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Woods, Ilene - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

In celebration of the release of Walt Disney's Cinderella Platinum Edition, the first time ever on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Ilene Woods, the original voice of Cinderella from the 1950 animated classic film, participated in a teleconference to discuss the DVD and her career. Joining Woods was Don Hahn, producer of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."

What little girl wouldn't be delighted to talk with of Cinderella, or to have been her. Ilene Woods wasn't quite sure what she was getting into when asked by friends for a favor.

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Ilene Woods (voice of Cinderella) Walt Disney

"When I was 15, I had had a radio show of my own in New York three nights a week for 15 minutes," said Woods. "I met a lot of songwriters because they would come and present their music to me and the conductor to be done on the air.

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 (Jerry and Mack)."

Two days later, Woods received a call saying that Walt Disney wanted to see her.

"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."

Classic film fans are always curious about working with the legend himself.

"I knew he was a wonderful person, and I had admired him so much. Most people ask, 'Did I work directly with Walt Disney?' 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. There were no other actors; we worked with discs in those days."

"It's interesting because Walt had such an amazing ear for music," said Hahn. "Ilene and I were talking briefly before the call, about what a great pitch-perfect voice she has, on the disc and some of her radio performances and TV appearances with Perry Como, in an era where there were only live performances and you couldn't go in and do multi-track edits and all that that you can do today. Her pitch was so beautiful and so right on, and it was a real testament not only to Ilene but to Walt and his artists that they really appreciated and knew that that was something that was rare."

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Don Hahn Walt Disney
Don Hahn explained how things worked back then.

"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," he said. "It's very rare 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, and 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 that when I started in 1976, that machine was still in the studio in the very same room that Ilene recorded it. Then the director, or Walt Disney, could take that disc, that LP album up to his office and listen to different takes and cues of the recording session to select the one that would finally go on the reel."

Hahn talked about the Hand-drawn animation in "Cinderella."

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"It's a great example. The studio was in tremendous financial straits and hadn't really made a feature in years, because of the war and a number of factors. Of course today, the animation industry is huge and several studios are making films. Hand-drawn animation, though, has a special place certainly in my heart, and I think in the hearts of audiences too, and when you see these things and realize they're such a hand-done art form, I think you have the same appreciation for hand-drawn animation as you do for any kind of artwork that is so human. When you realize that people sat down and drew or painted these things, it has a special feeling to it that only hand-drawn animation does. We've been through a five- to 10-year love affair with computer graphics, and it is a brilliant tool for the artist, but I am sure that some day soon we'll come back and start seeing some beautiful hand-drawn animation - hopefully from Disney again.

How much control did Walt Disney have over the process?

"There were three directors on the film who worked with the talent and the animators to make a preliminary pick, but you could believe that Walt Disney was all over this film," said Hahn. "It was very important to him, and 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."

"You know when he came in at the end of recording every day," added Woods, "these other three directors would have been arguing, 'Oh, it should be this way, it should be that way.' "And Walt would come in, 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."

Woods has had years to reflect on her participation in creating "Cinderella"

"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 15 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."

The Two-Disc DVD has features such as sports and music videos, an animated montage video and of course, the beautifully restored feature film.

"I had not seen the film recently," said Woods. "Seeing it in its new form was breathtaking for me. 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."

"That's the great thing about animation and why I've always wanted to work in animation since I was a kid growing up with these movies," added Hahn. "The first time I saw "Cinderella" was probably in the back seat of my parents' station wagon at a drive-in theater. It does capture your heart, and that's the only way to put it. Some movies have a good story, some have interesting characters or music. I have to say later on when we made movies like "Beauty and the Beast," we really stood on the shoulders of the guys and girls who came before us and made movies like "Cinderella" and "Snow White."

Now that the DVD is out, there is much buzz about the restoration, bonus features and never-before-seen-scenes. What's the reaction to Disney recreating the film and adding so many special features?

