Disney’s “Thumper” Has a Newton Connection

Originally posted Thursday, September 5, 2013

Harvey County, Kansas has been the beginning point for many people that went on to become famous nationally.  In this blog post, HCHM Archivist Jane Jones, highlights the famous ice skater Donna Atwood.

by Jane Jones, HCHM Archivist
In the 1942 movie version of Disney’s “Bambi” there is an ice-skating sequence featuring Bambi, the deer and Thumper, the rabbit. The ice-skating model for Thumper is Donna Atwood who was born in Newton on February 14, 1925. She left Newton at the age of nine, the family moving to Arizona and then to California. The rest they say is history, because she became the very talented and popular star of John Harris’ Ice Capades from 1941-1956.
Donna being called to the podium
Dwarves in the background!
My connection to Donna Atwood goes something like this. I had stopped dance lessons at the age of 8 and my mother probably desperate to get me into something encouraged me to select ice-skating lessons. I along with some other classmates attended lessons once a week after school at the Pla-Mor Skating Rink in Kansas City.
I was certainly not destined to become a Donna Atwood, but I had some sense of what it took to become a good skater and was always enraptured when the Ice Capades came to the Pla-Mor in Kansas City. It was thrilling to watch Donna and her skating partner Bobby Specht do their eye-catching twirls.
The photos in this blog are in the photo collections at the museum. Donna is receiving roses from Merle Norton, owner of Norton’s Memorials in Newton and in 1954 Chairman of the Newton Planning Commission. My guess is Donna was being honored for her connection to Newton, Kansas. In April,1954 the Ice Capades were featuring Donna and Bobby in “Snow White” at the Pla-Mor. If you look at the top photo carefully you can get a glimpse of three of the seven dwarves.
Donna receiving flowers and giving kiss to Merle



Donna Atwood and skating partner Bobby Specht
The Atwoods are listed in the Newton City Directory from 1923-1931. (Our next City Directory is 1938 and the family is gone by then.) Donna’s father was a pharmacist at Knowlton Drug Store and Rexall Drug Store. She took dancing lessons from the age of 3, here in Newton. Their residences were 330 E. 9, 528 E. Broadway and 916 E. Broadway. She probably attended Cooper School. The family is listed in the 1930 census in Newton: Chester, Anna, brother Bill and Donna. By the 1940 census she is living in Los Angeles with her mother and brother. Her father had died.
 According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times her brother gave her her first pair of skates. Atwood was mostly self-taught. She won the junior ladies title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1941. Harris offered Donna who was 16 a contract after seeing her skate. “For 15 years, billed as ‘the Sweetheart of the Ice,’ she gave over 6,000 performances in two dozen venues while touring the United States and Canada.” In 1956, her last performance year for the Ice Capades, she did “Peter Pan” which according to one of her sons was her favorite role.
Atwood and Harris, 27 years older, married. They had 3 children. Donna retired at the age of 31 to be a stay-at-home Mom. Later, she divorced Harris and never remarried. Donna Atwood died December 20, 2010 at the Motion Picture Television and Country House in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 85.
1.  Slides from Photo Collection at HCHM.
2.  Obituary by Valerie J. Nelson, LA Times January 21, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com
3.  Newton City Directories, HCHM