David R. Smith Interview - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

David Rollin Smith, more commonly referred to as just Dave Smith, was born October 13, 1940, and raised in Pasadena, California. He was the son of librarians and educators. He earned his B.A. in history and a Masters 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 the proposal for 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. His first assignment was to document all the items in Walt Disney's offices.

The Disney Company's Chief Archivist Emeritus Dave Smith with historian Jim Korkis.

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 later the 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 on his 70th birthday after more than four decades of service. He continues to work for the Disney Company as a consultant with the title Chief Archivist Emeritus.

I have known Dave 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. The second paragraph pointed out two errors I had made. One was proper nomenclature, a particular source of aggravation to him, and the other was a misidentification of the director of one of the shorts. I learned that I needed to be much more careful because Dave was always watching and never let anything slide.

I have interviewed Dave many times over the decades. 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.

I have eliminated all of my questions to allow Dave to tell his own story in his own words. I absolutely hate transcribing things, but I felt readers might enjoy this discussion especially since it initially had such a limited audience.

Dave Smith:

"Song of the South (1946) was the first Disney film I remember seeing as a child and it remains a favorite. Disneyland is very close to my heart because I grew up in Southern California. I was a teenager when Disneyland opened and I remember one of my very first trips to Disneyland when I was about 16 or so, I was walking in through the castle, into Fantasyland, and there was Walt Disney walking in next to me.

"Up until then, people didn't really know who Walt Disney was. I mean, they knew the name but they didn't know him by sight. But, starting in the fall of 1954, he had his television show and people started recognizing him and he was coming into their homes every week on television.

"So, I recognized him and I thought - I had started collecting celebrity autographs at that time - I thought, 'Oh, here's somebody that I want his autograph.' So, I ran into the first shop that I could find as I went into the castle and it was a magic shop and the only writing implements they had were these two-feet long magic pencils that had different colors in the leads so that when you're writing you get different colors.

"Anyway, that was my only choice, so I bought that and I went running out to Walt Disney and he politely declined to sign an autograph for me. He said that when he started signing autographs it created this huge crowd around him and he never got his work done. So, he told me to write him at the Studio and he would send me his autograph and I did and he did so. At least I have it and I know it is a real autograph, not one done by a secretary or an artist.

"I got a master's degree in library science from UC Berkeley. I went to the Library of Congress in Washington as an intern for about six months and then left Washington after about a year and a half. I stayed a year at the Library after the internship. I figured after working in the Library of Congress I wouldn't be happy in a small library, so I searched for a big one in the L.A. area where my home was and UCLA was the one I picked and I spent about five years at the UCLA Library.

"One thing that I had been interested in both in library school and in working at the library was doing bibliographies. I found this very fascinating. I enjoyed that kind of work. And so I had done a bibliography on the Monitor and the Merrimack during the Civil War and I did one on Jack Benny. They had Jack Benny's papers at the UCLA Library.

"But, on December 15, 1966, what happened? Walt Disney died. And, you know, that was an important happening for people all around the world. I mean, a lot of people remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy died, but a lot of people remember when Walt died, too. I mean, he was a very, very, very famous person and it affected me because I had grown up with the Disney films. I loved going to Disneyland and suddenly this person that I knew so well wasn't going to be around anymore.

"So, I thought, you know, it'd be kind of fun to do a Walt Disney bibliography and I checked around the library sources to see if anything like that had been done before and didn't find anything and so I thought why don't I try? So, I contacted the people at the Disney Studio and suggested this and they said they'd be willing to help me. I could tell they weren't too thrilled about this suggestion, but they opened up some of their files for me and let me come in and go through some of the Disney publications and comic books and things like that.

"Anyway, I created this bibliography over about a year and a half period and, when I finished it, the people at the Studio figured that it would be useful to them and so they purchased it from me so I made some money on a bibliography which is not very common.

