Doreen Dixon: A life among the stars

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Doreen Dixon poses for a portrait inside the entertainment room of her Ridgeponite Condo in Coeur d’Alene on Wednesday. Dixon edited reel, music, animation and dialogue for a number of motion picture studios throughout the country including New Vision Pictures and Universal. The last film she worked on was Stephen Sommers’ action and adventure film “The Mummy,” which came out in 1999.

The moment Doreen Dixon met Walt Disney, she knew she was in for an exciting life.

She was in college and working as a tour guide at Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., when she came face to face with the man behind the mouse.

"The first month or so I was getting into the elevator and Walt Disney walked in," Dixon said, sipping from a mug of coffee at the kitchen table in her cozy Coeur d'Alene condo.

"We were on the first floor. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Disney,’ and he went, ‘Young lady,'" Dixon said, her eyes wide. "I went, ‘Oh, I’m going to get fired, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.’ Then he said, ‘What’s your name? Where do you work, what do you do?’ and I said what I did, I was doing tours. I told him my name and everything, and he says, ‘You will love it here. It’s family, and whenever you see me just say, ‘Hi Walt,’ and I’ll say, ‘Hi Doreen.’ ... He would tell people, ‘Just call me Walt,’ and that’s how he was. He was so wonderful, and he knew my name. I’d meet him out on the street or something and he’d say, ‘Hi Doreen,’ or ‘Hello Doreen,’ and I’d say, ‘Hi Walt.’ That was it."

Disney was the first of many bright stars Dixon would meet and work with during her 43-year career in the motion picture industry.

"What a wonderful man," she said of Disney. "He really made that studio and people feel good and important. He was just a really lovely man. What a way to start."

The Canadian-born Dixon fell in love with California at a young age when she visited a family member. She made up her mind that she would go to school in the Golden State.

“I came home and told my dad and he said, ‘Oh no, the whole family has to go.’ So we all moved to Burbank, Calif.," she said. "My dad said, 'It’s so important that we become American citizens because you’re living in a country and you want to be part of this country.’ So in five years, all of us became American citizens, and my dad was from the old school, but man he had a positive attitude about being in this country, supporting this country and voting in this country. So that’s what we did, we became American citizens as soon as we could."

Dixon was a woman in a man's world but she worked her way into the top ranks of the industry at companies such as Universal Studios and Filmation Animation Studios. She worked in different aspects of film and sound editing and post-production, leading her to work on feature films such as "Dante's Peak," "The Great Outdoors," "Scent of a Woman" and many, many more.

She has been a member of the Editors Guild, Local 776 since 1965, a voting member of the Motion Picture Sound Editors since 1979, a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts and Science since 1980 and a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science since 1986.

Her final film was "The Mummy" before she retired to Coeur d'Alene in 2000 with her late husband, Wally.

"I never wanted for work," Dixon said. "I was asked for and I was so blessed and so fortunate that I had more than I needed for work. I mean, 43 years, to be saying, this is the most precious thing I've ever done. I hated to give it up, even after 43 years, but I’m glad I did because I had 10 years here with my husband. It was meant to be.”

• • •

You started at Disney. What did you do from there?

“I was taking tours for a long time and then a position opened up in the sound department so I was the assistant in the sound department booking stages — booking actors, booking the orchestra — for a while. And then, I knew what I wanted to do. I was a music major, and at that time the editing department was all men. The only woman there was a gal I just absolutely admired, and she was 6 feet tall, quite robust, but man she held her own. She was the music editor.

I went to her and I said, ‘I really want to be a music editor,’ and she said, ‘Doreen, you know how hard it is, it’s a man’s world in editing.’ There were groups 1, 2 and 3 and to get into the union, it’s going to be difficult. She said, ‘If you want, come every night or when you can and spend a few hours with me and I’ll teach you what I know how to do everything — splicing, getting film ready for the orchestra and everything.’ I did this almost two and-a-half to three years on my own. She taught me. I really loved it.

Then I talked to the head of editing. Finally, he came one night and he said, ‘Doreen, it’s really hard to get into the union, but I’m going to go to bat because you know more than some of those people in group 1.’ He went to editing and got me in. I started assistant editing. Of course, I’m schlepping maybe 1,000-foot reels on this dolly, and at that time we couldn’t wear pants, so you had dresses and skirts and a bit of a heel, and I’m going down the street doing this and the guys are going, ‘Oh yeah, she’s not going to last.’ But I did. I got through it and then they accepted me because they knew, man, I was going to do it and I could do it. And it worked.”

