Dr. Toon: A Living Timeline
On Jan. 4, 1904, just three days after New Year's Eve was first celebrated in Times Square, Bessie Irene Myrick was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. During that same year Theodore Roosevelt was president, work began on the Panama Canal and aged veterans of the Civil War were still walking the streets. The short generally acknowledged to be the world's first animated production, J. Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, would not be filmed for another two years. Walt Disney was a three -year-old living up the road in Chicago. Walt Disney passed away in 1966. Bessie Irene, now one month from her 106th birthday, is still here. She is likely the oldest living woman in Indiana, and perhaps one of the oldest in the country. Within her lively lifespan, the entire history of animation began, evolved and grew from a minor theater entertainment and children's medium to the CGI-powered spectacle that it is today.
I have had the good fortune to meet Bessie Irene. Her faculties remain amazingly unencumbered; she remembers virtually everything she has seen during her era of history. And if you consider yourself to be a longtime animation fan, well…she still loves cartoons! I am proud to bring you her story, which is sure to interest you.
Terre Haute, on the banks of the fabled Wabash River, was once a fairly sizeable and important city in Indiana. Besides several breweries and distilleries (which took a major blow during Prohibition) there were large glass factories, coal mining and a five-star hotel, the Terre Haute House, which was reportedly a favorite destination of Al Capone. Terre Haute also boasted some fine theaters, which were decked out in the grand style of the day. Young Bessie Irene remembers going to the fancy movie houses such as the showy Hippodrome, the Swan, the swank Liberty and the Cacano (Bessie is unsure of the spelling), where she saw some of the silent films that were accompanied by a pianist. Even the high-class Hippodrome, it seems, usually had no more than a four-piece orchestra.
Bessie and I sat down in front of a big-screen plasma TV while I arranged stacks of DVDs that I had selected for our interview. What would someone who had lived through the entire history of animation remember? I began with the films of Winsor McCay, since Bessie would have been at least 10- years-old by the time Gertie the Dinosaur premiered (I figured in at least another year before a print made its way to Terre Haute, if at all). To my chagrin, Bessie never recalled seeing Gertie in the theater, but when I showed her The Pet (1921), she furrowed her wrinkled brow in what seemed to be recognition. I asked her if she had seen that film, and she replied that she was not sure, but she had seen at least something much like it. Bessie enjoyed reading the caption cards aloud as the film progressed, and she asked me to let the short finish out so that she could see what happened to the giant beastie in the end. She told me that people used to read the caption cards aloud during the films just like she was doing, but that "other people didn't like that and told them to be quiet."