Virginia Davis, Kurt Russell

Virginia Davis and Kurt Russell make molds of their handprints as part of Disney's 75th anniversary celebration in 1998. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / October 16, 1998)

Walt Disney was a struggling young cartoon filmmaker in Kansas City, Mo., in 1923 when he came up with the idea of having a young girl interact with animated characters in a series of silent comedy shorts.

But who would play the girl?

He found the answer in an advertisement for Warneker's Bread that he saw on screen at a local movie theater: a little girl with a heart-shaped face, a sweet smile and long, blond ringlets.

Virginia Davis, a 4-year-old Kansas City native with two years of dance and dramatic lessons behind her, would earn a place in movie history as the Disney Studios' first star, appearing in the first 13 popular "Alice Comedies" produced by Disney.

Davis, whose married name was McGhee, died Saturday at 90 of age-related causes at her home in Corona, said Walt Disney Studios spokesman Howard E. Green.

"Ginny was a very special lady who always took great pride in the historic role she played in our studio's history," Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for the Walt Disney Co. and Walt's nephew, said in a statement.

"In fact," he said, "she liked to remind everyone that it all started with Alice, not Mickey Mouse."

Mickey's screen debut was still five years away in 1923 when Davis appeared in the first Alice comedy short, "Alice's Wonderland," which was partially shot in the Davis family home with Walt directing.

The film begins with Virginia visiting a cartoon studio, which is actually the interior of Disney's Laugh-O-gram Films office, and Disney himself shows her around. She then goes home, and asleep that night she dreams that she goes to Cartoonland.

Disney's financially troubled Laugh-O-gram Films went bankrupt several months after "Alice's Wonderland" was made, and he already had moved to California by the time he sold the Alice series to a New York distributor in 1923 on the basis of the first film.

The contract stipulated that Davis continue playing the title role, and she and her family moved to Los Angeles.

The ensuing eight- to 10-minute one-reel comedies starring Davis had titles including "Alice's Wild West Show," "Alice Hunting in Africa" and "Alice's Spooky Adventure."

"It was always a little story where I would get into the cartoon through a dream or I was hit on the head with a baseball and suddenly I'd find myself in a world of cartoon characters," she once explained.

Davis recalled in an interview for a 1998 Disney publication that Walt Disney "was very kind, very patient" as a director.

"I never heard a harsh word from him," she said. "When we were getting ready to film, he would explain certain sequences and how I should react: 'There are a lot of animals, wave to them.' Or, 'You're mad at someone.' He made it interesting and fun. It was a 'Let's pretend' sort of thing."

After the first series of Alice shorts were completed, Davis' mother and Walt Disney and his brother Roy didn't agree on Davis' pay for a second slate of Alice films, and she left the Disney studio.

Disney went on to make more than 40 other silent Alice shorts with three other young actresses playing the title role before the series ended in 1927.

But Davis, the series' first star, had made an impact.

"The series of Alice comedies was tremendously important in Walt Disney's career because it was his first successful series of films," said J.B. Kaufman, coauthor, with Russell Merritt, of the 1992 book "Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney."