The Creation of Dumbo and His Syracuse Connection

Dumbo and Syracuse

By Richard G. Case

“Back in the day, in 1999 when I still wrote for the Syracuse Post-Standard, the word “Syracuse’’ jumped out at me as I read an obituary in the New York Times for Helen Aberson Mayer, at 91.

The by-lined death notice said Helen wrote the story that inspired the 1941 Walt Disney film, “Dumbo.’’

It also said this happened when Helen, a Syracuse native, still lived in Syracuse.

1939-06-23 Helen PearlWho knew?  I asked myself.  A few phone calls convinced me the answer was:  this is a fragment of our history not too many people in Syracuse know about.  I had a story for my column.  Almost a year later, the yarn of Dumbo’s creation – “Still Flying” – was published as the cover story in the Post’s Sunday supplement, Stars magazine.

This is how it unraveled. . . .

Helen Aberson was born in Syracuse in 1907, the daughter of Anna and Morris Aberson, Russian immigrants to our town.  Morris Is listed in city directories as a cigar maker and grocer.  The family lived at 1307 East Genesee St.

She attended the Syracuse University School of Speech and graduated in 1929.  In a questionnaire she returned to the university’s Alumni Office in 1939, she wrote “I went to New York after graduation and did social work.  Returned to Syracuse in 1933 to direct dramatic activities at a nearby children’s camp (also took a) job as director of dramatic activities for the municipal recreational department.  I left in August 1937 to do radio work for a local concern.’’

Her niece, Jeanne Castle of Little Falls (the daughter of Helen’s brother, Sim Aberson) told me she believes Helen worked at WSYR, a Syracuse radio station, adopting the name of “Barbara Manning.’’ She listed her occupation as “radio commentator” on the Alumni Office form.

Helen continued on the form she sent to the Alumni Office, speaking for the first time of her first husband, Harold Pearl, her collaborator on the Dumbo story:

“I met my husband through business. He’s an ex-New York American newspaper man who had come to Syracuse as an exploitation and publicity man for United Artists.  He stayed on after being offered the managership of a downtown Syracuse theater (The Eckel.)

“We met in October 1937. I became Mrs. Harold Pearl on Feb.14, 1938.  (We couldn’t resist St.Valentine’s Day.)  We collaborated on a children’s story, which is to  be published soon.  Writing is a hobby at present but we hope to turn it into a full-time job some day.  We’re headed to New York right now and eventually the Coast – we hope.’’

The Pearls divorced in the summer of 1939.  Helen’s son of her second marriage, Andrew Mayer of Staten Island, told me that his mother explained to him that Harold Pearl returned to New York City after the divorce and died years before Helen.

In 1944, Helen married Richard J. Mayer, a former Wall Street Journal columnist and commodity editor she met while working for the Office of War Information in Washington during World War II.  He survived her in 1999.

There’s a hint in a 1939 Herald-Journal newspaper story of the high hopes that Helen and Harold had for “Dumbo” back then. The film was released in October 1941:

“Two Syracusans, Helen and Harold Pearl, had one of their children’s stories, ‘Dumbo, the Flying Elephant,’ purchased by Disney Productions. ‘’ A headline above the story read “Headed for Fame and Fortune.’’

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It didn’t turn out that way.  The Pearls originally sold the rights to their manuscript to a Syracusan, Everett Whitmyre, who apparently originated the idea of a Roll-a-Book, a book designed to be scrolled through, as a sideline to his work as an advertising agent.  To this day, we don’t know if “Dumbo’’ ever was published as a Roll-a-Book, although a proof of the manuscript exists in the papers of Helen Durney, a Syracuse artist who drew a series of illustrations for the “Dumbo’’ original.

Helen Mayer explained that transaction in more detail in a letter she wrote to a lawyer in 1993:  “In 1938, my ex-husband (now deceased) and I wrote a story about a little elephant with very big ears who used them to fly.  We named him Dumbo.

“We approached a local publisher in Syracuse, New York – then my home town – to print the books.  He said rather than printing a small number of books, we ought to send our manuscript to Walt Disney to be used for a movie.  We thought it was a wild idea but went along with it.  The very next day we had a call from the Disney people with an offer to buy our manuscript for $1,000 and they would publish it and make it into a movie.”

The Disney film followed the original Aberson-Pearl story, but details were changed and added.  For example, the authors called the mom of Dumbo “Mother Ella.’’  Disney renamed her “Mrs. Jumbo.’’  The Syracusans made up a helper for their little elephant.  He was a wise robin.  They called him “Red.’’  Disney turned him into a mouse named “Timothy.”

