David R. Smith Interview - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week Chief Archivist Emeritus Dave Smith shared some stories about the beginning of the Disney Archives and, in this second installment, he continues that story.

I am personally very grateful to Dave for the time and knowledge he has shared with me over the decades. In truth, he also did that with so many others, both serious researchers and casual fans, and as a result has enriched Disney history and its accuracy for all of us.

Dave Smith Remembers

"So back in June 1970, I went around all the departments at the studio. You go up to them and say, 'We've started an archives now; why don't you turn over your file set to us that you've been preserving all these years?'

"What do you think the answer was? [laughs] 'What do you think we are? Why should we give you our file set? How do we know that you're going to take good care of it?' So, we had to prove ourselves.

"The Archives really had to prove itself to convince these people that not only would we take better care of their file sets, but we would enlarge the file sets; we'd make sure that if they ever wanted to see anything there it was always going to be available. Things had gotten lost over the decades.

Dave Smith and Mickey Mouse. Smith frequently fielded questions from Disney Legal, as well as entities all over the company.

"Things that had happened like, the Danish publisher might have come up to Disney Publishing and said, we want to reproduce the third Mickey Mouse Reader. And so they'd send it off to Copenhagen and it probably never came back again and they just weren't careful about the file sets that they had. So, we slowly worked with some of these departments.

"Now some of them were very anxious to give us their file sets because they didn't want to take care of them anymore. They wanted the extra space. These were things that they didn't want to concern themselves with at all; get all this old junk into the Archives so we can work on our new projects only. So, we had both things going on within the company.

"The one person I had the hardest time convincing was Madeleine Wheeler, who was the secretary of Roy O. Disney. Madeleine was sort of the maven of the Studio, I mean, she ruled that place. Not Roy, she ruled the place. And, I remember one summer, the traffic boys that delivered the mail started wearing shorts. She didn't like that. And, within a week, they were not wearing shorts anymore.

"I didn't really have a run-in with her but she did not offer the Archives any of the things that she had until we started working together on various projects and pretty soon she got to know me, and she got to see what we were doing with the Archives and then she started opening her drawers and giving us things. She had maintained for Roy all the company's genealogy, the family history. So, she turned that over to me.

"She had ticket No. 1 from Disneyland that Roy had bought on opening day for $1.00. She turned that over to me. She had Flora Disney's, Walt's mother, family photo album. She turned that over to me. So, slowly, these things were getting turned over to me. And, of course, after Roy died in December of 1971, she turned over a lot of material at that time.

"I'm there at my office every morning by 7:30 a.m. You know, that's what makes the job so interesting is there is no typical day at the Disney Studio. It's a varied job because this company is involved in many, many different things all the time.

"There are many, many departments and divisions of this company that need access to historical material. I mean, it could be the Disney Cruise Line working on a trivia contest that they're going to have for their passengers, or it could be Disney Publishing thinking about reproducing some of the early Disney books and trying to figure out which ones would be good to reproduce. It could be Walt Disney World working on the telecast of the Christmas Parade and needing information for the emcees to talk about as the parade is going down the street.

"Disney Legal is probably one of our biggest users. As you're no doubt aware, Mickey Mouse is a copyrighted character and we can't allow people to use our copyrighted characters without permission, and sometimes that works to our public relations disadvantage and we have to tell a nursery school they've got to take Mickey Mouse down off their wall. But if we don't protect these characters we're going to lose them and so we have to be very careful.

"Most people that infringe on our copyrights aren't consciously doing this. I mean, Mickey Mouse is everywhere! 'Can't we just use Mickey Mouse?' No, Mickey Mouse is a copyrighted character, so a simple cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers usually solves that problem, but there's always the few that are out there to make a quick buck and they think maybe we can make a little money before Disney cracks down on us.

"And so those are the ones that the company really has to go after. And very often the lawyers have to come to the Archives and what they're looking for is: The first use of a character - when did Mickey Mouse first appear on a movie screen in Copenhagen, Denmark? I mean we get that kind of question; when did the first Donald Duck comic book get published in Italy? So, it takes some detective work sometimes to find the answers to these questions.

"I don't appreciate getting questions from people trying to trip me up. If they're coming to us with a question that they really want to know the answer, and they've got a reason for needing to know the answer, like it's a project they're working on, then I am fine with that. But it irritates me when people purposely try to show off. There's just no point to that kind of thing and it wastes time."

