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Peggy Lee’s War With Disney

Peggy Lee was born on this date in 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota. She is known for her singing, movie, and television career. She is not well known for her war with the Walt Disney Company. The case came about because Disney performers received no additional compensation when a movie was later shown on television and turned into videocassettes. The movie company received all of the profits.

The 1955 animated film “The Lady and the Tramp” became a box office hit for Disney. Peggy voiced several of the characters and wrote six of the songs. The animators even embodied Peggy’s stage performance in the attitude of the dog Peg. Peggy earned a total of $4,500, a respectable amount in 1955. No one imagined the money that would be made in home entertainment.

Peggy’s contract with Disney said the company had no right to make “phonograph records and/or transcriptions for sale to the public.” In 1987 Disney released “Lady and the Tramp” on VHS and made a profit of $90 million. Disney offered Peggy a small sum for promotion of the video. Peggy was insulted by the amount and took the company to court in 1988.

It seemed like a hopeless cause. Disney had an army of the best lawyers. Disney said that “transcriptions” referred to recordings, not copies of the movie. But Peggy’s lawyer uncovered an old case in which Disney sued the Alaska Television Network for airing Disney movies without consent. In that case, Disney defined “transcriptions” as “copies.” This argument persuaded the judge. He ruled in favor of Peggy.

Then it was time to decide on the amount of the damages. Peggy herself showed up to testify. By this time, she was frail and in a wheelchair. She made a very sympathetic witness. Another witness was Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” Disney expected her to testify that actors worked for Disney not for money, but for the prestige. Benson, however, found Peggy’s testimony so compelling that she said Peggy deserved whatever the jury would give her. The jury awarded her $3.83 million.

Peggy died in 2002 and was mourned by the music world. She was compared to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Tony Bennet called her “the female Frank Sinatra.” But she was also the performer who took on Walt Disney and won.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


IMDB. “Peggy Lee.” https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0498007/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm  Accessed 4/26/2020.

Cartoon Brew. “The Lady and the Lawsuit.” https://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/peggy-lee-war-disney-lady-and-the-tramp-113688.html  Accessed 4/26/2020.

Los Angeles Times. “The Lady and the Lawsuit.” 2/19/1991.

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