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JoAnn Dean Killingsworth dies at 91; Disneyland's first Snow White

When JoAnn Dean Killingsworth picked up a gig at the grand opening of an Orange County theme park, she had no idea where Anaheim was or what Disneyland would become.

Even so, she blazed a decades-long trail for more than 100 other beautiful, raven-haired maidens and who-knows-how-many dwarfs.

On July 17, 1955, Killingsworth became Disneyland's first Snow White.

As the U.S. Marine Band belted out "The National Emblem March" and helicopters thumped overhead, she waved fondly from a float that carried her — as well as Bashful, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Doc — past 30,000 enchanted onlookers. Davey Crockett, Peter Pan, Mickey and Minnie, Cinderella, governors, movie stars: Everyone who was anyone was there that day, and the ABC TV network broadcast it all in a 90-minute inaugural special viewed by an estimated audience of 90 million from coast to coast.

When a deep-voiced herald ordered the drawbridge to Fantasyland lowered "in the name of the children of the world," hundreds of amped-up youngsters charged in, and Killingsworth was among the Disney characters leading the way.

"We turned around and tried to run pretty," she recalled last year in an interview with the Orange County Register.

Killingsworth died Saturday of cancer at her Brea home, her nephew Jay Dean said. She was 91.

A skater and dancer, Killingsworth performed with Norwegian star Sonja Henie. She also was one of the "Redettes," a troupe that in the mid-1950s danced on Red Skelton's TV show.

With her husband, Jim Killingsworth, she later published The Newporter, a weekly newspaper, and Orange County Illustrated, a monthly magazine that focused on the good life along the Orange County coast.

Born in Minneapolis on Sept. 23, 1923, Killingsworth spent her early years in Joliet, Ill., and moved to Los Angeles with her family in 1931. Her parents ran a small restaurant in Hollywood and gave their young daughter dancing lessons.

At 15, she persuaded her reluctant mother to let her audition for an ice show. Soon she was skating in New York with Henie's revue, "It Happens on Ice."

Killingsworth's film work included "Silver Skates" (1943), with Belita, the British figure skating Olympian; "Something for the Boys" (1944), with Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda; and "Rainbow Over Texas" (1946), with Roy Rogers.

Her transformation into Snow White wasn't the stuff of fairy tales, but of Hollywood.

Killingsworth's longtime dancing partner Gene Nelson was married to a choreographer who was casting the Disney pageant.

"I thought JoAnn looked like Disney's Snow White, with her dark bangs," Miriam Nelson recalled in Orange Coast magazine in 2014. "She was very enthusiastic, bubbly and always in good spirits. I knew she'd do a good job."

In 1987, Disney marked the 50th anniversary of its classic "Snow White" film with a global re-release, visits by Snow White to the Rose Bowl and the Smithsonian, and a reunion of the women who over decades had played the fairest of them all at Disney parks in the U.S. and abroad. A friend told Killingsworth about the company's search and she showed up.

"I didn't realize Disney was looking for me," she told the Associated Press. "If I had, I would have called somebody and said, 'Here I am. Here's Snow White.'"

At the time, Disney spokesman Bob Roth said her name was not in company records but "I'm really quite certain this is the right person." Killingsworth explained that she had been paid by ABC, not by Disney.

About 50 Snow Whites showed up for the event. At the time, Killingsworth was 63 and was selling linens part time at Neiman-Marcus.

"My hair used to be dark, dark brown," she told The Times, "but somehow I got blonder as I got older."

Two of the women, it turned out, had the same ex-husband.

"He was an insurance salesman who just happened to live in Anaheim," one of the former Snow Whites said. "He was not Prince Charming. We both divorced him."

Killingsworth's marriage also ended in divorce.

Her survivors include stepsons Bill and Larry Killingsworth; brother Donovan Dean; and numerous nieces and nephews.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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