Helen Aberson traveled to California as a consultant on the film.  Her son, Andrew Mayer, said her heard various stories about his mother’s experience in California, but he sensed his mother returned home unhappy with some of the changes Disney made in her story.  “She was the sort of person who tried to see the sun in the clouds,’’ Andrew explained.

“She never said exactly, but I know she felt she was not treated well,’’ he continued. “She was upset about the manner in which her name was excluded” from the credits of “Dumbo” book Disney brought out in concert with the movie.  This happened when the original Roll-a-Book copyright expired in 1986.

The rights the Pearls sold to Disney included a series of Disney Golden Books still in print since the first in the 1940s.  Andrew Mayer thinks his mother earned about $1,000 from her creation.

The “Dumbo’’ project had a third collaborator in Syracuse, artist Helen Durney, who graduated with a degree in painting from Syracuse University in 1927.  Miss Durney, who died here in 1970, left only cousins, as far as we know.  Unfortunately, we don’t know her feelings about the “Dumbo’’ film and her relations with the Disney company.  The movie was not mentioned in her obituary.

A box of Helen Durney’s papers, including drawings and letters relating to “Dumbo,’’ was found in Chittenango after her death.  Those documents were donated to the Syracuse University library archives.

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Helen Durney apparently had a career as an artist and patron of the arts.  We don’t know how she connected to the Pearls.  In a letter in the Disney archives, written in 1939 to “Walter Disney,’’ Helen said “I have lived with him (Dumbo) since last February when he took form in one antic after another on tracing paper.  From these many rough sketches, Mr. (Everett) Whitmyre of Roll-a-Book picked the final sixteen for illustrations, which were finished in pen and ink.”

There is a vein of sadness in the letter.  Helen appears to be asking Walt Disney for a job.  She wished him luck on the new film (“Dumbo’’ was released in 1941), adding these lines:  “The world is so much richer place because you live, Walter Disney.  Don’t let anything happen to your creative genius.  Don’t ever grow up.’’

In the master’s reply, from the company archives, Disney said “As you predicted, he has proved to be a swell little character to work with, and we are having a lot of fun making the picture.’’  He did not offer her a job.  Biographers of Walt Disney claim the “Dumbo’’ movie saved the small, struggling company from financial ruin.

Her obituary said Helen Durney “worked for the Knopf Publishing Co. in New York City for several years.”  She also served as educational and publicity secretary at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, now the Everson Museum. The museum exhibited some of her “Dumbo’’ drawings in 1939.  In a talk she gave at the museum that year, Helen credited Everett Whitmyre with inventing the Roll-a-Book concept while watching children at the New York Public Library.  “Without Mr. Whitmyre, there would have been no Dumbo,’’ Helen said.

Andrew Mayer believes his mother, also Helen, once had a copy of the “Dumbo’’ book, which readers turned using a small knob.  He said Helen Mayer’s trunk of “Dumbo’’ memoriablia had been lost by the family.  There is a printer’s proof of the book, as written by the Pearls, in Helen Durney’s papers at SU.

Press materials distributed by Disney for the 60th in 2001 stated that a sequel, “Dumbo II,’’ was in production, scheduled for release in 2004.  It has not appeared, so far.

Dumbo Illustration by Helen Durney, orginal located at SU Special Collections

Footnote: Ever the curious reporter, I tried to follow the path of Helen Durney in 1999.  Two of her cousins were mentioned as survivors in her brief obituary in 1970.  One of her cousins was a Mrs. Andrew Anguish of Chittenango.  It turned out that both Mrs. Anguish and her husband had died, too.

I called my friend, the late Clara Houck, a native daughter and historian of Chittenango.  Did she know the Anquishes?  She did.  She also knew their neighborhood, Arlene Baird, had looked after them and helped settle their estate, when Andrew died in 1996.  Why not call Arlene?  Clara suggested.

I did and stood on Arlene’s glassed-in porch a few days later, listening to her story about having the power of attorney for Andrew Anguish and helping to clean out the house after his death.  She said she’d come across a box of the papers of Helen Durney.  She was tempted to trash them but had second thoughts.  After all, Arlene reasoned, someone must have cared for them all these years.  She knew Helen Durney was an artist; the papers must be connected to her career.

“I guess they were saved for a reason,’’ Arlene said.

Arlene agreed with me that the papers, stuffed into a Syracuse department store suit box, ought to be donated to Syracuse University, where both Helens, Durney and Aberson, had graduated.  Two months later, Arlene Baird herself died.”

