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01/16/2013 06:40 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2013

Mary Blair, Artist Who Inspired Disney's 'Peter Pan' and More

Peter Pan's back! He's flying at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood all this month. The screening marks the 60th anniversary of the classic animation film's release in 1953. At an opening-night panel discussion of the children's classic, we learned from panel moderator Leonard Maltin about the studio's core group of animators. Walt Disney jokingly referred to this crew not as "Pan-imators," but rather as his "Nine Old Men."

The expression puns on a way of referring to the Supreme Court before the advent of Sandra Day O'Connor. The joke stuck, in great part because the animators were all young guys in their 30s and 40s.

Ted Thomas (son of Frank, one of the Nine Old Men) shared with the audience his feeling that his childhood had been special, growing up in the magic circle of the creative folk who clustered around Disney Studios.

Omitted from the conversation (granted it was not intended as a comprehensive presentation) was an artist who provided color schemes and other key conceptual input for her male colleagues.

Her name was Mary Blair, and her Peter Pan credit is as the film's "color stylist."

Blair had a humongous career and influence at Disney, putting her beautiful eyes and hands to Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). She did the concept designs for Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). She also designed the Fantasyland boat ride "It's a Small World."

(The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored Blair in 2011. Here's a story about the event in the Los Angeles Times.)

Mindy Aloff in her Hippo in a Tutu (Disney editions, 2008), which analyzes and celebrates dance in the Disney studio's work, shares Blair's preliminary sketches for Peter Pan's Indian dance in her book.

Blair's rendering of Indians avoids the cliched "red" skin. (The film eventually adopted that color scheme; indeed, a little boy sitting behind me gasped, "red skins!" when the Indians came on screen.) Blair, by contrast, goes an entirely different direction in her sketches. Her dancing Indians are surreal: purple-skinned, smiling figures who shimmy in the glow of a green moon. So here we have a lady who saw color unlike the rest of us.

Enjoy Mary Blair's dedicated website here.

Mary Blair images, photographer Lee Blair, care of the magic of mary blair, wikipedia.

Peter Pan | El Capitan Theatre thru Feb 7


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Debra Levine is a Los Angeles-based arts journalist blogging about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.