The Early Years
Born in Texas during the Great Depression, Donnie Dunagan was the son of a hard-working couple who moved several times (from San Antonio to Bandera, Texas, and eventually to Memphis, Tennessee), motivated by the need to find work in the largely jobless America of the mid-1930s.
One day while walking down the street in Memphis, Donnie and his mother noticed a dancer tapping to the sound of music being played on a radio. The man, a relative of the famous dancer “Peg Leg” Bates, turned out to be a neighbor of theirs, and offered to teach little Donnie to dance.
This nice man taught me, with my mother’s awareness and permission, to dance. I was barefooted—he had tap shoes, I did not. He taught me how to dance, with a “top hat” and a “cane.” Somebody painted a paper bag to look like a top hat, put it on me, gave me a stick as a cane, and I mimicked this marvelous man.
The three-year-old learned quickly and his newfound skill led to his being entered in local talent contests, which were big entertainment events in that “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” era. Donnie won two in a row; in the audience the second time was a Hollywood talent scout. A contract offer from RKO studios soon came Donnie’s way and the family’s lives changed overnight as off to Hollywood they went.
Gifted with a clinical, eidetic memory, young Donnie was a quick study on the sets of his early films. Not only could he easily memorize his own lines, he even knew the lines of his co-stars! He retains memories of special events, personalities and even street numbers from 1939-42—a talent which Donnie himself admits is “a bit scary”! His favorites among his own movies are Bambi, the animated Disney classic for which he provided the voice of the title character, and the horror film Son of Frankenstein, in which his character befriends the Frankenstein Monster (Boris Karloff)
In one scene in Son of Frankenstein, I was lying on the floor and Mr. Karloff had his foot on me. He’d put his heavy boot down on me and then, between takes, he’d wiggle it. I tickle real easy, even to this day, so of course I’d get to laughing. Then he’d get to laughing. Then somebody behind the lights would get to laughing. Shooting had to stop for several minutes, because so many people were laughing. I don’t think the director was too happy, because he scolded both of us, and everybody else who was laughing. Karloff looked down at me just sorta like “We gotta cool it.” We smiled at each other and we went back to work, and finally got that darn scene done.
Model and Voice of Walt Disney’s Bambi
His final film, and the one he loves most deer-ly, was Bambi. Because of Donnie’s large and bright brown eyes, he was selected by Mr. Disney to be the facial model for the Disney artists who would be handling the baby deer’s expressions. This evolved into doing the voice work for the young Bambi. When Donnie finished up on this movie in 1940, he left the lot and, as it turned out, the business of being a child actor; Bambi was his final credit. A lifetime later, however, he returned to work for the Disney Studios as an on-camera interviewee, adding his unique perspective to the bonus materials for the new deluxe DVD edition of Bambi. With the 65-year interval between the making of the original Bambi and his participation on the DVD, Donnie probably holds the record for the longest-awaited show business comeback of any entertainer in the world!Some of the local kids knew that I had made some little contribution to the film”Bambi”. I recall, loud and clear, all my life, some of their reactions, which were great then and wonderful now: “My dog might have feelings like the deer did”; “I know my cat can feel hurt too…that is bad’; “People can cause bad things and not know what they are doing”; and one I will never forget: “The Daddy Deer, the big one on the hill—the hunters are lucky he didn’t see them. My dad would have got those guys.”
Serving His Country
The years following Bambi’s release were hard ones for Donnie as his family broke up and he found himself on his own. After spending a brief period in an orphanage, he was living (at age 14) in a boarding house, going to school and supporting himself through a variety of jobs. In 1952, when the Korean War was raging, Donnie received a Draft Board notice to report for examination. Volunteering for the Marine Corps started the 18-year-old Dunagan on a new road, a thrilling chapter of his life that would last for the next 25 years.
On the day he graduated from Boot Camp, Don was sent to Marine Corps Drill Instructors School. Some members of the DI school staff nearly had heart attacks when they learned that PFC Dunagan had been hand-picked to serve as a Drill Instructor during this time when they were in extremely short supply. It worked well and Donnie became the youngest Drill Instructor in Marine Corps history!
