Bianca Majolie: A Disney Pioneer
The early days of the Disney story are filled with countless tales of legendary creators, from Ub Iwerks to the “Nine Old Men” in animation. Women worked for Disney, but often in the background. Many worked in the Ink and Paint Department. Bianca Majolie was the first woman to work in Disney’s Story Department. Here is a look at the life and career of this pioneering artist.
McKinley High School
Born in Rome, Italy in 1900, Majolie came to the United States as an exchange student and attended McKinley High School in Chicago. A young Walt Disney also attended McKinley, even contributing cartoons to the school’s newspaper. Majolie did not know the young Disney, but saw him briefly after he dropped out of school in 1918. She saw Walt once when he returned to the school dressed in a G.I. uniform.
“I was graduating mid-term, handed him my girl grad-book, and he drew pictures in it,” Majolie later said.
Around the World
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art in New York, Majolie worked as a freelance artist on fashion assignments that took her to places like Florence and Paris. She then found a job as art director and brochure designer for the J.C. Penny company in New York.
In 1934, Majolie decided to send a letter to her old classmate, in hopes of promoting some of her work. The letter read in part:
“If you can do so, without causing yourself too much inconvenience, please arrange to see me sometime. I am only five feet tall and don’t bite. I have a pantomime cartoon strip that I’d like very much to market, and you might be able to give me some information…”
“I am sorry you don’t bite, but nevertheless should be very glad to have you drop in and see me anytime at your convenience.”
The two continued corresponding, though nothing ever came of Majolie’s comic strips.
Almost a year after her first letter, Walt and Majolie had lunch Tam O’Shanters. The restaurant was so beloved by Walt and the rest of the Disney family that it was often referred to as the “studio commissary.” Majolie brought her portfolio to the lunch and Walt offered her a job on the spot. The job was a six month apprenticeship in the story department. Her pay was $18 a week (a good $60-70 lower than some of her male co-workers).
Majolie wrote a 13 page script originally titled “The Romance of Baby Elephant”, which eventually became Elmer Elephant. One of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, it debuted March 28, 1936. The story, which features a bullied young elephant, was inspired by Majolie’s struggle to fit in as the only female in the Story Department.
Majolie worked on several Silly Symphonies which were never completed: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, “Japanese Symphony”, and “Ballets des Fleurs”. She also contributed to several Silly Symphonies which were completed, including “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”, and “Woodland Cafe”.
Pinocchio and Bambi
Outside of the story department, Majolie aided Disney in other ways. She translated Carlo Collodi’s novel “Pinocchio” into English for Walt and even suggested ways that the novel’s story could be improved upon as it moved to the big screen.
She also worked on the film Bambi, “establishing a permanent record of pictorial descriptions, vital and humorous facts relating to animals we are dealing with, films, photos, etc.”
Peter Pan and Fantasia
Near the end of her time with Disney, Majolie created story sketches for Peter Pan and paintings for Fantasia. For the later, she created paintings for the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”, and worked on film’s flower dancers and dancing mushrooms.
In 1940, Majolie took an extended vacation away from Disney. When she returned, she found that her position had been filled. She continued working as an artist away from Disney, eventually turning her focus to mediums like ceramics.