Talking Mickey Mouse With Dave Smithby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
David Rollin Smith, often just called Dave Smith, was born October 13, 1940, and raised in Pasadena, California. He was the son of librarians and educators. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in library science from the University of California at Berkeley.
Before Disney, he had library and archival experience while working in the Manuscript Department of the Huntington Library in San Marino, interning at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and being on the staff of the Research Library at UCLA.
While his proposal for creating a Disney Archives was submitted in January 1970, it was not officially approved by the Disney Company until June. Smith became a Disney Company employee on June 22, 1970 and was the company’s first archivist and the only person in his department at the time. His first assignment was to document all the items in Walt Disney’s offices.
For decades, Smith was regarded as the ultimate authority on all things Disney. He authored several books and magazine articles and assisted on many others. He wrote a continuing “Ask Dave” question-and-answer column beginning in 1984 for the Disney Channel Magazine and Disney Magazine, and it still appears today on the D23 website.
In his spare time, Smith collected stamps, historical autographs, and material on S.S. Van Dine. That is a nice reminder that even a Disney expert should have outside interests.
In 2007, he was made a Disney Legend. He retired in October 2010, more than four decades after first being hired, but continues to work for the Disney Company as a consultant with the title Chief Archivist Emeritus.
I have known Smith for decades. In 1980, I received my first letter from him on Disney Archives letterhead paper. It was two short paragraphs.
In the first paragraph, he wrote about how much he had enjoyed an article I had written on two Mickey Mouse cartoons featuring animation by Fred Moore that Disney staffers often called the “Drunk Mickeys” because of the fluidity of movement and goofiness of Mickey. The second paragraph pointed out two errors I had made. One was proper nomenclature, a particular source of annoyance to Smith over the decades. I had left out the word “The” in the title of a cartoon.
I have interviewed Smith many times. The following is an excerpt from one I did with him on March 16, 2005, at the Walt Disney Story Theater in Main Street Exposition Hall at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. It was done on stage in the afternoon in front of more than 300 eager cast members.
It was Smith who officially determined Mickey Mouse’s birthday in 1973 and, with the Big Cheese celebrating his 87th today, I pulled out part of that old interview that focused on Walt’s alter-ego.
Jim Korkis: Well, I think one of the things that a lot of people in here take for granted is Mickey Mouse did not have an official birthday until the Archives started, right?
Dave Smith: Well, Mickey had a number of birthdays in the early days, primarily because movie theaters wanted to have a birthday celebration. So, they would pick a nice Saturday in the fall usually when they could get a lot of kids into the movie theater and they would have Mickey's fifth birthday or Mickey's seventh birthday or Mickey's 10th birthday or whatever and it was different every year. There were some of those dates however that did get picked up by the press, and even reference books would publish September 4 was Mickey's birthday or October 2 was Mickey's birthday, or whatever.
And, there's one thing that ran through this whole thing however, and that's that the Disney people at the Studio had always said that Mickey was created, or had his birth, essentially, when Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater in New York City. Nobody ever bothered to look up and find out when Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater. I mean, it seemed obvious to me that you should find that out!
So, we looked through the resources at the Archives including an old program from the theater listing the cartoon and reviews in trade papers and, sure enough, we found the date when Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater and that was November 18, 1928.
And so, we put out a press release, and this was like 1973 when we were doing the 50th anniversary celebration of the Studio, saying that, from now on, this is going to be Mickey's official birthday, on November 18. And that was the first time, I think, that date was ever used anywhere. And, from then on, anyone that was writing a book on Disney, we made sure that they used that November 18 date and now it's everywhere, I mean, everybody knows that Mickey's birthday is November 18.
JK: So why didn’t you go with the date that Walt was coming back on the train from New York after the Charlie Mintz confrontation?