In Their Own Words: The Election of 1864

The Election of 1864 was an important one and not just because it was the 20th election for the President of the United States. At this time, the U.S  was still in the midst of a brutal civil war. The election had incumbent Abraham Lincoln and his running mate Andrew Jackson take on George B. McClellan of New Jersey and his running mate George H. Pendleton. Meetings and rallies occurred throughout the United States on the campaign trails of these men, one of which happened right here in Syracuse on October 19th, 1864. The New York Times reported the following article on October 8th leading up to the event, put together by the National Union Executive Committee which sought to get Lincoln re-elected, of upcoming gatherings:



Gov. ANDREW, of Massachusetts, and Gov. BROUGH, of Ohio, will address mass meetings in this State, under the auspices of the National Union Executive Committee, at the following times and places:

Syracuse, Wednesday, Oct. 19. (Emphasis OHA)

Rochester, Thursday, Oct. 20.

Lockport, Friday, Oct. 21.

Buffalo, Saturday, Oct. 22.

Gov. ANDREW also speaks at Albany Monday evening, Oct. 17, and at mass meeting at Rome, Tuesday, Oct. 18, with Col. JAMES F. JAQUESS, of Illinois, (of Richmond visit notoriety.) Col. JAQUESS also speaks at Owego on the 13th, at Herkimer on the 15th, and Fort Plain on the 17th.

Hon. LEWIS BARKER, of Maine, will speak at Owego on the 13th, Herkimer on the 15th, Fort Plain on the 17th, Cooperstown on the 20th.”

During the event, 2nd Lt. Edward F. Hopkins of Company E 149th Regiment New York State Volunteers out of Pompey, New York, wrote the following in his pocket diary:

Oct 19: Great Union mass meeting at Syracuse.  600 teams in line with banners, mottoes, & flags & music.  Streets full, nobody drunk & everybody satisfied that Abe will be elected…

These events were Union tickets (Pro-Lincoln) who defended the aims of the Civil War, which the Democratic Convention at Chicago called a failure, which this New York Times article, dated October 15th, further describes.

Today in History: Construction Begins on The War Memorial

078-photo-taken-by-arnie-rubensteinjpg-4f8b04522d753e8765 Years Ago: On October 22nd 1949, ground was broken on the block surrounded by Adams, State, and Harrison Street for a $3.7 million ($34 million today) sports and entertainment building as a memorial to war Veterans. It was completed in 1951 and eventually the names of 1,600 county residents who died in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea as well as 50,000 others who served were inscribed in the memorial. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. There is an exhibit on the military history of Onondaga County on display in the War Memorial courtesy of the Onondaga Historical Association.

–Daniel Connors, of the OHA

Some notable acts that have performed at the War Memorial:

  • Frank Sinatra
  • Dean Martin
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Duke Ellington
  • The Flamingos
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Chuck Berry
  • Bill Haley
  • Ray Charles
  • Pete Seeger
  • Johnny Cash
  • Bob Hope
  • Rolling Stones
  • The Beach Boys
  • James Brown
  • Simon & Garfunkel
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Led Zeppelin
  • The Who
  • Neil Diamond
  • Black Sabbath
  • Elton John
  • Deep Purple
  • Steve Miller Band
  • ZZ Top
  • Frank Zappa
  • Aerosmith
  • Elvis
  • Billy Joel
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Chicago
  • The Cars
  • The Kinks
  • Def Leppard

Inside the OHA Collection: New Objects Arrive at OHA

Last Wednesday, a woman came into OHA and donated four army helmets from World War I and World War II. However, there is one we need to do more research on, as we have not determined which war it was used in or by whom.

(Photos: 1 – Unidentified, 2 – U.S WWI, 3 – WWII 1st Division, 4 – WWII (unknown division)

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After taking some photos and researching them a bit more, we happened to see recently accessioned World War II Ration Books. These books were an important part of the war effort, as supplies were sent to Europe during and after the war.


Photo 1 – Ration Book No. 3

The United States’ rationing program during World War II affected millions of people from 1943 until the war’s end in 1946 – about 130,000,000 people.[1] Created in April of 1941, the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (later named the Office of Price Administration or OPA) was established to help quell the wartime inflation that Americans experienced during World War I due to the shipping of goods overseas.[2] In January 1942, with the passing of the Emergency Price Control Act, the OPA was given more authority over pricing, setting price ceilings on commodities.[3] Further, under the Second War Powers Act of 1942, products were given priority to the armed services,America’s allies, and finally to American civilians.[4]