"Telling a fairy tale is not always easy; there are a lot of pitfalls and people have something in their mind about what that fairy tale is," said Hahn. "Certainly "Cinderella" is the master of them. For me it's kind of a treasure, which may be an overused word. These are films - "Cinderella" in particular - that have stood the test of the time. You can put it in today and really enjoy it with your family as much as any time. Also, artistically to look at "Cinderella" and the artistic accomplishments. "There's a great paradox in animation where you spend millions of dollars and hundreds of people and your goal is to have the audience not see the hand of the artist. It's ironic because they work so hard to get the characters to be alive and to have you believe in the flesh and blood of the characters, whether it's a stepmother or a mouse or a cat or whoever. All that effort is meant to be transparent, like a magician who doesn't want you to see the trick. That kind of artistic treasure is wonderful. What a disc like this shows you is a little peak behind the curtain so you can see some of the magician's tricks, hear some of the stories, and get a sense of what it must have been like to work on such an artistic achievement."

How does "Cinderella" hold up against competition?

"It's certainly a movie we all grew up with and looked at a lot," said Hahn. "We're working on a movie right now called "Rapunzel" with Glen Keane, one of our top animators who animated the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast," "Tarzan," and Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." There's only been six movies that have been Disney fairy tales with the character in the title - "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella" and so on, so we obviously go back and look at those and look at how those characters tell those stories. They're precious stories so we don't want to mess them up too much and yet the key characters and influences that a movie like "Cinderella" has on us is pretty profound.

They're not only great stories, but they're great pieces of art and the technique that those guys used under tremendous financial pressures at the time is still pretty lasting and inspiring."

Woods has long dealt with reactions to her envious job.

"Children particularly believe what they saw," she said. "They believe in Cinderella, in the little characters, and the questions they ask me, like I'm still Cinderella, are hilarious. It's the biggest thrill in the world. They ask me about Bruno and they tell me how much they hate Lucifer."

Woods sounds as excited today about the DVD as the days she helped make magic with her beautiful voice.

"I saw magic happen before me. The song "Sing, Sweet Nightingale" was Walt's idea to sing harmony with myself. It had never been done on film, and he never took credit for it. To make his visions happen was all that was important to him. 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. Walt turned around when he heard the playback, and said, 'All these years I've been paying three salaries and I could have had you just for one.' That was a magic time, because I had never heard one voice singing harmony with herself."

Does Woods have a favorite song?

"I love them all," she said, "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."

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Ilene Woods Today Walt Disney
Woods probably could have had a lucrative career in movies, but took a different career journey, including a short term as a teacher. Her first husband died. In 1962 she married Ed Shaughnessy, drummer on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." The couple had two sons, Dan and Jim, who died at the age of 18 in a head-on car crash caused by a drunken driver.

"I left the business 30-some years ago, because I married a wonderful man and I raised two wonderful boys. That was my life, and I loved every minute of it. I was very happy though when Disney found me again to go on tour for the release of the video 1980. 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."

During her retirement years, Woods was busy giving back to her fans and the country. She performed in World War II bond drives with the likes of actress Lana Turner and bandleader Paul Whiteman. She served as spokesperson for United Cerebral Palsy telethons and volunteered at Lighthouse International's program for the blind in New York, reading stories to children.

"I looked forward to it every week," she said. "It was so rewarding. They were so thrilled when I arrived as Cinderella. During the war I did many tours for the servicemen and sang in Army camps and Army hospitals and Navy affairs, and I did a lot for soldiers and sailors during the war by performing for them in hospitals. It really gets to me, because it was a time when I felt very important doing those things, because it meant everything to me."

Woods received a Disney Legend award in 2000.

"When I go over to that studio (Disney's), 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. 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." Woods is also happy her voice will live on to entertain children of future generations and her own grandchildren.

"They 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."

Disney's magic also touched the girl who voiced Cinderella.

"I do believe that dreams come true," Woods said. "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.

 

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