DS: Well you know, it's a great story and even Walt told that story to the press all the time that that’s when he came up with Mickey. That needs some more explanation. I mean, there are a lot of dates that could have been used for Mickey's birth; however, all of the publicity releases that the company put out in the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s all said that Mickey Mouse was born when Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theater, so I figured we should probably just stick with that since the company had been referring to that all along and so that's why we picked that date.
Now, the story of Mickey being created on the train is something that is I believe is pretty much publicity hype. It’s a cute, quick story, the kind reporters love. This story is not really true. When I started with the Studio in 1970, still working for the Studio was Ub Iwerks, Walt's first and best animator. Ub was the one, as I'm sure many of you are aware, that actually drew Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney. And, I met with Ub several times.
Now, here again, like Roy O. Disney, Ub was a very modest man. He was never trying to toot his own horn or take credit. He was never trying to say he did more than he really did and I asked him how Mickey was created. And, his answer to me is one I really believe to be the correct story about the birth of Mickey Mouse and that's that Walt came back from New York where he just lost the rights to Oswald, and he figured he needed to come up with a new character.
And, he and Ub and a couple of the other loyal employees, including Roy, sat around in a room and they started throwing around ideas. They opened some magazines and thought well, should we use a horse? Should we use a cow? I mean, just the different characters that they found there in the magazine. And, one of them at that meeting and nobody knows which one, said why don't we use a mouse?
And, what character did they have at that time? Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I don't know if any of you have seen pictures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but if you take those long ears off that rabbit and put round ears on that rabbit, what do you have? You have Mickey Mouse. So, they didn't really have to work very hard to come up with this new mouse character.
So, it's always been my belief that it really happened out in Hollywood, not on the train, even though Walt said that. And he said many things in publicity stories just as people are wont to do to promote the company or his character or whatever which may not have been strictly true but make a good story and I think that's true with this story about the birth of Mickey Mouse.
JK: Did you also go back and establish the birth dates for the other Fab Five characters the same way?
DS: No. Mickey and Minnie both appeared in the first cartoons so they have a birthday. Donald Duck, we've used June 9, 1934, which is the date for The Wise Little Hen. The other characters we have not established birthdays for, because they evolved over time, so Pluto does not have an official birthday. Goofy does not have an official birthday.
And then, of course, when you get into the feature films, if you say Snow White's birthday is December 21, 1937, not really. That's the birthday of our movie! But the Grimm Brothers wrote Snow White many years earlier and it was a folk tale before that and so we didn't create Snow White and we can't claim her birthday to be the date that our movie opened. In the movie, she is a teenager, so you have to factor that in as well. So, this can be the anniversary of the movie, but it's not the birthday of Snow White. So, the only Disney characters that have official birthdays are Mickey, Minnie and Donald, which has been beneficial for marketing and promotion.
JK: Other than whether Mickey and Minnie are really married and I know the official answer is “no,” what is one of the most common questions you get asked about Mickey Mouse?
DS: Mickey Mouse home movies! That is one of the most common questions we get. Sometimes we will get several in a single week. A lot of people had home movies back in the '40s and '50s primarily, even back into the '30s. A lot of people had their own 8mm camera and projector and, in some cases, 16mm cameras, and they would take their family home movies. But, there was a company called Hollywood Film Enterprises that put out cartoons and things like that for home use on projectors, and they contracted with Disney to do home versions of the Disney cartoons.
Well, what they did was to take a cartoon like Mickey's Service Station. They would cut it into three or four parts, each one about two-minutes long, where the full cartoon is about eight-minutes long, and to identify these various parts they'd come up with new titles. So, where the original cartoon would be Mickey's Service Station, the first part they'd have might be "Mickey Mouse Fixes a Tire" or "Goofy Fouls Up," or something like that. Each part had a different title.
So people have these films at home, they think they’re going to look it up in my book Disney A to Z and see when this movie came out. That title is not in Disney A to Z. Well that's because it's one of these parts of one of the cartoons and so we get a lot of questions about that.
