Artist Willie Ito, man behind iconic 'Lady and the Tramp' kiss, reflects on his life, career

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Artist behind iconic 'Lady and the Tramp' kiss reflects shares his story
This is a story about a kiss, but not just any kiss. It's perhaps the most famous and creative Hollywood kiss of all time. But the man behind this iconic moment has an extraordinary story of his own.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- This is a story about a kiss, but not just any kiss. It's perhaps the most famous and creative Hollywood kiss of all time.

But the man behind this iconic moment has an extraordinary story of his own.

In Hollywood, like life, it's that magical moment of a first kiss that changes everything. Yet, there's one kiss so unique it has captured our imaginations and inspired imitators around the world.

It's that accidental spaghetti kiss between two beloved dogs in 1955's "Lady and the Tramp." So who created this brilliant smooch?

"Along with the double feature, you always had a cartoon," Willie Ito said.

Meet 84-year-old Ito, from Monterey Park. Ito remembers being 5-years-old in 1939 and going to a movie theater in San Francisco. That's when his life changed.

"The most memorable thing was seeing 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' for the first time. Seeing the seven little men marching across the screen, singing, 'high ho, high ho, it's off to work we go.' I thought to myself: that's it! That's what I want to be. Not one of the seven dwarfs, but an animated cartoonist," Ito said.

But before he could learn anything about being an artist, he had to learn some tough lessons about the world. Like the lessons of Dec. 7, 1941.

"Practically every street corner had news boys shouting out, 'Extra! Extra! War!' I never heard that word war before," Ito said.

At 8 years old, Willie was locked up in an internment camp with thousands of other Japanese Americans, imprisoned simply because of his ancestry.

"Some of the early arrivals had to stay in the horse stables. The stables were just packed - dirt and manure - the stench was something else," he said.

He talked about the losses he suffered in the camp.

"You know, my grandfather died in camp of a broken heart. My grandmother came back with us and lived with us. They had their own home before the war, but they lost that. It was kind of rough," he said.

But while imprisoned, Willie honed his skills as an artist. And after the war, he continued to draw. Some pieces he created in high school even landed him an interview with Walt Disney Studios.

"The very first encounter, when I walk into the animation building and step into the elevator, is Walt Disney, himself! So, I'm behind Walt, studying the back of his head, thinking to myself, 'oh my God. Literally, oh, my God!'" Ito said.

By that afternoon, Willie fulfilled a dream.

"The production manager says, 'yeah, you're hired so we're going to put you in the 'Lady unit' and I wasn't quite sure what he meant, but I was happy that I was hired," Ito said. "But, it turned out to be the character 'Lady.' The first scene that they put me on was a very iconic spaghetti kissing scene."

Ito said he had no idea that the scene would turn out to be so iconic.

"When the film came out, I think about 1955 or so, and I went to see it in its entirety, I thought, 'wow, this is truly a classic,'" Ito said

Throughout Willie's career, he's drawn some of the world's most famous cartoons.

But looking around his home at all the Disney memorabilia it's clear what is closest to his heart - the place where it all began.

Not just because it was his first job, but because Walt Disney gave a young minority, who had already endured his share of prejudice, an opportunity.

Willie said he always felt safe here with his fellow artists - never hiding who he was or where he came from.

"I knew that they kind of wanted to hear about it, so I would be free. Freely talk about it, how my interest in animation flourished while I was in camp and all that," Ito said. "So, that was very comforting to myself to be able to talk about it."

Monday, Feb. 19, called a Day of Remembrance. It was 76 years ago, that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With a stroke of the pen, 120,000 Japanese Americans were labeled "enemy aliens" and locked up in the camps. It's a day we should never forget.

And while Ito won't call himself a civil rights pioneer, what he will say is that despite the hurdles and hardships, he's lived a magical life.

That's something we can all celebrate wherever we see a plate of spaghetti and think of a kiss.

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