September 30, 2005 - This past Tuesday, Ilene Woods, the voice of Cinderella in Disney's 1950 animated classic of the same name, and Don Hahn, the producer behind the studio's modern cartoon hits like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, took out an hour to reflect upon Cinderella. Via conference call with at least a dozen media outlets, the pair enthusiastically spoke about the film from their different perspectives, with Woods reflecting on her first-hand production experiences as a cast member and Hahn acknowledging its place in the history of Disney animation. Naturally, many of the questions and answers revolved around next Tuesday's long-awaited Platinum Edition DVD, on which they both appear and which was the reason for this interview session.

Reflecting on a "Happy, Magical, Wonderful Time"

Ilene Woods stated that she was now, as she has ever been, happy to talk about how she came to be involved with Walt Disney's adaptation of Cinderella.

Woods: I was actually doing a favor for two friends. When I was 15, I had had a radio show of my own in New York three nights a week for fifteen minutes. I met a lot of songwriters because they would come and present their music to myself and the conductor to be done on the air. So I met Jerry Livingston and Mack David there. When they came to California, where I had moved and was working at that time, to present songs to Walt for a movie - I didn't know which one. They called and asked me if I would record some songs for a movie. I went into a studio with them and we did "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo", "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes", and "So This is Love." And I said goodbye to them, "Hope we see you in New York, let's have lunch together", and went home. Two days later, I received a call saying that Mr. Disney would like an audience with me at Disney studios. I went over and he said "I've listened to the songs, now we've met and talked, how would you like to be Cinderella?" And that's really the way I got the part. I didn't even know they were auditioning and by that time, I was told they had auditioned over 300 girls. Needless to say, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life and when I started working on the movie and with Walt, I knew I would never meet anyone like him again.

She laughs at her own unlikely "Cinderella story" and acknowledges, "I never hesitate to do a favor for friends now."

   
Was she nervous to meet Walt Disney? "Not really. I knew he was a wonderful person and I had admired him so much. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Snow White was one of my favorite movies. So I admired him so much I was looking forward to meeting him. But I didn't have any idea it was for the part of Cinderella."

Woods acknowledges that the one thing that most interests people who learn of her largest cinematic claim to fame is what it was like to be in the midst of Walt. "The first thing most people ask is 'Did I work directly with Walt Disney?' because everyone's interested in Walt Disney. I did. He came in every single day we recorded at the end of the day to check things out. He rarely made changes but when he did, they were major, beautiful changes. He was the only true visionary I ever worked with."

Woods may have worked directly with Walt Disney, but she didn't get to collaborate any of her fellow voice cast members.

Woods: No, there were no other actors (with me). We worked with discs in those days.

Hahn: It's not unusual to record actors and actresses alone because then the animators and the director can really focus in on that individual performance. It's very rare in fact that we get two people on stage together opposite each other. It's more likely we'll record them alone. Back then, the technique was to run two pieces of film: we ran a piece of magnetic film that would capture the audio performance on tape, we also ran what looked like a big LP album that had a needle on it that actually cut the album live while you were running the take. The only reason I know this is when I started in 1976 that machine was still in the studio in the very same room that Ilene recorded it. And then the director could take or Walt Disney could take that disc, that LP album up to his office and play "drop the needle" and listen to different takes and different approaches and different cues of the recording session to select the one that would finally go on the reel.

Did Walt Disney make the final decisions on recordings?

Hahn: There were 3 directors on the film and they certainly would have gone through and worked with the talent and the animators to make a preliminary pick, but you could believe that Walt Disney was all over this film. It was very important to him. It was not only a comeback film for the studio after the war years but it also represented something that Walt really loved, which was fairy tales and fantasy. I think it's a very important movie and I would be sure he would be all over the voice recordings.

Woods: You know when he came in at the end of recording every day, these other three directors would have been arguing "Oh, it should be this way, it should be that way, I liked that." And Walt would come in and sit down and we'd play the tape and he would make one suggestion and we'd do it his way and it would always be right. Always. And it would feel funny because I said to him one day "You should come in at the beginning of the day, Mr. Disney, and you'd save the studio a lot of money."

Hahn: He never wanted to and a lot of times, I understand, he didn't even want to look at the voice talent because he just wanted to hear the voice. So he would come in consciously at the end of day because if you're there all day, your ear gets worn down and you've heard a lot of the sessions. But if you come in fresh at the end of the day, you have a better instinct and of course his instincts were amazing.

Woods: You're right because he never looked up when he was listening. He always sat with his head in his hands, listening and looking down.

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As for what went into her performance, Woods reflected on an inspiration close to home. "I think you take things from your life. I had a very stern mother and I think at times there was a comparison. I lived most of my young life her way. Actually, I was interested in being a teacher. I was not interested in going into show business, but I'm very happy because of all of the wonderful things I did. I sang for President Roosevelt at his Hyde Park home, I sang for President Truman at the White House because of the work I had done for the soldiers and sailors during the war. I had a wonderful life in the business, but it was not difficult for me to leave it when I was married and had my two boys, because that was a very happy time in my life. And I had had a wonderful, wonderful career. As a very young girl, I started at fifteen years old in New York with my own show three nights a week on ABC. I had been in the business for a long time and I was ready to leave it."

