Winsor McCay’s vaudeville act needed a new capstone. Though he had captivated audiences with earlier animated pieces, including Little Nemo, a 1911 film about a child who had amazing dreams, vaudeville success demanded constant innovation. Plus, his most recent production, How a Mosquito Operates (1912), had left audiences puzzled. Many people did not understand how animation worked, and they (wrongly) charged McCay with “performing some sort of trick with wires” to make his mosquito move.
McCay needed to create something extravagant—something whose authenticity no audience member could question—to keep pace with his success.
So he decided to bring a dinosaur to life.
In February 1914, McCay debuted “Gertie the Dinosaur” on the vaudeville circuit. Created from over 10,000 drawings, “Gertie” became an instant hit. It is often credited as being the first animation to feature a character with a distinct personality and as the first work of key frame animation.
In his vaudeville act, McCay would walk onto the stage with a whip, calling out for Gertie. The cartoon started playing. McCay gave Gertie a series of commands, which she then performed in-screen.
“Gertie” grew so popular that, later in 1914, McCay made it into a motion picture, shown above. Highlights of the film include a sea monster cameo as well as Gertie dancing, bowing, eating a rock and an entire tree, and, at one point, hurling a mammoth named Jumbo into the water.
Today, Gertie is memorialized as an ice cream stand in Disney World.
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