On April 1, 1938 the Avalon Theater in Olympia was packed. The Lacey School had even brought all classes to the matinee for a chance to see “Snow White,” the beloved fairytale, put on screen. Children were frightened as the Huntsman tried to kill the innocent princess Snow White on her evil stepmother’s orders and she fled into the forest. They cheered when she met friendly forest animals and the kindly seven dwarfs took her in. The children gasped when the Evil Queen tricked the princess into eating a poisoned apple and celebrated when everything ended happily ever after at the end. Drawn in dazzling color with memorable music, “probably no picture in years,” the Daily Olympian observed over a week later, “has had the universal appeal to man, woman and child.”
Disney’s “Snow White” was the first feature-length animated film. It was not the first time that a film based on the German fairy tale “Schneewittchen” was shown in Olympia. In February 1917 a silent version starring Marguerite Clark as the princess was shown at the Ray Theater to the delight of local children. This was the same film that inspired Walt Disney to make his own version.
Although Disney’s “Snow White” debuted in December 1937, the movie took time to come to Olympia as most theaters typically played only one film at a time. The newspaper’s social page even mentions a few people going to Seattle to see the film. Anticipating the film, the Olympia High School’s junior class wrote and performed a Snow White play in March. The stage was set up as a book from which characters emerged and with the dwarfs’ home. They later performed the play at a Kiwanis dinner at the Hotel Olympian.
There was another reason for local anticipation as well: newspapers announced that one of their own, Albert Heath, son of Olympia’s Edith Heath, designed some of the sets for the film.
“Snow White” debuted in Olympia on Friday, April 1. It was incredibly successful and the Avalon Theater estimated that about 6,000 people saw it during its first three days. The movie was shown continuously throughout the day, with a last showing at 10 p.m. Tickets were cheap, a dime for adults until 5 p.m. and 20 cents afterwards. For those who did not want to buy tickets, the Olympia Knitting Mills offered free matinee tickets to children 12 and under for each dollar spent on their on-sale products (while also introducing a line of themed children’s clothes). A group of lucky children from the Washington School, Tumwater School and St. Michael Parish School won free monthly passes to the Avalon.
The film proved so popular that it was booked for a second week, which the paper claimed was the longest run in the city’s history. While that probably was an exaggeration, the Daily Olympian sponsored a special free matinee for orphans and disabled children, many who would not have been able to see it otherwise. The theater last showed the movie on April 13.
Although Disney was not yet the marketing powerhouse that it would become, it was not difficult for people to snap up Snow White merchandise. Snow White cutouts came with each five-cent box of Post-Toasties cereal at the Totem Market. For a quarter, customers at McGarthy’s Grocery could get Snow White glasses with the purchase of a package of coffee. At Rexall Drugs they could snap up soap designed as the characters (ten cents for the dwarfs and a quarter for Snow White). When Halloween approached, girls could get a Snow White mask with each two-dollar purchase at Safeway.
The movie proved popular, especially among children of course. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were featured in school carnivals. A girl dressed up as Snow White for the McKinley PTA carnival and the princess was joined by the Seven Dwarfs at the Garfield School carnival. The characters also appeared at the Lacey School’s “Santa in Storyland” Christmas operetta. The movie proved popular for teens as well. In June 1938 at an assembly when the junior class moved up, the Olympia High School band played “Whistle While You Work” and “Hi Ho.”
Snow White also proved a popular children’s birthday party theme. Figurines of Snow White and her seven friends were the dining room table centerpieces for these events, but a few were more elaborate. At Laverne “Verne” Eke’s (son of George Eke, owner of Olympia Monument Works and later Tumwater mayor) birthday, guests were served nut cups themed after the seven dwarfs.
At a party for two-year old JoAn Suko, daughter of Garfield School principal Ernest Suko, “seven little girls invited to the party,” the social page reported, “drew names of dwarfs and received as favors the picture of the dwarf they drew, and the guest of honor played the role of Snow White.”
Snow White and her friends Bashful, Doc, Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Dopey (not to mention the Evil Queen) remain popular in the public imagination, with countless new versions in film, television, books and other media since Disney made his film. But the classic animated film itself has remained popular as generations of new children saw it through re-releases and later home video and television. The film returned to Olympia theaters in 1945, 1953, 1958, 1968, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 1993. Children like Jeanette Matson, who won “best dressed Snow White doll” at the 1938 Doll and Pet Parade would be able to share their love for the story with their children and grandchildren.