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Bessie Mae Kelley is one of the earliest known women to hand-draw animated films


When you think pioneering animator, you think of Walt Disney, right? I mean, who doesn't? But it turns out his work, in part, was inspired by Bessie Mae Kelley, who you probably haven't heard of. That is because Kelley's early influence has been largely lost to history until now. Earlier this year, animation historian Mindy Johnson was studying a 1920s illustration of animators of the era, all men, when she noticed a woman in the corner of the image. Another historian told her it was probably a secretary or a cleaning lady. But Johnson suspected otherwise, and she was right.

Historian Mindy Johnson joins us. Hi there.


KELLY: So how'd you go about trying to figure out who this woman is?

JOHNSON: Well, many of our early animators had been involved in vaudeville as well. Winsor McCay, Sidney Smith and others would do lightning drawings and quick sketches. And I'd had a theory that maybe women were there as well, linked to animation. And sure enough, that's how I initially found Bessie. And then in further researching and learning that she had had this rich past at the very beginning of the industry of animation and did some early character designs that had influence on others, but nobody would have known. There were no records, really, outside of her own material, her own scrapbook and her own journal.

KELLY: As you started to touch on it - it's such a cliche, this talented woman who was there at the beginning, right there, and basically got just written out, erased from history. Is that common in animation, common in film?

JOHNSON: It's common in film. It's common in life in general. Women's stories...

KELLY: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Just are not told. We look back to our past collectively, and it's typically the story of men. And yet we've had incredible, accomplished women who have moved industry and our world forward. But we have sort of a myopic view when we look back historically. And that's what my research involves, and I hope to change things.

KELLY: So now I'm so curious about Bessie Mae Kelley. I gather she created and animated a mouse couple, which - this was years before Mickey and Minnie. And it was this huge thing.

JOHNSON: Yes. She was working on the Paul Terry "Aesop's Fables." And the early fables cartoons created were based on the classic "Aesop's Fables" with an animated twist featuring many anthropomorphized animals. And she was asked to create a couple. And so hers were named Roderick (ph) and Gladys (ph). They ended up changing them, very much akin to the later legend of Mickey and Minnie. But they had changed the names to Milton and Mary.


JOHNSON: And they did appear in - her earliest examples were about 1921. And Walt Disney is on record as saying that, when he began his studio in Kansas City, he wanted to make cartoons as good as the "Aesop's Fables."

KELLY: Oh, I wanted to ask about that because I had mentioned that Kelley's work inspired Walt Disney, and I wondered, how do we know that? What do we know about that?

JOHNSON: Well, we don't have exact proof, but she herself would use that reference. Later on in the 1920s, she went to vaudeville and was on the circuits traveling across the country as the only woman animator. That was her billing. And she'd cart her trunk with her giant easel and paper stock and pens and charcoals and would educate across the country on how animated cartoons were made. And in many of the write-ups of her billing, it's referenced that Walt Disney himself - later in the '20s after Mickey and Minnie were very popular - that her work had originated years before him, but that he was influenced by the work that appeared in the "Aesop's Fables."

KELLY: I can hear how satisfying this work is to you. I can hear it in your voice. And I imagine there's great satisfaction in fleshing out and completing the historical record. Do you also do this work with at least one eye toward the future and young women out there joining the field today and that hopefully more of them will once they know what the history is?

JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely. It makes a difference when we see ourselves. For my students, I can see them standing a little taller and more confident about their work and where they're headed when they know that the pathway has been paved. If we don't know that, you know, there's an extra burden of struggle trying to figure out how do we break through? But once they learn that women have always been there, they've always been in the room, they can move forward.

KELLY: That is animation historian Mindy Johnson. She is the author of "Ink & Paint: The Women Of Walt Disney's Animation." Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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