"A lot of university libraries have what they call their Department of Special Collections, and they like to acquire the papers of famous people in their area or in the field they collect to have in the library for their students to do research. And so the UCLA Library collects a lot in the field of entertainment, of course, being right there by Hollywood. So, they had contacted the Disney Studio and said, how about depositing Walt Disney's papers here at the library?

Dave Smith became a Disney employee in 1970. His first job was documenting all the items in Walt's offices.

"Dr. Robert Bosker, the librarian, suggested that they come out to the library for a meeting. And, two or three Disney representatives came out to the library. And he asked me if I would sit in on this meeting because I had had this contact with Disney before and knew some people at the Studio, although I didn't know these people that were coming to the meeting.

"And, out of this meeting, it became obvious that this is not a collection that UCLA could handle because you were talking about a huge collection. You were talking about a company that was still very active in business and needing to get into this material all the time and, No. 3, since this is an active, ongoing company, the company has business secrets that they weren't ready to let out, so we didn't want everyone going out to their garage and making an Audio-Animatronic Abraham Lincoln!

"The Disney people figured this really isn't something that could go to the university and the university also said this isn't something we could handle. But, I was sitting in the back of the room and my ears perked up and I thought this sounds like a wonderful opportunity, so I went home that evening and typed up a letter to the Disney people that were there and offered my services.

"I suggested that I could take a leave of absence from UCLA and do a survey of the whole Disney organization and find out sort of what the quantity and the quality of the material was that the company had saved, and then give them some idea of what they could do with it.

"And they were pleased to get this suggestion. Because here you've got an entertainment company that didn't know anything about archiving so to have someone like me come along and I'd had experience at the Library of Congress when I was there as an intern working in all the different areas of the Library - in rare books and manuscripts - so I had dealt with the kind of archival materials that they had at the Disney Studio. So, they liked the suggestion. They hired me as a consultant.

"I took a two-month leave of absence from UCLA and went to the Studio. They gave me the great 'grand master key,' which opened every door in the Studio. This was really exciting for someone that was just brand new on the lot! And so they told me, 'go snoop.'

"So, I spent weeks going around the Studio unlocking doors in basements and closets and all sorts of things that hadn't been opened in years, blowing the dust off the boxes and just snooping to see what was around, what they had saved through the years and the company also sent me around to see other archives, to see what other companies had done. For two months in the latter part of 1969, I worked full time at the Disney Studio, visiting all departments and sections, sampling both current and retired files.

"I also thought the pattern of the presidential libraries was very important, where they had a library collection but also a museum and collection of material related to the president. I visited the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri, for instance. In response to a letter to one of the presidential libraries mentioning my ideas for the Walt Disney Archives, the director replied that an archives dedicated to Walt Disney could easily surpass a presidential library in interest and educational value and eventually in size.

"So, I submitted a proposal January 1, 1970, that the company set up an archives program and it took them about six months, but they decided they liked it, so they hired me to come and do it. So, essentially I wrote my own job description. The head of personnel called me and he said "What do we pay you for this job?"

"The Disney people, especially Roy, felt that before they decided where they were going, they better know where they had been. The reason for the Archives was divided into seven categories:

  1. Legal – to aid the General Counsel by providing documentation needed for litigation.
  2. Publicity – to furnish material for press releases and advertising purposes, especially important in a company which regularly releases old films
  3. Personnel – to help in the indoctrination of new staff members and in training supervisors for positions of greater responsibility.
  4. Public Relations – to aid in keeping pace with the increasing need for general historical information about Walt Disney and his company.
  5. Scholarship – to make available to serious research scholars information essential for the writing of books, articles, and theses.
  6. Management – to provide data on major decisions made in the past for guidance in making current decisions, and for help in avoiding the same mistakes made in former years.
  7. Sales Promotion – to make available historical materials to be used in promoting current sales, as with a 40th anniversary of Mickey Mouse campaign

"Remember at this time Walt Disney Productions was nearing its 50th anniversary in 1973, so there was an increasing awareness of the need for a well-indexed collection of the company's records and products.