People want to know how valuable these things are; they have almost no value whatsoever. People think they have found a lost Mickey Mouse cartoon and they can sell it for a goldmine. I mean, video has come along and so many of the old cartoons are available complete on video today. The old film they have, if it's 30 or 40 or 50 years old, the film itself is brittle. If you try to run it through a movie projector it's going to rip anyway.
So, about the only interest people have in those old Disney Hollywood Enterprise films is that a lot of them are in a nicely illustrated box, which is something you can put up on your shelf in your Disney collection but the films themselves have little or no value and we do get a lot of questions about these so there must be a lot of them out there which again makes them not very valuable.
JK: I know you’ve written several books and assisted with so many others but backstage you were telling me about the idea for a book that you have been pitching to Disney but they don’t seem to be interested.
DS: At the Archives, we have a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful collection of letters that Walt Disney wrote to his wife when he was back in New York in 1928 trying to sell Mickey Mouse, and trying to get Steamboat Willie recorded. He would go back to his hotel room every evening or every other evening and write a single-space, three- or four-page letter back home telling all of the problems he was having, telling about the people he was meeting, telling how he was trying to work with all these fly-by-night sound recorders.
I mean nobody had done much recording of sound for movies at that time, and he was just learning this business as it was going on and here are these fascinating letters that he was writing home telling about all the problems that he was having and the successes he was having. It's a wonderful collection of letters!
He was extremely affectionate when writing to Lillian. So here is this great love story of these two 20-somethings and them being separated while he tries to save their future by producing the first sound Mickey Mouse cartoon. Walt is homesick and lovesick, and that comes across in the letters, in addition to these fascinating insights into getting Steamboat Willie done.
Something like that I think is tremendously valuable to us historically. Now, maybe those letters wouldn't be worth that much if they came up for auction individually, but there’s really valuable insight into Walt as a man in love who is struggling in an unfamiliar big city, with his entire life and fortune and career riding on this little cartoon that he was having so many challenges trying to produce and release.
They told me that the book would only be of interest to a small niche audience and they are interested in books that would sell to the larger general public. I’m going to try to pitch it again because I think a lot of people might like the book.
JK: I would buy a copy of that book. [Korkis Note: And I have included this discussion here to remind Disney Editions that Dave is still around and has already done all the preliminary work for this book and this would be a great book that many people would buy. Maybe the Disney Family Foundation would be interested in publishing it.] Tell me a little about Lillian.
DS: You know, she was always someone that was up on a pedestal sort of thing. She wasn't someone that you could very warmly talk to. She wasn’t approachable like Walt was. Walt could be intimidating, but everyone said you could go up and talk with him. I think Lillian was shyer than Walt and didn’t care for crowds, so she seemed standoffish. I did meet her a few times, I went out to the house and sat and visited with her for a while and had a tour around the house and the yard.
I remember either she didn't have a great memory or she had a hard time getting her thoughts across, but I know the memory side was a problem because when Wally Boag, who did the comedian in the Golden Horseshoe Revue, retired they did a special show at the Golden Horseshoe for Wally. And Lillian came because, of course, Wally was a favorite of both her and Walt and, I thought, here's my chance to get an answer of a question I've been wondering about for a long time.
And I went up and asked her, 'How tall was Walt?' She didn't know. How many wives don't know how tall their husband is?! I mean, this could've been something she purposely put out of her mind because she was so short. I mean, if you've seen pictures of Walt and Lilly together, she came about to his shoulder. So, she was very short. We finally found out that Walt was 5’10”. He looks much taller but that was his height.
JK: Mickey doesn’t seem as popular as Donald Duck.
DS: Mickey was hugely popular in the 1930s, but things started to change in 1940. We designed about 1,200 insignias during World War II for the military. You'd have ships, you'd have airplanes, you'd have battle groups, and so forth, that would have a patch or have something painted on the side of something using one of the Disney characters or using a character created for them.
