Sammy McKim

Hollywood child star who turned Disney 'Imagineer'

Samuel McKim, actor and artist: born Vancouver, British Columbia 20 December 1924; married 1954 Dorothy Trent (two sons); died Burbank, California 9 July 2004.

Sammy McKim was a Hollywood child star who auditioned for the voice of Pinocchio and became a favourite in westerns. Later, as an artist, he designed the artwork for the first souvenir maps of Disneyland in 1954, and also the preliminary sketches for many of the theme-park rides. Walt Disney referred to Sam McKim (as he now styled himself) and others like him as "Imagineers".

Samuel McKim was born in Vancouver in 1924, the second of five children (after David) and the last of the McKim clan to be born in Canada. The following year the family uprooted for a "better life" in Seattle, Washington, where his sisters Lydia and Peggy and brother Harry were born. His father's ill-health forced the family to move to sunny Hollywood in 1935. Three years later McKim senior died.

With five children and her parents to support Mrs McKim decided to put her offspring to work. With a mass of unruly hair, freckles, bandy legs and crooked teeth, Sammy McKim attracted the attention of Hollywood directors and was already working in pictures by the time Lydia, Peggy, Harry and David joined in the act. "It was easy to get into movies back then," he recalled:

I started working as an extra for five dollars a day. My first was a Jane Withers movie, This is the Life [1935]. I had a couple of lines one day so I got 10 dollars! During the Depression, 10 dollars a day was not bad pay for even a grown man.

Hollywood was overrun with child performers; however, seeing five from one family was very unusual. Sammy started in melodramas before finding his niche in westerns. He made Country Gentlemen (1936) and The Painted Stallion (1937) for Republic Studios and one of the "Three Mesquiteers" films, Hit the Saddle (1937), with Rita Hayworth - then billed as Rita Cansino.

Republic bosses were pleased with their new star and happily signed him to a five-year contract at $50 a week, and every six months a $25 increase:

As a kid working at Republic was fun although I quickly realised that it was no MGM or Warners studios. Republic was a low-budget studio churning out low-budget B pictures. It was not uncommon to work nine and ten hours a day - three of which were spent in the studio classroom. We McKims were taught to behave and keep our mouths shut. Adult stars hated child actors at the best of times and particularly detested brats. The McKim outlook kept us all employed.

Studio bosses engaged their writer to produce his own western series for Sammy, which would secure an extra $25 a week. Unfortunately his grandfather demanded more money, and Republic scrapped it.

His other films include San Francisco (1936) with Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable, The Lone Ranger (1938), Hi-Yo Silver (1940), Public Enemies (1941) with Wendy Barrie and We've Never Been Licked (1943) with Anne Gwynne.

His career was interrupted by the Second World War. He was drafted into the US Army in 1943, and became known as Sam. "Sammy was the kid in pictures," he said. "Sam was a man - a soldier."

He received several medals during his 14 months overseas in Korea including the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest US military decoration, and the Bronze Star. The McKim family did not open their Christmas presents in 1951 until Sam came home from the Korean War in late January 1952. Upon his return he turned down an offer from the director John Ford to star in The Long Gray Line (1955), opting instead to enrol at the Los Angeles Art Center.

Upon graduating he joined the art department at Fox Studios before obtaining a job within Disney's art department. Sam McKim remained at Disney for 32 years. "Walt Disney only complimented me once in all those years," he said. He produced artwork of all four attractions Disney built for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. A selection of McKim's sketches and drawings still hangs at Disney World, Florida.

Austin Mutti-Mewse