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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: The artist who first drew Dumbo – and how her drawings were saved

This is the craziest part of the whole thing, Dick Case said the other day. For a moment, when it happened, he did not even realize what he had. Twenty years ago right now, Case waited on a glassed-in porch in the small village of Chittenango while a woman named Arlene Baird went looking for some papers.

She returned with what Case, now 83, describes as one of those classic department store boxes from the 1950s or 1960s, filled with drawings and documents. Baird asked Case, who spent more than 50 years as a reporter and columnist with The Syracuse Post-Standard and the old Herald-Journal, to “find a place where they would be appreciated.”

He thanked her, put the box in his car and drove home.

Only when Case opened it did he fully understand.

It was Dumbo, the original Dumbo, drawings preserved from the instant an artist first switched the little elephant with the big ears out of someone's imagination and put the vision on paper, a giant step toward creating a beloved and unforgettable American icon.

Those images were saved only because an elderly cousin of the original artist chose to hang onto the box, and because Baird – who cleaned out that cousin's home when she died – listened to some instinct that told her not to throw it out, even though she had yet to realize the full historic meaning.

It was almost as much of a long shot as a baby elephant that flies.

A newborn elephant with giant ears discovers he can fly in this live-action and CGI remake of a 1941 Disney classic. (Walt Disney Pictures)

Disney is releasing a new movie today that is expected to give the familiar tale a new profile in the digital age. The Disney Dumbo is a reinterpretation of a character created 80 years ago in Syracuse, though – as it seems with so many things – there is a Buffalo connection.

If not for Baird and some extraordinary, even spiritual, reporting by Case – and a wonderfully selfless decision he made almost on the spot – we would have no idea of how Dumbo was envisioned by his creators.

The short story, as Case told his readers, goes like this: Everett Whitmyre was a longtime advertising guy who at one time was in charge of advertising for the old Kellogg Products Co., which made linseed oil in Buffalo. In the 1930s, while in Syracuse, Whitmyre was one of the principals in starting up a little company called Roll-A-Book. The idea, essentially, was that you could follow a story by turning the knobs, like Etch-A-Sketch meets Golden Book.

Helen Aberson and her husband, Harold Pearl, a Syracuse couple, came to Whitmyre with a proposal. Together, they had written a children’s book called “Dumbo the Flying Elephant.” The story, in broad strokes, was much like the story as we know it today. Whitmyre embraced it. Someone had to draw it.

The original Dumbo, used with permission from the Helen R. Durney Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. (Image courtesy of David Haas, of @SyracuseHistory on Instagram)

The job fell to Helen Durney, a graduate of the Syracuse University School of Fine Arts. Working from her home, she was the person who offered the earliest vision of the elephant with the wing-like ears. Still, as Case reported, she maintained someone else held the key:

"Without Mr. Whitmyre," Durney once said of the former Buffalo businessman who hired her, "there would have been no Dumbo."

Yet Walt Disney stepped in, and everything changed. By June 1939, as Case learned in his research, the Herald-Journal was reporting that Disney had bought the rights to the story for an amount Case believes was about $1,000, a number to remember when you consider what Dumbo still means financially to the Disney empire.

That Roll-A-Book never happened. Disney's own artists stepped in and took over, which at least one researcher, animation historian Michael Barrier, believes was based on dissatisfaction with the original versions. Durney’s drawings were displayed 80 years ago at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, Case discovered, then disappeared.

No one knew how Dumbo, at the beginning, was intended to look until 1999, when Case began fleshing out the story for the Syracuse newspapers.

He found out Durney had worked for the Knopf Publishing house in New York for a few years, that she never had children, and that when she died – a resident of a seniors public housing tower in Syracuse – she was survived by only a couple of cousins.

One was Margaret Anguish of Chittenango, who was also dead by the time Case started researching the tale. He played a long shot, which is how impossible stories sometimes happen. He called Clara Houck, a historian he knew in the same little village, and he asked if she remembered anyone who by some chance had known Margaret.

Dick Case his wife Sandy and their grandson, Ruairi Brennan, who will know what the original Dumbo looks like because of his grandpa. (Image courtesy Elizabeth Case Jeannette)

Sure, Houck said. There was Arlene Baird, a neighbor who helped to look after Margaret and her husband Andrew when they struggled with their health. Case drove out to Baird’s house. She told him, yes, she was close to Margaret and her husband, and she helped clean out their house after they died. Baird said she came upon an old box filled with sketches and drawings, and her first impulse was to trash it, but something told her it was worth keeping.

She gave it to Case. The box contained Helen Durney’s earliest drawings and sketches of Dumbo, the first time the little elephant took life on a page. Two months after Case spoke to her, Baird died. If she had not given him the box, almost certainly – today – it would be in a landfill.

That it happened seemed impossible enough. Yet consider this: Dick Case, a guy living on a journalist’s salary, was now in possession of the original drawings of one of the most beloved childhood characters in the world.

All Baird had asked of him was to be sure they went to a place where they would be appreciated. Certainly, it would have been easy enough for Case to sell them to a collector. They were his. No one else would have known his choice. He could have rationalized that the only thing that mattered was to at least make certain they survived, and a private collector, in that sense, was as good a choice as any.

Instead, Case donated them to the Syracuse University archives, guaranteeing the original Dumbo is and will be available to anyone who wants to study those drawings. I have known Case for more than 30 years, and I have admired him for that decision for a long time, but I never straight-out asked him the question I asked him this week.

Plenty of people would have sold those drawings for the money. Why did you choose another way?

Case laughed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess that’s just my mood.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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