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Ilene Woods dies at 81; voice of Disney's Cinderella

Woods was an 18-year-old radio singer when Walt Disney asked her to give voice to the sweet stepdaughter who finds her Prince Charming. Woods gave the character warmth and made her likeable.

July 03, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Ilene Woods recorded songs from “Cinderella.” Walt Disney heard them and offered her the title role.
Ilene Woods recorded songs from “Cinderella.” Walt Disney…

Ilene Woods, who provided the speaking and singing voice for the title character in Walt Disney's classic 1950 animated feature " Cinderella," has died. She was 81.

Woods, a Calabasas resident, died of causes related to Alzheimer's disease Thursday at a nursing and rehabilitation center in Canoga Park, said her husband, Ed Shaughnessy, the former longtime drummer on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

Woods was a busy 18-year-old singer on radio in 1948 when, as a favor to two songwriter friends, Jerry Livingston and Mack David, she recorded a "demo" of a few songs they had written for Walt Disney's upcoming animated feature.

"I did the discs for them, in a studio with a piano — 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boo,' 'So This Is Love,' 'A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,' " Woods recalled in a 2005 interview with the Deseret News of Salt Lake City.

"Two days later, Walt called. He wanted me to come over and have an interview. I gladly said, 'Yes, anytime you say.' We met and talked for awhile, and he said, 'How would you like to be Cinderella?' "

At the time, Woods was unaware that more than 300 singers had auditioned to be the voice of Cinderella, and she had no idea her demo recording would lead her to take part in a significant piece of Disney history.

Ever since then, as she was fond of saying, "I never hesitate to do a favor for a friend."

After being offered the role of the sweet and mistreated stepdaughter who ultimately finds her Prince Charming, Woods spent about two years off and on recording songs and dialogue at the Disney studio.

"I loved doing the character," she told the Houston Chronicle in 2005. "When my dad saw the movie, he said he saw me in the facial expressions, hand movements and mannerisms. Marc Davis, who animated [the Cinderella character], would watch me record and picked up on things."

She enjoyed working at the Disney studio, she said. "Walt would sit down at the table with us at meals, and we discussed the movie together. It was just magical. There was a happiness and joy."

The singing voice for Cinderella's Prince Charming was supplied by singer and future TV talk-show host Mike Douglas; William Edward Phipps did the talking for Prince Charming. And, he told The Times on Friday, he thought Woods "was ideal" as Cinderella.

Animation critic and historian Charles Solomon told The Times on Friday that "one of the things about her performance is the warmth she gave the character. As soon as she began to speak, her voice meshed with Marc Davis' animation to create a heroine you liked instantly."

"Cinderella," Solomon said, "was a very important film for Walt Disney because his animated films hadn't been doing well after the war and 'Cinderella' was kind of a last chance he had. He needed a hit on the scale of ' Snow White.' He gambled everything on 'Cinderella.' It was a huge hit when it came out, and it really did save the studio."

Born Jacquelyn Ruth Woods on May 5, 1929, in Portsmouth, N.H., Woods dreamed of growing up and becoming a teacher.

"But mother had other ideas," she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel of Tennessee in 2001. "She was a backstage mother who saw to it that I had dancing lessons, music lessons and was on stage whenever possible."

At 11, Woods was starring on her own local radio program and by 1944 she was starring on her own network show broadcast from New York City.

After being lured to Chicago to be a regular on Don McNeill's popular radio show "The Breakfast Club," Woods moved to Los Angeles and became a featured performer on "The Sealtest Village Store" with Jack Carson. She also did guest shots on the Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope radio shows.

During World War II, Woods went on a celebrity-studded three-month War Bond Tour with Paul Whiteman and the Army Air Forces Orchestra. She also sang for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., and for President Harry Truman at the White House.

On television during the 1950s, she sang on the Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey shows and was a regular on Garry Moore's daytime show, where she met Shaughnessy, whom she married in 1963.

Woods was spokeswoman for the United Cerebral Palsy telethons around the country for many years. After she and her family moved to California in 1972, she retired from show business, with the exception of doing an occasional Disney autograph show.

When asked in a 2006 interview for Starlog magazine what the best thing was about having been "Cinderella," she replied: "Oh, I love the idea that after I'm gone, children will still be hearing my voice."

In addition to her husband of 47 years, she is survived by their son, Daniel Shaughnessy; her daughter from her first marriage, Stephanie Pagoto; and three grandchildren.

At Woods' request, no services will be held.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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