Ruthie Tompson, one of the last living artists who worked on Disney’s early features, died in her sleep on Sunday. She was 111.
In her four decades at The Walt Disney Company, Tompson worked across several departments, starting in ink and paint then moving to final check, scene planning, and the camera department. She worked with founders Walt and Roy O. Disney, as well as Disney Legends like Ub Iwerks and Les Clark, and in 2000 she was anointed a Legend herself in recognition of her remarkable career.
Born in Portland, Maine, on July 22, 1910, Tompson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts before moving to California in 1918. In Hollywood, she lived a few blocks away from what was then the Disney Bros. Cartoon Studio. She would peek inside, fascinated by the sight of women painting in the window.
After high school, Tompson took a job at a riding academy frequented by Walt and Roy. Walt hired her as a painter, and she started by working on the short Lonesome Ghosts (1937) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the studio’s first feature.
She was swiftly promoted after that. “After I got into scene planning,” she said, “that was the part where I felt like I was really a part of the institution, because I was helping the animators and I was helping the background painters.” Due to her experience in the camera department, she became one of the first three women to be invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE.
Tompson went on to work on films including Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), The Aristocats (1970), and Robin Hood (1973).
“Ruthie was mechanically inclined,” said colleague Bob Broughton, the studio’s special photographic fx supervisor. “She was excellent at figuring out the mathematical and mechanical logistics of camera moves.”
Tompson left the company in 1975, after finishing her work on The Rescuers (1977). Her few post-Disney credits include ink and paint supervision on Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978).
In later years, Tompson lived at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House in Woodland Hills, California, where she continued to apply her skills to the in-house Channel 22. She kept busy in the pandemic by trying to raise $110,000 for an onsite post-production suite.
Recognition of Tompson’s achievements kept coming in recent years. In 2017, she was celebrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences alongside other women who worked in the early animation industry. The same year, she received an ovation when she appeared at the D23 Expo in Anaheim.
Asked about her secret to living a long life, she said, “I smoked and I drank, but not that much.”
In 2020, she told The Hollywood Reporter, “I know that I don’t want to be revered for how old I am, I want to be known for who I am.” She may have taken comfort from her many accolades, knowing that her trailblazing career as a woman at the heart of the young Disney studio will be remembered.
Tompson is survived by nieces Judy Weiss and Calista Tonelli, and nephew Pierce Butler III.