From Internment to Disney, a Japanese American Artist Draws Strength Through His Work

Recorded October 7, 2019 Archived October 7, 2019 03:16 minutes
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Id: APP659884


Willie Ito was a wide-eyed little boy when he first saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in technicolor at his neighborhood movie theater in San Francisco.

That’s the moment he realized he wanted to be an animator.

But Willie’s dreams were interrupted in 1942, when his family was sent to a Japanese American internment camp in Topaz, Utah. He was eight years old at the time.

At 85, Willie came to StoryCorps with his son, Vince, to remember.


  • Vince Ito
  • Willie Ito

Interview By



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00:00 As we approach the camp we could see rolls of black tar paper buildings. The dust was whipping up like fine talcum powder. And I remember looking at my grandfather who had on this dark overcoat and Fedora and it was all white with dust. That gave me a image that I could never erased out of my mind in Camp. How do you develop your artistic skill? We would order. Our basic needs through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. On each page. I would make a little image. You would flip it. Like, a flip book, and my imagination would just run amok. He told me, what it was like the day you went in for your first interview at Disney Studios. I'm 19 years old. That particular day. I stepped into the elevator. And answer the door was closing. It suddenly swung open and

00:59 Standing before me was Walt Disney in self. That's Walt stepped in he nodded. And I was thinking to myself, all my God. Literally. Oh my God. I always perceived Walt Disney as sort of a lily-white studio. But a Japanese American, you will takemoto walked in and says, we love your work, you're hired. And I'm thinking, this can't be true. This Is War going to start you in the lady unit back then and 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 and don't envy up into animation, but it was Lady of Lady and the Tramp and the very first seen that, they assigned me to work on was the iconic's.

01:59 Eddie kissing scene.

02:04 It's abused as a child. I would watch you. As you were, you would draw a little scene and then you would just move Saint arm. Just a micro inch and I realize this is something I'd like to do 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.

02:34 When I came to Los Angeles to seek by Fame and Fortune, he 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.