Two blockbuster movies hit the silver screen in 1939, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. We all remember Dorothy’s iconic little dog in “Oz” a Carin Terrier named Toto. In “Gone” there were more than 1,100 horses used that in that production. Animals always add humanity our storytelling. Their actions can change a plot or slow down the pace of a well told tale. What many don’t know, is that in addition to both movies sharing director Victory Fleming, they also shared an animal actor, a little black pony named Admiral.
In Oz, his appearance was a brief role in Munchkinland. He was one of two small black ponies pulling a carriage, that Dorothy stepped into with her ruby slippers, in celebration of killing the Wicked Witch of the East. As Admiral and his handsome mate pulled the carriage around the circular beginnings to the yellow brick road, Munchkins broke into song with “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead!” So cute was Admiral with his gold-painted hooves and gleaming white harness, an ostrich feather atop his headstall. He did a great job of sending Dorothy off on her journey to the Emerald city.
Later in 1939, Admiral made a larger supporting role in Gone with the Wind. He played a spirited pony, a gift from Rhett Butler to his young daughter Bonnie. We see young Bonnie mounted on Admiral sporting a beautiful blue velvet riding habit, complete with red leather gloves to match the red ostrich feather atop her matching blue velvet hat. Which, by the way, matched Admiral’s noseband and browband on his tanned leather bridle.
Bonnie, as spirited as Admiral, was telling her parents that she was going to show them how she could jump, a bigger jump than before. Scarlett, alarmed, pleaded with Rhett to make her stop, not to jump. He reminded Bonnie that she had just learned side saddle and perhaps wasn’t quite ready to attempt such a great feat. In defiance of her parents, off Bonnie canters fast towards the raised bar jump. And then we see Admiral’s crash, Bonnie’s fall and Scarlett’s scream.
Not a bad performance for a young Hollywood stunt pony. Admiral, who did his own stunts, was owned by Hollywood stunt man and animal trainer Dick Ryan. In a single year, his brief appearances in two of the most beloved movies of all time cemented his celebrity. And as has happened with other famous equines before and after him, his retirement years were bound to be filled with public appearances to his devoted fans.
It was a sunny California morning as my Mom and I went shopping at the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey. We were there to visit my grandparents. My grandfather, editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald newspaper, had arranged a trail ride for us at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Club. Back in the early 1970s, they had horses on the property and you could take them along the trails that meandered between the links and the Pacific Ocean. After that ride I was high on all things horsey, and a few days later we found ourselves in the Del Monte Center parking lot.
I spotted a little white horse trailer and dragged my Mom over to see what was in it. A tall man wearing a cowboy hat was backing a little black pony out of the trailer. I watched as the pony turned around and walked very gingerly on what seemed to me to be very long hooves. Almost with pointy toes, like Munchkin shoes.
“Why does he walk like that?” this inquiring pony crazy girl wanted to know.
“Founder,” cowboy hat man said.
“This is a very famous pony. He was in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with The Wind,” cowboy hat man beamed. “Would you like to pet him?”
As I walked toward equine Hollywood royalty, wide-eyed, arm outstretched, my palm landing on his soft neck. As I stroked him I asked cowboy hat man how old he was. “He’s 52!” Did I hear that right? I knew ponies could live long, but wow! He did look very old, especially the way he walked, but still. We stayed for a while, Mom grabbed my hand and we were off.
Recently, I came across Paul Miles Schneider’s blog that aged Admiral at 6 months old in 1939. This made a bit more sense to me, sort of. That would have made him 32 years old that day I met him in a parking lot. He was the same age as my Mom that day – she was born in 1939. And my pony Gingersnap had also lived to be 32, so I guess 32 makes more sense than 52. Funny, how we have childhood memories that really stick into our minds. But, I find it hard to believe that a 6-month-old pony could be trained to jump, crash into jumps, canter, be side-saddle broken, and trained to drive a carriage at such a young age. Sounds more like what a seasoned stunt pony of say maybe 20 years old might be capable of. Only Admiral knows for sure. But I tend to believe the cowboy hat man, Dick Ryan, the pony’s long time owner.