There were five methods for rationing developed by the OPA, which included stamps, coupons, tokens (photo #3), certificates, and checks.[5] War Ration books were instituted and made available through an application to American families from May 1942 to the end of 1945 each containing a months worth of stamps. Stamps would only be redeemable for a specific amount of time to avoid hoarding, which newspapers would report daily.[6] Ration Book One

Photo 2 - Ration Book No. 4

Photo 2 – Ration Book No. 4

was distributed May 4th through May 7th of 1942 containing twenty-eight stamps and was a part of Uniform Coupon

Rationing.[7] This system offered equal amounts of a single commodity, in this case used for the purchase of sugar.[9] Upon retrieval of their book, applicants signed a form stating the amount of sugar previously purchased. Any amount over two pounds of sugar per person was measured and an equivalent amount of stamps were removed from the booklet.[10] Purchases of sugar were limited to one-half pound per week. The OPA eventually changed what these stamps could be used for during the course of the war, ultimately being used for the purchase of coffee and shoes.[11]

During this time, the OPA also implemented a point system, with more points placed on items that were scarce and that could be used for a combination of items.[12] First introduced in Ration Book One, the

Ration Tokens, WWII

Photo 3 – Ration Tokens, WWII

system slightly changed starting in January of 1943 with the introduction of War Ration Book Two (see figure 7 & 8). In the second book, stamps came in two colors, red and blue, and continued to use the point system.[13] Red stamps gave the owner of the book the ability to buy butter, oils, meat, and with some exceptions cheese.[14] Blue stamps allowed for the purchase of frozen, canned and bottled fruits, juices, vegetables, along with processed foods such as soups and baby food.[15] Each book came with four pages of blue stamps and four pages of red stamps.[16] As with the sugar, people who had what was considered an excess amount of these goods had stamps removed from their ration book, though goods that people canned themselves did not have to be reported.[17]

Ration Book Three (photo #1  above) was issued in September and October of 1943 followed by Ration Book Four (photo #2 above ) in late 1943, both of which were used through 1945.[18] Ration Book Three came with brown stamps, which replaced red ones on September 12th, 1943.[19] These stamps were used for butter, cheese, lards, and other fats.[20] Ration Book Four, printed in red, blue, and green, was used in along with blue and red cardboard tokens, which were used as change for retailers.[21]


[1] Kitty Pittman, “Rationing in World War II: An Introduction into a Collection,” Oklahoma Department of Libraries, 2013,

[2] Tally D. Fugate, “Rationing,” Oklahoma Historical Society, 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fugate, “Rationing.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pittman, Kitty, “Rationing

[8] Alan Spohnheimer and Casie Vance, “World War II Rationing on the U.S. Home front,” Ames

Historical Society, 2013,

[9] Pittman, “Rationing in World War II.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fugate, “Rationing.”

[12] Fugate, “Rationing.”

[13] Spohnheimer and Vance, “World War II Rationing.”

[14] Fugate, “Rationing.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Pittman, “Rationing”

[17] Fugate,“Rationing.”

[18] Spohnheimer and Vance, “World War II Rationing.”

[19] “Brown Ration Stamps Will Replace Red Ones Sept 12.” St. Petersburg Times. August 17th 1943, 8.

[20] Pittman, “Rationing”

[21] Angela Goebel Bain ed. and Dr. Barbara Mathews ed. “World War II Ration Book Four,”




The Terror of the City

One cool November evening a man was walking down a quiet Syracuse city street when, suddenly, the terror of the city sidewalks caught him unaware!  It had him on the ground within seconds, fracturing his skull.  The man was quickly taken to his home by passersby and a doctor was called, but to no avail.  The man was dead 24 hours later.  What could create such terror and cause such tragedy?   It was none other than the banana peel.  As the Syracuse Standard stated on November 11, 1890, “Another death has been added to the already long list of casualties caused by that terror of the city sidewalks, the banana peel.”

The man was Thomas Hughes, a contractor and stone mason, living with his wife and five children on East Adams St. in the City of Syracuse.  He was born in Ireland, around 1848 and moved to Syracuse circa 1869 or 1870.   At the time of Mr. Hughes’ death at age 42, his children ranged in age from 11 to 20.  The fate of his widow, Mary Hughes, and family is uncertain but it seems she ultimately left Syracuse, as she is not listed in the Syracuse city directories after 1894.  

This article was discovered while doing family research for one of the patrons at the OHA Research Center.  Two things that were learned on reading this:  first, the inevitable slipping on the banana peel is not just for cartoons and clowns, and secondly, this was not an uncommon or unheard of occurrence.  It was not an isolated incident, as one might assume.  Upon further research into this banana peel phenomenon, it seems they were quite the nuisance for city pedestrians.  As one article put it “The guileless banana peel can down anything but the thermometer.”  (Syracuse Daily Standard, August 14, 1885).