"With the establishment of the Archives, one of my first tasks was to begin gathering material. The company files fell into three major categories: business records, creative records and products. The company had a clipping service since the 1920s so we had literally millions of newspaper and magazines clippings to sort through.

"Each class of material has its own peculiarities. Each needed different kinds of main entries and different kinds of subject entries. Specialized catalogs had to be developed.

"We couldn't have everything so we 'skimmed the cream from the top of the bottle' you might say.

"I surveyed storage facilities. Some old files were found under leaking water pipes. Other files were discovered that had been visited by termites. Termites evidently liked the graphic lines on early drawings, for they would eat only the lines, leaving nicely etched pieces of paper.

"The Disney people figured that since I was going to be handling the history of the whole company, I should be at the Studio, which is the corporate headquarters. About the only place they had empty rooms were in Walt Disney's old office suite, which has been locked up since he died. Actually, the secretaries had worked there for about a year after he died, cleaning out the files and things like that but then they left and they locked the door and the janitor would go in and clean every couple of weeks or so and that was about it. Nobody was getting in there at all.

"And so, they gave me for my office one of the anterooms out past the receptionist's room that was I think ordinarily just used by Walt for storage. But one of the first things they asked me to do was to go in and inventory Walt Disney's offices, because one of the things that I'd noted when I did the survey of other archives and libraries was that, especially with the presidential library, there's one thing you find in almost every single one of those and that's a reproduction of the oval office.

"So, I had thought there might be a day down the line somewhere where we might want to reproduce Walt Disney's office. And so, I was given a temporary secretary and then went in there and sat in Walt's office for about two weeks and inventoried the whole place, counting the paper clips in his desk drawers and everything else. It was kind of an eerie thing, me being a brand new employee at Disney, having looked up to this man all my life and then suddenly sitting in his desk chair pawing through his desk. So, this was a little eerie.

"People had told me that Walt was not interested in history. He wasn't interested in his history and he wasn't interested in the company's history. So, once he made a film, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), he would put it aside. He'd go on to the next project. He never looked back. He never went back and saw that movie again.

"So, I was wondering about this statement that he wasn't very interested in his history, and then one of the first things I found was I was looking though his desk drawer and what should be in there but the script for Steamboat Willie (1928) in the bottom drawer. Now, somebody that's not interested in his history, why would he keep the script for his first Mickey Mouse cartoon in his desk? I think he had in the back of his heart a fond place for the things that started him out in his career.

"We did photograph the desk and all the areas of the office in great detail and in color and black-and-white. So, we were ready if the time came that they wanted to reproduce the offices and we did measure the room size and the paneling and doors and that sort of thing because the architectural plans they had at the Studio weren't terribly accurate.

"And, around 1972, they suddenly decided, we need to use this space. We've been wasting a whole wing at the Disney Studio and it's important space, and we need it for our executives now. And so they decided to remove Walt's offices at that time. So, now we had all the documentation, we were fine and it could be taken out so we did go in there and pack up all of that material.

And that was also about the time they started thinking about the Walt Disney Story, an attraction we had both at Disneyland and here at Walt Disney World and the idea from the very beginning was to reproduce Walt's offices at Disneyland. So, we were very careful when we were packing everything up to number the boxes and find out where; be sure we knew where everything was so that we could get them out again when we were ready to reproduce Walt's offices.

I remember one story that when we were packing the office, I asked one of the movers that was the supervisor of the movers that were helping us, if we could have the original telephones. And he said, 'No, those belong to the phone company; you can't have those.' And so when he went out of the room, one of the movers came over to me and he went over to the telephone and yanked it out of the wall and handed it to me and said, 'What they don't know won't hurt 'em.' So, if you go into the One Man's Dream exhibit over here in Florida and you see Walt's office and you see a telephone there; that is the original telephone from his office at the Studio.

Next week: In the second part of the interview, Dave goes into more detail about the early days of the Disney Archives.