With the forthcoming DVD release giving the film new life, what was it like for Woods to revisit the film? "I had not seen the film recently. Seeing it in its new form was breathtaking for me. It really was. It's so beautiful, the color is magnificent, it just took my breath away, it was so wonderful. I sort of forget when I'm watching the movie that I had anything to do with it. Yet, it brings back so many beautiful memories of working with the wonderful artists and working with Walt mostly. It brings back wonderful, wonderful memories."

Having been around for several different generations to see the film in new ways, Woods has noted a consistency in their responses. "I think (they) always (perceive it) along the same line. Children particularly believe what they saw. They believe in Cinderella, they believe in the little characters, and the questions they ask me are hilarious. They're looking at an older person, talking to me like I'm still Cinderella. It's the biggest thrill in the world. They ask me about Bruno and they tell me how much they hate Lucifer. I've heard these stories so many times and I still sit and wonder -- these little faces looking at me and believing that I really am Cinderella and that I'm going to answer questions for them."

   
Does she identify with her beloved character? "I think I did. I think all girls identify with her in a certain way. She was kind of funky, she accepted life as it was, and went after things she wanted. I think she was a spirited girl and I don't think she needed the prince. I think she wanted to go to the ball, and that was it at the moment. Then, the Prince wanted her. Not vice versa."

While Woods acknowledges that recording a voice for an animated movie in the late 1940s took a lot longer than it does today -- "I worked off and on on this movie for two and a half years." -- the experience clearly stood out even for a teenager who was seasoned in show business. "I do believe that dreams come true. I really do. I think the making of Cinderella was a dream come true for me. It was just fun, it was enlightening, it was wonderful. I loved all of the songs."

She also recalls the humility of one of the men behind the magic, "Magic happened. I saw magic happen before me. The song 'Sing, Sweet Nightingale' was Walt's idea (for me) to sing harmony with myself. It had never been done on film at the time and he never took credit for it. To make his visions happen was all that was important to him. He didn't want a lot of praise. He didn't even want the publicity that he had been the first to do it. The fact that he had done it enough to satisfy him. And it was a beautiful scene when the soap bubbles came up, and one voice sang the second part harmony, and the next voice sang the third part harmony, and so on and so on until we had five or six part harmonies. And Walt turned around when he first heard the playback, and he said, 'You know all these years I've been paying three salaries and I could have had you just for one.' That was a magic time, when that happened, because I had never heard one voice singing harmony with herself."

When asked to pick her favorite song, Ms. Woods had a little trouble. "I love them all, but I think 'A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes' maybe was my favorite. But because 'Sing Sweet Nightingale' worked out so beautifully with my doing harmony with myself, I love the sound of that," she laughs. As for her favorite part of the movie, "Maybe like Mr. Disney, his favorite scene of all the movies he ever did was Cinderella getting her dress. And I think that that was my favorite scene too because it was a happy time. Cinderella had finally come through all of her troubles and she was going to the ball in a beautiful gown. And I think that was the happiest time in the movie and I think that scene would be my favorite."

A look at Ms. Woods' résumé reveals that her work in radio and television came to a seemingly abrupt halt in 1959. What has she been up to between the years of Cinderella and today? "Well, I left the business thirty-some years ago, because I married a wonderful man and I raised two wonderful boys, and that was my life and I loved every minute of it. I was very happy though when Disney found me again and wanted me to go on tour for the release of the video first and that was sort of when I came back to them. Before I did Cinderella and shortly after, I worked a lot in radio and television. (Most people) are probably too young to remember any of the things I did. Cinderella was the only voiceover I ever did and I certainly picked a good one, I think."

She also spent two years in the Florida Keys where she "taught third grade and learned with them. (laughs) It was a wonderful two years. My dream had finally come true in that area."

Woods retired in 1977. In 2000, she received a Disney Legend award, which she recalls fondly. "When I go over to that studio, I can close my eyes and see so many wonderful pictures. Every time I look at that Legend award, I think of the time I spent there making Cinderella. It was a happy, magical, wonderful time."

While she has no plans to resume a career filled with public appearances - "I'm a very, very happy lady with my life. I have a wonderful husband and a wonderful life and I'm a very happy person." - she is quite thrilled at acknowledging the legacy Cinderella has provided with. Her own children and grandchildren "are very proud of me, of course, and that makes me feel ten feet tall. They've seen the film so many times and they cease to tire of it, which makes me very happy."

She says that seeing little girls dressed up as Cinderella "is one of my biggest thrills of all because I just love children. Knowing that many years from now, when I'm gone, the children will still be hearing my voice and enjoying the movie is just the biggest thrill to come out of this altogether. It was wonderful working with Walt and all the beautiful artists. It was just a thrill - I had never done anything like it and I'm not a voiceover person. I had never done it before, and I never did it again. I thought I could never top Cinderella."

Onto Part 2: Cinderella's Place in Cinema History >>>