When Snow White premiered on December 21, 1937, at the Carthay Circle Theater, in Los Angeles, the gala brought out Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars. Walt Disney arrived in a limo with his wife, Lillian. Crowds wrapped around the block; huge floodlights lit the scene. Disney’s first full-length animated feature attracted such glitterati as Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers, and many more.
Among all the celebrities, one glamorous young woman went unnoticed. In fact, she almost didn’t get into the screening at all, though the movie would not have been the same without her. Her name was Adriana Caselotti, and she provided the innocent, lilting voice of Snow White.
Three years earlier, Adriana, then 19, had landed the role of the lonely, lost princess by happy chance. Her father was a singing coach, whom Disney’s casting director contacted in search of suitable young woman to play Snow White. The Caselottis were a musical family: Adriana’s mother and older sister were professional opera singers.
Adriana begged her father for a chance to try out, and at her audition, she impressed musical director Frank Churchill with her ability to sight-read “Someday My Prince Will Come” without his playing a single note on the piano.
What Adriana didn’t know was that Walt Disney himself was hiding behind a screen, listening to her audition. While Churchill was sure they’d found their princess, Disney tried out another 148 actresses before calling Adriana back a year later to say she’d won the part.
Disney described Adriana’s voice as having “a lilting quality that lifted and almost smiled as she sang and spoke,” she told Animator magazine in 1987. “The songs… were operatic in style and contained some intricate coloratura work that, fortunately, I knew how to do.”
Adriana recorded her songs and lines on a soundstage with a piano—not an orchestra—as accompaniment and without the presence of other actors. She saw no rushes; she never heard playbacks of her songs. She didn’t even realize it was to be a full-length film! She was paid $20 a day, and over the course of filming made a total of $970.
The making of Snow White went famously over schedule and over budget. No one believed an audience would sit through a full-length fairy tale cartoon. Hollywood gossips called it “Disney’s Folly.” Even his own wife worried it would bomb. Disney was forced to mortgage his home to meet the $1.5 million cost of the three-year production.
On the night of the premiere, Harry Stockwell, the voice of Prince Charming, suggested to Adriana that they attend the screening. “We felt it would be fine just to turn up, which we did,” Caselotti told Animator magazine on the movie’s 50th anniversary. “The girl at the door said, ‘May I have your tickets?’ and I said, ‘I’m Snow White and this is Prince Charming!’ to which she replied, ‘I don’t care if you’re the Witch, you’re not going in without tickets!’ So we waited till she wasn’t looking and sneaked in. She ran after us but we got up to the balcony, way over on one side, and she couldn’t find us!”
As the credits rolled, the audience gave Walt Disney a standing ovation. As was the custom at the time, Adriana Caselotti’s name was not listed in the credits; nor were any of the other voices.
“Walt Disney thought it would spoil the illusion if you knew who the people were who provided the voices in the film,” she told Animator. In fact, Disney was so adamant about preserving the illusion that he refused to let Adriana appear on the Jack Benny show, at the time the most popular radio show in America. Disney made it difficult for her to appear in any other film, effectively blacklisting her from acting. At one point, she purportedly attempted to sue Disney for royalties, but lost.
Snow White was a huge hit. It made so much money that Disney purchased 51 acres of land in Burbank to build studios that are still in use today. At the 1938 Academy Awards, Disney was presented with an honorary Oscar for “significant screen innovation.” The award was one regular-sized Oscar and seven smaller ones, presented by Shirley Temple.
Disney did eventually recruit Caselotti to participate in promotional tours, where she dressed up in Snow White’s famous hair ribbon and puff-sleeved dress until she was in her 40s and school children noticed she was so “old.” She re-recorded “I’m Wishing” in 1983 for the Wishing Well at Disneyland’s Snow White Grotto.
Caselotti dabbled in opera and sneaked in two tiny movie spots—a line with the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz and a bit singing part in It’s a Wonderful Life. She died in 1997, at the age of 80.