virginia, Walt particularly relied on her appeal as a performer, and she always delivered.”

Born in Kansas City, Missouri on December 31, 1918, to a homemaker and a traveling salesman, Virginia began taking dance and dramatic lessons at age two. A couple of years later, when Walt Disney was struggling with his first Studio, Laugh-O-gram Films, he remembered the girl’s long blonde Mary Pickford-style ringlets and charming smile from a local ad, and placed a call to her parents to see if she would star in Alice’s Wonderland.

After completing the film, Disney’s Laugh-O-gram Studio went bankrupt. Short on funds, but never optimism, Walt moved to California with the idea of creating an entire series of “Alice Comedies,” and convinced Virginia and her family to join him. For the next two years — 1923-4 — Disney directed the girl in a series of popular short films. As the “Alice Comedies” grew in popularity, animation began to become a bigger part of the story. Eventually, Virginia’s role was minimized, and her contract was not renewed. Three other young actresses would go on to play the character of Alice over the next three years (and a total of 56 silent short films).

Recalling her work on the “Alice” films, Virginia said, “It was a great time — full of fun, adventure, and ‘let’s pretend.’ I adored and idolized Walt, as any child would. He would direct me in a large manner with great sweeping gestures. One of my favorite pictures was Alice’s Wild West Show. I was always the kid with the curls, but I was really a tomboy, and that picture allowed me to act tough. I took great joy in that.”

Over the next 20 years, Virginia went on to work at other Hollywood Studios as a child actress and, later, as a supporting actress. She sang, danced, and acted in such films as Flying Down to Rio, Vivacious Lady, Young and Beautiful, College Holiday, Song of the Islands, Three on a Match, The Harvey Girls and Weekend in Havana, among others. On several occasions, she used the screen name Mary Daily, and appeared in such films as Hands Across the Rockies with cowboy star Bill Elliott. During her Hollywood tenure, she also occasionally worked for her old boss, Walt Disney, and did a vocal test for Snow White, voiced some supporting characters in Pinocchio and served a short stint in the Studio’s Ink-and-Paint department.

In 1943, she married Navy aviator Robert McGhee, and the couple had two daughters. During their 59-year marriage, they resided in New Jersey, Connecticut, Southern California and Idaho. Over a 25-year period, Virginia worked as a real estate agent mostly in the Irvine, California, and Boise, Idaho areas.

Virginia is survived by her two daughters: Margaret Sufke of Boise, Idaho, and Laurieanne Zandbergen, and three grandchildren, Krisianne Barron and Nicole and Juliette Zandbergen. A memorial service is scheduled to take place at 11:30 a.m. on August 27 at Holy Cross Mortuary in Culver City. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her name to The Autism Society of America-Inland Empire Chapter, 2276 Griffin Way, Suite 105-194, Corona, CA 92879, 909-204-4142 x339.