StoryCorps: This Disney Animator Began To Doodle In An Internment Camp As a child, Willie Ito spent nearly three years in a Japanese American internment camp. At StoryCorps, he tells his son how he went from doodling on Sears catalogs to animating for Walt Disney.
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Before He Animated For Disney, He Sketched Cartoons In An Internment Camp

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Before He Animated For Disney, He Sketched Cartoons In An Internment Camp

Before He Animated For Disney, He Sketched Cartoons In An Internment Camp

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it's Friday and time for StoryCorps. Willie Ito was a wide-eyed little boy when he first saw "Snow White" at the movies.

WILLIE ITO: I remembered the seven little men walking across the screen singing heigh-ho, heigh-ho. And I thought to myself, wow, that's what I want to be - not one of the seven dwarves but an animated cartoonist.

GREENE: But Willie's dreams were interrupted in 1942 when his family was sent to a Japanese American internment camp in Utah. He was 8 years old. Now 85, Willie came to StoryCorps with his son, Vincent, to remember.

W ITO: As we approached the camp, we could see rows of black tar-papered buildings. The dust was whipping up like fine talcum powder, and I remember looking at my grandfather, who had on his dark overcoat and fedora and was all white with dust. That gave me a image that I could never erase out of my mind.

VINCENT ITO: In camp, how did you develop your artistic skill?

W ITO: We would order our basic needs through Sears and Roebuck catalogs, and we had to save them for our cold, cold winters for our fireplace. On each page, I would make a little image. You would flip it like a flipbook, and my imagination would just run amuck.

V ITO: Can you tell me what it was like the day you went in for your first interview at Disney Studios?

W ITO: I'm 19 years old. That particular day, I stepped into the elevator, and as the door was closing, it suddenly swung open and standing before me was Walt Disney himself. As Walt stepped in, he nodded, and I was thinking to myself, oh, my God - literally, oh, my God (laughter). I always perceived Walt Disney as sort of a lily-white studio, but a Japanese American, Iwao Takamoto, walked in and says, we love your work. You're hired. And I'm thinking, this can't be true. They said, we're going to start you in the Lady unit. Back then, the studios had inking and painting department with nothing but ladies working in it. So I thought, well, that must be the entry level. Then when you cut the mustard, they'll move you up into animation. But it was Lady of "Lady And The Tramp." And the very first scene that they assigned me to work on was the iconic spaghetti kissing scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY AND THE TRAMP")

GEORGE GIVOT: (As Tony, singing) Oh, this is the night. It's a beautiful night....

V ITO: As a child, I would watch you as you worked. You would draw a little scene, and then you would just move, say, an arm just a micro inch. And I realized this is something I'd like to do.

W ITO: When I saw your abilities, I thought, hey, my son is following my footsteps. If I'm in front of a blank sheet of paper with a pencil, I find such solace. When I came to Los Angeles to seek my fame and fortune, it was quite intimidating, but I knew, by hook or crook, this is what I want to do. And today, I am very proud of what I did.

GREENE: Willie and Vincent Ito, father and son animators, in conversation at StoryCorps here in LA. Their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress.

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