We did the insignia for the Flying Tigers. We didn't really have any tiger characters that were of any importance so we created a nice, ferocious Flying Tiger for them. So, 1,200! And using many different characters. Donald Duck was on about 200 or more of them. He was the most popular character for military insignia. Look at his personality! I mean, here's a guy with a temper! I mean, he can get mad at people; he could get mad at Hitler and throw the bombs down and things like that! He was a very good character for that.
Mickey Mouse? No. No, Mickey Mouse was not a good character for military insignia. At that time, he had become this little nice guy. What did they use him for? There's a Mickey insignia for the signal corps. There's a Mickey Mouse insignia for the chaplain's corps. I mean, that's the type of thing that Mickey would get used for, where the battle insignias would be more Donald Duck and some of the other characters.
Still, people love Mickey. Practically anything imaginable has, at some time or other, come out with Mickey Mouse on it. He’s been popular for decades and loved for decades, no matter how many changes he has gone through during that time. Lillian always said the early Mickey cartoons were difficult for her to watch because she could see so much of Walt in them, his spirit, his humor and so on. Of course, it was his voice, as well.
JK: Walt was so closely tied to Mickey Mouse. You’ve spent a lot of time talking with people who knew him well and you’ve done a lot of research. How would you describe Walt?
DS: The thing that I think is the most important about Walt Disney was that he came from common stock; he came from the Midwest of the United States, so he grew up having a lot of the same values that the common man in America had and, as a common man in America, he had certain ideas of what was entertaining to him.
He knew what he liked in the way of entertainment and he was able, in starting the Disney Company, to produce this kind of entertainment that everyone would accept. Everyone liked, well, most people liked the same types of things that Walt liked in entertainment. And it's amazing that it took so long for people to realize this about Walt, that he did know how to make the finest in family entertainment. That was the phrase the company used for many years.
He tried to make a sound cartoon. Everybody tried to talk him out of it, telling him it wasn't going to be a success. He tried to make a color cartoon, same thing. Tried to do an animated feature, same thing. Tried to build an amusement park, same thing! I mean, people closest to him did not have confidence in him even after he kept proving he knew what he was doing! But look at every single one of those things, they were successful. And so, Walt really had his finger on the pulse of America and knowing what they wanted in the way of entertainment.
And he knew enough also to ignore the critics that tried to talk him out of doing things, including his brother and his wife. He was willing to be an innovator. Try things before other people were willing to try them, and he was willing to put his own money behind his ideas, spend money to actually do some of these things and look at all the successes he had! I mean, you could name on one hand the things that he tried that were really failures.
Or at least relative failures. Walt was always disappointed when his films didn't make much money, and he'd had a lot of problems and he liked to make films in England and Scotland and he found that American audiences had sort of a tin ear when it came to listening to Scottish and Irish, and so forth, accents. And, a film like Greyfriars Bobby that he made that he liked very much was not successful at all because of the accents and the actors
Walt had died in 1966. Through the 1970s, early 1970s at least, there were a lot of projects that Walt had started and we just continued those projects, Walt Disney World, of course, being one of them. Film projects that he'd given the green light on were still coming out for years after he died.
But by the late '70s and early 1980s, they were having to look for some new projects and I think one thing that slowed us down a little bit is that a lot of the people that had worked with Walt were looking at these proposed film projects saying this very thing: 'What would Walt have done?' But they were looking at a Walt Disney of 1966, not a Walt Disney of 1980. Walt would have progressed! A lot of people didn't realize that.
Walt, as I said earlier, was the innovator. He was always trying things before anybody else wanted to try them. He wasn't the follower. And so he would've been continually trying new things. He probably would've started Touchstone Films long before we ever got around to starting Touchstone Films. He was willing to take these chances and to do new things.
And so, I think that was one of the reasons we were having problems in the late '70s and early '80s. When Michael Eisner came in 1984, he brought that spark that we hadn't had for a few years because, again, he was willing to take some chances, try new things, and do things that hadn't been done before, not think 'How would Walt have done it?'
JK: As always, thank you, Dave for sharing your time and knowledge. I know everyone here loved it.