Don was later trained in the Navy’s Justice Academy for JAG Officers and staff aides. In 1957, at the peak of the Cold War, he was selected to undergo intense training at the U.S. Army’s secret college for counterintelligence special agents in Maryland.
The war in Vietnam was heating up in 1966 and then-Lt. Don Dunagan pleaded with the intelligence authorities and Hq Marines to let him serve as a combat officer. With the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, he handled several leadership posts. Don was seriously wounded on a counter-rocket patrol in January 1968.
Intelligence would not let him go so easy. After recovering from his wounds, Dunagan was promoted to Captain and assigned to another unique posting: Director of the Socio-Economic and Geopolitical Intelligence Dept. of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Able at last to get away from Intelligence duties, Dunagan spent many months instructing officers in combat skills and military law at the Marine Officer Colleges in Quantico, Virginia.Back in Vietnam, Don commanded “Striking DELTA,” an award-winning company of the 3rd Marine Division. His work with that company gave Hq Marines Corps all the justification it needed to promote Don yet again, way ahead of the promotion zones and regulations. Now Major Dunagan, he entered the recruiting command business right after President Nixon ended the Draft.
Our recruiting and boot camps came critically close to drying up . . . recruiting needed a kick in the butt.
The Marines recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that Donnie receive the annual award of Leadership Excellence (“The John Paul Jones Award”) for turning a failed recruiting command totally around in less than 50 days and making it a West Coast leader for over a year.
Donnie had 13 total promotions (enlisted, senior NCO, Commissioned Warrant Officer, regular line officer commissionings, then early selection to Major) all in 21 years. He was early selected again to Lt. Colonel in his 24th year. However, because of his loss of respect for the way the Vietnam War was handled (after researching the leaked “Pentagon Papers”) Major Dunagan declined the last selection and a prestigious posting to the Army’s prime War College at Fort Levenworth. In 1977 he retired, ending a historic and award-filled 25-year career. He assaulted business with early successes, while continuing some in-field counterintelligence work.
Because of several wounds he received in the service, Donnie was rated by the VA as 40% disabled. His intense physical fitness program off-sets that and many are surprised to learn of any disability.
In civilian life, he became a very successful business man and leader in various professional interests. With a long history of public speaking (on the National Speakers.Bureau from the DOD and the Marine Corps) Donnie became very involved in fund-raising for children’s needs and other not-for-profit missions. In the most recent years of high energy retirement, Donnie is known as an ardent and proactive Libertarian and Humanitarian with special interest in orphanages and the homeless
In 2004, Don was located in Texas by Scott MacQueen and Tom Weaver, the first movie fans ever to ascertain his whereabouts. Scott hooked Don up with the Disney organization, who had him participate in on-camera interviews and public appearances for their Bambi DVD, while Weaver conducted an interview which ran in the award-winning Video Watchdog magazine. Coaxed into emerging from the quiet private life he had been sharing with his wife Dana,
Don is now finally connecting with the legion of fans who for decades had eagerly awaited hearing from the star of the Frankenstein and Disney classics.. With a near-perfect memory and many boxes of preserved mementos from his movie and military careers, Donnie Dunagan is now ready to share his fascinating story and enter into this new and exciting chapter of his life. As Donnie’s character Peter in Son of Frankenstein would say, “Well hello!“
See Donnie Dunagan and hear his memories of working on the Disney classic Bambi in the bonus features of the new Platinum Edition DVD release
Copies of the special Donnie Dunagan Signature Edition of Video Watchdog are still available. It contains Tom Weaver’s interview with Donnie Dunagan on the making of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN which classic horror movie fans recently voted Best Article of the Year in the 2004 Rondo Awards.
Donnie recalls personal memories of co-stars Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, illustrated with many rare photos from his scrapbook. Each copy is personally autographed by Donnie. Order below.
Video Watchdog Magazine