Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White, talks to Brian Sibley.
Once upon a time, long ago, a great and powerful Wizard of Hollywoodland decided to create something magical called The-Worlds-First-Feature-Length-Sound-and-Colour-Animated-Cartoon-Film. But, so the legend runs, before he could do this he had first to search for and find a fairy-tale princess…
There is a 71-year old actress living in that American dreamland, California, who only ever made one movie, was never actually seen on screen and got no credit for the role she made famous. But 50 years on, Adriana Caselotti, who provided the voice for the heroine of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is a remarkably contented lady who bubbles over with good-humoured sincerity.
“I love being thought of as Snow White,” she says, adding with an infectious laugh, “even at my time of life! I’m so grateful: it’s much better to have been a part of one of the greatest films ever made, than ten mediocre ones.”
It was in 1934 that Walt Disney’s casting director, Roy Scott, sought the advice of Guido Caselotti, a Los Angeles singing coach. The Caselottis were a musical family:
Guido’s wife, Maria, had been a prima donna with the Royal Opera House in Rome and one of their daughters, Louise, was to become a legendary Carmen and singing teacher to Maria Callas. Their other daughter, Adriana, then aged 19, had no formal music training but had grown up in a house where singing was quite as natural as speaking.
It so happened that Adriana picked up a phone extension on the day Roy Scott rang Gudio Caselotti with his unusual request:
‘He asked if my father knew a little girl who could speak as a child would and yet could sing many high notes in whatever it was they were going to do. When I heard this I said, “Papa, how about me?” and started singing a lot of trills. Papa said, “Oh, get off the phone for heaven’s sakes, Adriana, I’m speaking to someone about business.” So I said, “I know you are; but please let me try out; maybe I can do the part.” And the man at the other end said, “Send her down, you never can tell even if we don’t have her do the lead, she might lust be able to do some little part.”’
Caselotti duly took Adriana to Walt Disney’s studio on Hyperion Avenue where she auditioned for musical director, Frank Churchill. The part, she discovered, was for a 14-year old and — in an attempt to improve her chances – Adriana knocked a couple of years off her age and told Churchill, when he asked how old she was, that she was just seventeen.
What she didn’t know, as she auditioned, was that Walt Disney was eavesdropping. He had decided to have his office wired-up to the sound stage so he could hear anyone auditioning without being influenced by their appearance.
Churchill handed Adriana a song in manuscript: ‘Little girl,’ he said ‘I’m going to go to the piano and play it for you a couple of times and then, perhaps you could try singing it.’ But, before he could reach the piano, Adriana, who could sight-read music, was already singing ‘Someday my Prince will come…
‘My God!’ shouted Churchill, ‘The kid can read music!’ And, for him at least, there was no question about who should be Snow White.
The decision, however, rested with Walt Disney and after Adriana had left, Churchill went to get the verdict. ‘That’s our girl!’ Disney told him, ‘That’s our Snow White!’ Notwithstanding which, Disney decided to audition more voices and no fewer than 148 other hopefuls were tried. Among those who didn’t get the part was Deanna Durbin, who was only 13 but who had a voice of such maturity Walt asked why a 30-year old was being auditioned.
It was a whole year before Adriana was recalled and put under contract: ‘Goodness,’ she laughs, ‘I might have died in that time!’
Adriana was given the role not, she thinks, because she was better than anyone else, but because she had a voice with, what Disney described as, ‘a lilting quality’ that lifted and almost smiled as she sang and spoke.
The songs, recalls Adriana – who can still render them today with a perfection which
would be astonishing in a person half her age – were operatic in style and contained some ‘intricate coloratura work that, fortunately, I knew how to do.’
She recorded the songs not with an orchestra, but with piano accompaniment and Snow White’s dialogue had to be delivered cold, without any of the other voices present – not even the Prince of her dreams!
As she performed before the microphone, the animators photographed and made sketches of her to help with realising the character. The action for Snow White was modelled by Marge Belcher (later to achieve fame as one half of the dance partnership of Marge and Gower Champion), but many of Snow White’s gestures, particularly when she was singing, were those of Adriana.
The singing may not have presented many problems, but the dialogue was another matter, and lacking any acting experience meant that Adriana sometimes had problems. Despite the best endeavours of a drama coach, she remembers trying, take after take, to say “Why, Grumpy, I didn’t know you cared,” only to find to everyone’s frustration, including Walt’s, that it repeatedly came out as “Why, Grumpy, I didn’t know you cared”.
Although Disney was present at all the recordings, it was some time before Adriana found out who he was. “He wore an old white T-shirt and didn’t sit in a director’s chair, he’d just sit on the floor or anywhere like one of the regular guys”. Then, one day, he came over to her and gave her some instructions – as several of the animators used to do – and she wandered off before he’d finished speaking, simply because they’d never been introduced and she didn’t know for sure whether she was supposed to take notes from him. She was quickly put wise to her mistake, however, and a long-lasting friendship began.
Since, at the time, there were no laws about how many hours a child could work, Adriana spent long days on the Disney sound stage, for which she was paid $20 a day. Over the period in which the film was made she earned just $970.
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