Thursday, May 15, 2014

Carolyn Kay Shafer

While scanning the listings in a recent Hake's Americana auction, I came across a noteworthy lot attributed to Carolyn Kay Shafer, one of Walt Disney's first secretaries. The grouping had several very interesting items including a two-page letter, an article from The American Magazine and a wedding invitation. A 1931 Disney Studio Christmas card with her imprint was also sold as a separate lot in the same auction.

Not much has been written about Shafer, other than a short note in a recent Wade Sampson, Mouse Planet column. So, being the Disney history buff I am, I decided to embark on a quest to see what additional information I could discover.

According to Shafer's great niece, Carla Lakatos, Shafer was born on September 22, 1905, in Evansville, Indiana. Not uncommon during that time in history, Shafer was part of a large family - she was the 6th of seven children born to Jacob Shafer (2nd generation German), and Sarah Gleason (1st generation Irish).

Yearbook photo, courtesy Carla Lakatos.

The Shafer family moved to California in 1929 after sister Rosine's husband, who was badly injured in a horrific car crash, committed suicide. As an interesting sidenote, Rosine later remarried - she wed Frank J. Baum, son of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum.

In a letter written on February 5, 1932, to a friend in Texas, Shafer spoke briefly about her career before moving to California. "For the most part I have been going to school and teaching. My last mission was at Mt. St. Joseph Junior College in Kentucky. I taught physical culture, dancing, all the sports and the commercial subjects. I also substituted."

She continued: "I liked teaching very much. In fact I had my contract with me for the next year when I came out here on a visit [in] June 1930. My family had moved out here a year before and I liked it so much I decided to stay."

Shafer then spoke about her new position at Disney's: "I made good connections here. I had been in Los Angeles only two days when I started working temporarily for the Studio...but the work developed into such a nice position that I stayed on. I direct the publicity for Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons and in addition to that act as Mr. Walt Disney's Confidential Secretary."

Photo signed by Shafer to a friend. The photo contains images of several Mickey Mouse publicity photos, which Shafer appears ready to sign either as "Mickey Mouse," or perhaps on behalf of her boss, Walt Disney. Photo courtesy Carla Lakatos.

According to Robert Tieman of the Walt Disney Archives, Shafer was hired sometime in 1930, (probably in the latter half of the year going by what she had written in the aforementioned letter), and she left the Studio in 1934.


1931 Disney Studio corporate Christmas card bearing Shafer's imprint. Courtesy Hake's Americana.
While Wade Sampson reported in his column Shafer was fired for marrying a fellow employee, (contravening an unwritten "no studio marriages" rule), Tieman says, "There is no indication in the personnel record that she was fired."

I was able to locate and purchase a copy of the February 1934 issue of The American Magazine, which featured a one-page article on Shafer. In the story, "Kay," as she was referred to, was noted as being "the world's only secretary to a mouse."
This image appeared in the February 1934 issue of The American Magazine.

The article further stated Shafer "personally answered Mr. Mickey Mouse's mail...by actual count, he received 30,000 letters in one month."
The article referred to Shafer as the "confidential secretary to Walt Disney" adding she "also autographs each picture of her boss." The last statement could mean, incredibly, there are circa 1930-1934 photographs of Walt Disney bearing her signature and not Walt's.

Sampson also noted in his column Shafer edited and distributed the Mickey Mouse Melodeon, one of the Studio's first employee newsletters. She is also credited with writing a gossip column in the monthly under the pen name "Clara Cluck." The Melodeon was published from November 1932 until February 1933. Other bits of info contained in The American Magazine article included:
  1. "Loves her family, her black dog, Skippy, and a black cat named Tommy Quarts."
  2. "Never throws away anything she has ever liked."
  3. "Likes to lie on the sand but can't swim becauseof a 'bumpy' heart."
  4. "Dislikes dressing up and going to big parties."
  5. Claimed that if she "had plenty of money [she'd] be well dressed in plain clothes."
  6. "Has a mania for hand bags - owns more than a hundred but carries the same one for months at a time."
In her February 1932 letter Shafer wrote: "Now for 'romance.' I, like you, have not married. Most of the girls who were in my class at school are married or at least engaged. I was engaged...for five long years, but decided I was much too young. I have been engaged to a young surgeon from home...but can't make up my mind about living back in Evansville. I do so like Los Angeles, and there are so many interesting people here and I love my work. Being a Doctor's wife in a small town is not a lot of fun. There is a very interesting young musician here at the Studio and a still mroe interesting young Doctor that I see a great deal."