Other headlines refer to the  “Deadly Banana Peel”, and  “The Invincible Banana Peel.”  Another tells the gruesome tale of a young man who slipped on a banana peel and fell under the wheels of the street car he was attempting to board.  Not only did newspapers announce tragic accidents related to troubles caused by banana peels, but I also found narratives, poems, and editorials.


One writer for The Post-Standard had these strong words to say about those who litter the streets with the dangerous banana peels:  “If the strains and sprains and broken bottoms occasioned by falls upon banana peels thrown carelessly about on the Syracuse sidewalks might be suffered by the fellows who throw the peels, there would be no fault found, but it is a case, like many another, wherein the innocent is made to suffer for the guilty.  The throwing of banana peel on the sidewalk is an exhibition of reckless brutality; and the man or woman caught doing it should be rated as a brute.”  (The Post-Standard, October 17, 1899).  It’s interesting that what is, today, used solely as a comedy gag was once a serious safety issue facing our city.


The best article by far that shows the gravity of this menace to walkers everywhere is actually an advertisement for shoes.  “The Banana Peel which at the beginning of the present century was the most dangerous enemy one could meet upon the public highway, is about to lose its Death-Dealing Qualities.  G. D. Wallace, 64 South Salina, has perfected a process by which all boots, shoes, rubbers, etc., sold at his establishment are rendered Peel Proof.  Purchase here, thereby Insuring yourself against accidents and perhaps an Early Grave.”  This advertisement appeared in the Evening Herald on September 20, 1883.    I wonder if those poor banana peel victims knew about Mr. Wallace’s revolutionary shoe design; perhaps if they had, tragedy could have been averted.

The insidious nature of a carelessly dropped banana peel was common knowledge to Syracusans of yesteryear and their contemporaries.  They knew that, despite the sometimes  comical aspects of slipping on a banana peel, it had the potential of bringing calamity and misfortune into people’s lives.  Although this banana peel trivia is slightly amusing, I will definitely steer clear of any thoughtlessly discarded banana peels in my path from now on.


By Sarah Kozma


The Origins of the “Salt City”

Syracuse earned the nickname of “Salt City” because of its salt mines.


Fact:  Syracuse never had salt mines; rather, Syracuse’s prosperous salt industry was due to its salt springs.  These salt springs were mainly located on the southern end of Onondaga Lake.  The salty brine was processed in two ways, solar evaporation and boiling.  In the solar evaporation method, the salt water was pumped into large, shallow vats and exposed to the sun for a few weeks, but they had to be covered whenever it rained.  As the water evaporated, salt was raked up and then packaged for shipping.  This process produced coarse salt.   The boiling method produced fine salt.  In this process, the salt water was pumped into a salt block and boiled in large cauldrons that were heated from beneath.  As the water boiled off, the remaining salt was scooped out and made ready for shipping.  Syracuse was a top salt producer in the country for much of the 19th century.

Learn more about the Syracuse salt industry in one of our newly produced Historic Onondaga Creekwalk videos below:

A Syracuse Connection: Slap Shot, Bob Costas, and the Real Olgi Ogilthrope

Syracuse has more of a connection to the cult hockey movie Slap Shot than just being filmed at the War Memorial Arena. NBC’s Bob Costas, Syracuse University alum and former Syracuse Blazers play by play announcer, recounts his time with the real Olgi Ogilthorpe, minor league tough guy Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe for the Blazers, in a conversation with former NHL player, coach, and general manager Mike Milbury during the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, New York.

Legend has it, Bill Goldthorpe was cast to play the role of Ogilthrope in the movie, but due to an incident in the locker room he did not get the part.

(Skip to 3:06)

For those who haven’t seen Slap Shot, here’s Olgi Ogilthorpe’s introduction into the movie and the ensuing fight, typical in many “old time hockey” games at the minor league level.


In an interview with Mike Ortiz of the Fansided network a little more than three years ago, Costas explains how he got his job as the Syracuse Blazers announcer:

Mike Ortiz: How did you get a job as the Syracuse Blazers announcer?

Bob Costas: Well I was a Senior at Syracuse University and there announcer that went to school with me that was older than me got a job in Cincinnati just before the season was going to begin and he recommended me as his successor and they didn’t have that much time to be choosey; A they only had a week and B they were only paying 30 dollars a game so they were going to be looking for a young guy and a local guy and I kind of finessed my way into the job and I really didn’t have much experience broadcasting hockey but I kind of faked it in the early stages until I got the hang of it.”


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