When you worked on a movie, was it ‘work work work’ for six months straight and then three months off?

“If you’re lucky. The longest I got was a month. With Taylor (Hackford)’s production company, he sent me to New Zealand to do a small picture with Bryan Brown called ‘Sweet Talker.’ I was there for three weeks. That was the best, it was like being on vacation. The Australians know how to work. You go to work at 8:30, you have lunch for an hour and a half and you’re off at five. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is luxury!’ They put me up in a penthouse.

And once my husband retired, I contracted with the studios that, OK, I don’t want overtime pay, but they would fly my husband over and it was all paid for. It was better for me to have him there. And boy, in Australia, it was like being on vacation. We worked but we played, it was lovely. Normally, you wouldn’t have time. You’d go to New York and then you’d be on the next plane. It was 24-7 until the picture was released into the theater, then you could breathe. So you took advantage of the time you had … I never knew when I’d be finished or what time, but you do it when you can. You don’t want to give up something. You say, ‘OK, this is what I have to do.’

One year we flew to Fiji, that was the only place that was a summer vacation and it had just started summer, so we went on a Blue Lagoon cruise to Fiji for two weeks and then came back and did a picture. But that’s how we had to live. You did it when you could do it, and that’s it.”

How has the film industry changed since you first entered it?

“Quite a bit. When I first started, it was strictly film, tape and film and reels. You had to work with your hands with the film. You cut, you spliced, you hot spliced and you had the synch machines and things like that. Now, like when I did ‘Dante’s Peak,’ we got into more digital things. That’s when it really started becoming the automated world for me and I was able to see what they could do digitally. Now with replacement dialogue and digital, they don’t have the film so much, it’s all on tape now, and now it’s just push-button where before it was hands-on … the fingers do the walking now, whereas it was physical then. That’s the change.

And from 2000 until now, I can only imagine what it’s like. It’s all digital. But look at what they’re doing with digital effects and everything, it’s incredible. I keep thinking, ‘I wish I would have had that when I was schlepping those 2,000-foot reels up the stairs.’ They were heavy, but boy, I had good biceps then.

Do you have a favorite actor or actress?

“I loved working with Meryl Streep in ‘The River Wild,’ and Al Pacino and Brendan Fraser were wonderful. And Pierce Brosnan. I did ‘Dante’s Peak,’ and he was lovely. I cannot say there was any dissatisfaction with anybody. They are so professional and I felt I was professional. I never asked for autographs, I just wouldn’t do it. I just thought, ‘No, I’m a professional, they’re a professional.’ But when they gave me something of their own volition, like some of the posters that the directors would sign and some pictures, that was different and it was precious to me.”

Through everything, do you have one most memorable moment?

“Meeting Walt Disney. When I saw the picture (“Saving Mr. Banks”), I went, ‘Oh my God, it’s true to life!’ That’s the way he was. And I worked with (“Banks” star) Tom Hanks on ‘Money Pit,’ which was one of his very first pictures. I loved it. There were so many I can’t remember because I have quite a few movies. Tom Hanks, Bette Midler — after I did a picture with her, she invited us to a concert at Universal and we went backstage for a get together. “Xanadu,” I worked with Olivia Newton John. And Gene Kelly; that was the only picture I ever worked on with my husband. He was the playback operator for Gene Kelly. This is bringing back memories!

I worked on “Waterworld” with Kevin Costner, and he was so gracious. I never got such a big bouquet of flowers. They were sent from Hawaii. I mean beautiful things like that. And the directors were good. When they said, ‘Thank you, we appreciate it, great working with you,’ and then you’d get another movie from them, it was such a payoff. There’s not one moment. But that first moment with Disney, that has stuck with me ever since.

Meet Doreen Dixon

Born and raised: Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Birthday: Sept. 28

Family: Late husband of nearly 45 years, Wally, 17-year-old Australian cockatiel Scooter

Education: Associate of arts degree, extended studies at the University of California, Los Angeles

Favorite film: “It’s A Wonderful Life”

Favorite song: “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra

Favorite color: Blue

Favorite music: Just about everything, especially soft rock

Best advice you’ve ever been given: Follow your dream and never give up

Personal philosophy: Always be positive

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