The "young musician" Shafer referenced was none other than Disney Studio composer Frank Churchill. Included in the Hake's lot was an invitation to the June 10, 1933 wedding of Carolyn Kay and Frank Edwin Churchill. The American Magazine article stated, "Their common interest is Mickey Mouse and any good music. They want to go to Europe some day so he can study and she can hunt hand bags."

Unfortunately, tragedy came into Shafer's life on May 14, 1942, when she was awakened by the sound of gunfire. An article appearing in the next day's
Los Angeles Times reported:
Big Bad Wolf Creator Suicide
Disney Studio Music Composer Ends Life on Ranch Near Castaic


"Ill health yesterday prompted Frank E. Churchill, 40, composer of music at the Walt Disney Studio, probably best known for his 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,' to take his life by shooting himself through the heart with a rifle at his Paradise Ranch...on Highway 99, near Castaic.

A note turned over to the Deputy Sheriff John Morell and addressed to Churchill's wife disclosed the motive. The note read: 'Dear Carolyn - My nerves have completely left me. Please forgive me for this awful act. It seems the only way I can cure myself. Frank.'

Churchill's body was found by his wife and Don Dunford, manager of the ranch, after Mrs. Churchill was awakened by the shot. He was lying on the .30-40 caliber rifle and a rosary.

Morell was informed that Churchill had been in ill health for the last six months and that he had gone to a sanitarium on several occasions for his health, but had worked at the studio the day before his death."

Funeral services for Churchill were conducted on May 18, 1942, in the Wee Kirk o' the Heather chapel at Forest Lawn in Glendale. He was buried near the grave of film star Tom Mix.

The month following her husband's death, Shafer had to contend with a lawsuit launched by Corinne Churchill, Frank's daughter by a previous marriage. A June 29, 1942 Los Angeles Times story reported:

"Cut off with $1 under the will of her late father...18-year old Corinne Churchill has launched a move to nullify the document. Miss Churchill filed her contest in Superior Court on the grounds that her father...had been mentally incompetent for some time before he signed the document Jan. 17, 1939.

Churchill, the daughter says, entertained an 'unnatural antipathy' toward her and it became aggravated by the influence of his second wife, Mrs. Carolyn Shafer Churchill. The contesting daughter also contends that her father drank to excess and that while he was under the influence of liquor, his second wife made such fraudulent representations that he became prejudiced against his daughter.

'The reason I make this bequest to my daughter,' the will explains, 'is because of her refusal to accept any education and advantages or moral guidance from me and her avowed preference to make home with her mother.' While the petition for probate of the will gives the value of the estate at $2,000, Attorney G. Vernon Brambaugh, representing Miss Churchill, expressed the opinion that it would exceed $50,000."

I was unable to find any record of the final judgement in the case.

In the fall of 1974, Shafer wrote to the "Accounting Department" at Walt Disney Productions. She indicated she had
been an invalid since 1969 and legally blind since 1971.

In the letter Shafer asked for help securing her widow's benefits through Social Security and she asked if the Studio had paid for her late husband Frank Churchill's funeral saying, "the shock was so great, I have forgotten if I received them or not." She also noted she had in her possession "several old manuscript's of Frank's," and wondered if the Studio might have any use for them.


An artifact from a happier time in Shafer's life. The Adventures of Mickey Mouse. Book I. 1931. David McKay Company. This copy was signed by Shafer to an orthopaedic doctor and his wife. The inscription reads, "To my good friends Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Fosdick Jones. With the hope that they will never forget Mickey Mouse or Carolyn Kay Shafer." After maintaining a practice in Denver for 24 years, Dr. Jones retired in Pasadena. I have been unable to determine what the connection between Shafer and Jones was. This book also contained a one page synopsis for the Mickey Mouse short Mickey's Orphan's tipped into the blank page at the back of the book. This copy recently sold for over $1,200. The inscription is dated July 16, 1931.

Shafer's great niece Carla Lakatos wrote the sad epilog to this story when she said, "I do know that Carolyn married Frank Churchill and after his death, Donald Durnford - who stole her assets - and she died July 26, 1977, penniless and nearly blind - very sad."

2 comments:

Bryon Caldwell said...

Wow, fascinating story! Thanks for posting!

Whit said...

What a cruel twist of fate that both Carolyn Shafer and her sister married spouses who took their own lives.