Who is the fairest one of all? Disneyland’s first Snow White. In 1955 at the theme park’s grand opening, JoAnn Dean Killingsworth was Disneyland’s first Snow White, the only princess to get her own float the day Walt Disney opened the gates and introduced his creation to the world. Now 90, she paints – and looks back on a Hollywood career.
She’s jitterbugged on ice skates at the old Cocoanut Grove in L.A.
Looked adorable in a cowgirl hat for a photo shoot with Roy Rogers.
Stood in for Judy Garland. Danced for Red Skelton.
And if you were one of the 90 million TV viewers who watched Disneyland’s grand opening on July 17, 1955, you surely saw her.
She was Disneyland’s first Snow White, the only princess to get her own float, the day Walt opened the gates for a 90-minute ABC special that would introduce his creation to the world.
So what’s left?
Well, if you’re JoAnn Dean Killingsworth, a lot.
“I might paint that view,” she says, pointing to the gardens outside the window of her Brea retirement home. “And then I might not. It depends on how I feel.”
Killingsworth is 90 now – an age when you can do things, or not, depending on how you feel.
On the day I met with her, she felt dizzy. A touch of vertigo had set in a few weeks ago. But it’s her only complaint.
“I’m too lucky,” she says. “So many people hurt, and I’m not hurting.”
There have been a lot of falls and swollen knees.
Killingsworth began dancing and ice skating as a child.
In 1939, at the age of 15, she begged her mother to let her try out for a show to open the Long Beach ice rink. She was picked and after the show was hired for “It Happens on Ice,” a “musical extravaganza” at the Cocoanut Grove, a star-magnet nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.
From there she got a spot in “Ice Queen of Norway,” Sonja Henie’s traveling “Hollywood Ice Revue,” partnering up with Gene Nelson, who went on to be Doris Day’s love interest in 1951’s “Lullaby of Broadway.”
At 18, Killingsworth hung up her ice skates to pursue Hollywood dance roles.
“It was better than working,” she says.
You can see her tapping, twirling and line dancing in a string of hits – such as “Red Garters” with Rosemary Clooney, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “State Fair” and “Rainbow over Texas” with Roy Rogers.
She was in so many movies – at least 100 by her count – that she hasn’t seen all of them.
She danced on “The Red Skelton Hour” from 1953 to 1956 (and lowers her voice to report that his clean image belied his rather “dirty” dress rehearsals).
In 1955, she got a call to do a TV special for ABC at Disneyland.
But she took the job to play this new amusement park’s first Snow White in the flesh (a fresh-faced 5-foot-3 brunette, she was a ringer for the animated Snow White, no wig needed) for an opening day TV show.
On July 17, 11,000 of Walt’s guests, mostly employees, their kids, media and stars such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Debbie Reynolds, showed up to get in – along with about 11,000 others with counterfeit tickets.
It was 100 degrees that day.
Killingsworth remembers standing at the castle when they let the drawbridge down and hundreds of kids started charging.
“We turned around and tried to run pretty,” she says.
After the parade, she and the other princesses helped the children get on and off the rides.
When the day ended, so did her run as Snow White. But it’s the role she is best known for, she says.
Three years later, in 1958, she and her husband, Jim Killingsworth, left Hollywood for a sleepy little island called Balboa and started a weekly tabloid called The Newporter and then the monthly Orange County Illustrated, which folded in the late ’70s. She didn’t want to drive to Hollywood, so that was the end of her dance career. But no regrets.
“I’ve had a great life,” she says.
She pulls out a few books displaying scraps of her past.
JoAnn Dean in a red velveteen one piece dress: $6.95, one ad exclaims.
There she is dressed up as a demitasse cup and saucer for the movie “Diamond Horseshoe” with Betty Grable.
There she is at 17, smiling with a pack of cigarettes for a Chesterfield ad.
There she is on the “Lullaby of Broadway” movie poster next to Doris Day.
Did she realize she was working alongside legends?
“We didn’t try to put on airs,” she says. “It was just a workday. We did the best job we could do and went home.” Often to spend the evening roller skating along Hollywood Boulevard.
“It was a different world then. We didn’t have so many druggies.”
A friend at Capriana, the retirement village in Brea where Killingsworth moved last year, hunts the Internet for her image in old movie stills and video and then prints them out for her to frame.
She has a small collection hanging in the hallway of her apartment, which is entirely white and lime green. In fact, she keeps a few of her fingernails painted lime green at all times to use as a portable color sample in case she is out and sees a vase or sofa pillow she likes.
“If it matches my finger, by golly I’ll take it,” she says.
Her apartment walls are covered with her paintings.
Killingsworth was in her early 50s when she somehow crushed a disc in her neck while sleeping at her Balboa home.
“After that, I had to stay home and be very quiet,” she says. “So I took up painting.”
She has sold only one painting, of fish, that scion Robert Guggenheim bought for $200 after seeing it hanging in her magazine office in Newport Beach.
All the rest she gives away to friends and family and, recently, an Alzheimer’s fundraiser auction. A couple dozen of the paintings she’s kept are on exhibit at her retirement home. Most are of the places she has traveled to: Cezanne’s doorstep in the south of France, the red rooftops of Spain, the long-necked gerenuks she saw on safari in Africa.
In Killingsworth’s scrapbook is a newspaper story that ran in the 1970s. It has the headline: Snow White lives happily ever after in Orange County.
It’s still true.
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