History of Peter Pan: the Disney Classic at 67

Walt Disney

It’s because Walt Disney was Peter Pan. Am I suggesting that because he was “the boy who wouldn’t grow up?” Perhaps, but what I really mean is that Walt Disney performed Peter Pan as a child. How did that happen?

Play

First, we must begin by recognizing that Peter Pan came to notice in the 1904 stage play by James Matthew Barrie, a Scottish author and playwright. It was first performed in London where he’d previously met the Llewelyn Davies boys, whom he later adopted. They were the inspiration for the boy who has adventures in nearby Kensington Gardens in London and the magical Neverland. Barrie wrote “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” a play about an ageless little boy and a London girl named Wendy.

J.M. Barrie

What is not as well know is that J.M. Barrie was himself the “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” When James was 6, his older brother David died at the age of 13 in an ice-skating accident. His mother was overcome with grief as David was her favorite son among her 8 children. James would dress in David’s clothing and whistle as he had in an attempt to fill the void in his mother’s heart. He wrote in his biography of his mother that she found comfort with the idea that her dead son would forever be a boy who would never grow up and leave her. Indeed even physically J.M. Barrie never grew above 5 feet 3 and a half inches.

America

Home town

Marceline, Missouri was on the Santa Fe railway line when the tour rolled west. (By the way, Marceline at the turn of the century was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street.) Walt Disney saw the play and was enthralled. Later, a classmate at Park Elementary School produced his own version with Walt in the starring role. With his brother Roy manning the block and tackle, Walt Disney portrayed Peter Pan. He recollected that as a boy when the block and tackle once gave way, he flew directly into the laps of the audience. Disney said,

Delay

Because of World War II, the project was shelved until 1950 when the creative team shifted from the movie Alice in Wonderland to Peter Pan. With it came the last collaborative effort of the “Nine Old Men” a group so-called by Disney that had created the animated classics. From Alice in Wonderland came the voice talents of Kathryn Beaumont (Alice/Wendy), Bill Thompson (White Rabbit & Dodo/Mr. Smee), Heather Angel (Alice’s sister/Mrs. Darling) Also, the opening melody “The Second Star to the Right” was a discarded song from Alice in Wonderland, repurposed for Peter Pan.

Disneyland

Disneyland model of Peter Pan’s Flight

Movie

Kensington Gardens

Musical

The story went on to become a popular musical play (1954) and television show (1960) starring Mary Martin, as well as live-action movies including a cathartic Steve Spielberg movie called Hook with Robin Williams. In the ’70s I saw the rock opera version of Peter Pan in San Francisco. The Disney film was re-released theatrically in 1958, 1969, 1976, 1982, and 1989. It was released on VHS tape in 1990. In honor of the 61st anniversary, it was released as Blu-ray DVD Diamond Edition. It spawned a sequel “Return to Never Land” and a series of Tinker Bell “Disney Fairy” videos.

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