"We have five people [now] in the Archives proper. We also run the photo library of the Studio, which has about 2 million photographs and there are four people in that department so there's a total of nine people altogether. Our turnover is very little in that department. I'm 31 years now, and my assistant Robert [Tieman] is about 11 years, I think. We've been around there a long time. I would not hire a Disney collector - too much temptation in the Archives!

"Our collecting policies have changed quite a bit through the years because we didn't really know at first what the company was going to need in the way of historical material, and so we were collecting lots of stuff in the early days. But, as the years went by, we sort of learned the types of things that people were going to be asking about and they weren't asking us to see the old toys, and we were collecting a lot of the merchandise that was current in the 60s and 70s.

Dave Smith wrote Disney: A-Z so he could have all the information at his fingertips.

"So today, we don't do that very much anymore. We will take some representative samplings of merchandise, especially when a movie like The Lion King (1994) comes out. We'll try to get a sampling of The Lion King merchandise, but we just don't have the space to store all of this stuff.

"If it's an anniversary, 30th anniversary of Walt Disney World, we've tried to get the line on 30th anniversary merchandise; we've tried to get the "100 Years of Magic" merchandise. The things like this that we know the collectors are going to be asking us about in the future. And we do deal with people outside the company by email, by mail, by telephone, these people are calling us and asking historical questions and if we can answer them quickly and easily, we do!

"We do have some physical objects in the Archives. And when I was here in Orlando, and at the time that Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was closing at the Magic Kingdom, they asked me if there was anything that I could use for the Archives in the attraction and I picked one of the devils. He's kinda cute and people remember him from the attraction.

"We don't have much in the way of park memorabilia, objects, because the parks are, I mean, the main thing in the parks are the attractions and you take a piece of an attraction out, like a piece of the dark rides in Fantasyland, they don't look like much once you get them out. And they're not the type of thing that would fit easily in a small exhibit case which is what we have in the Archives. So, big things we have no place for and, if it's a small thing, we want something that really means something when you look at it. Let me give you some examples.

"We have the ring that turned the boy into the Shaggy Dog; we've got the snowglobe that Mary Poppins had; we've got Dick Tracy's wrist radio; we've got a ray gun from The Black Hole (1979); we've got the magic bedknob from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

"A few things like that that if you see them in an exhibit case, you think, "Oh, that's familiar; I know what movie that's from!" But, you look at most movies today and is there one hand prop that's really important that people are going to remember? And, often there is not.

"Well, the first version of the book Disney A to Z came out in 1996 and, at that time, Hyperion, which was publishing the Disney books, said this is a great reference book and we should keep updating it every two years. So two years later, in 1998, we did the updated version of Disney A to Z, so I expected when 2000 came along, they'd be ready for the next edition. Well, they've been dragging their feet.

"What I did though in 1998, the minute that I shipped off the manuscript for the updated version to the publisher, I started putting onto my computer all of the new material that would then go into the next edition. You know what's happening with the company all the time: we've got new movies coming out, we've got attractions opening at the park, we've got attractions closing at the park, we've got songs winning Oscars and all that sort of thing.

"All this type of information as it crosses my desk, I just type it into the computer right there! So, I'm up to date as of Friday and it's Disney Editions now that publishes the Disney books. If they say we're ready to do your new edition of Disney A to Z, the next morning I will ship off the computer disc and they'll be all ready to go!

"For the Disney Store trivia contests, I take my book, Disney A to Z, I flip it open to any random page, I see what my eye lands on first and I think, what can I think of as a trivia question about this topic? That's how I approach so many of those questions for contests and such.

"I still write some trivia questions for the Disney Magazine every quarter, and I'll take maybe half of them from the era covered by my book, but I'll also pick ones from my computer, from those new 73 pages or more, of current films and recent projects that the kids of today are much more knowledgeable about than Snow White or Pinocchio.

"Not only did we do interviews with people who worked at the Studio, but we worked with the biographers that started writing biographies of Walt. Some of them never got published, but we have copies of the manuscripts and the interviews they did.

"We've got so much in the Archives that there's hardly a day goes by when we're not opening a box to find something else and we find something that's of great interest. I'm always thoroughly delighted when I find something I didn't realize we had.

"I was going through a box of old comic books once and tucked in between two issues of very common comic books was a giveaway comic book called, Donald Duck Tells About Kites (1954). And, it's very scarce and only about eight pages long. It was a giveaway from an electric company in California. It was valued in the comic book price guide at about $2,500! And I didn't think we had a copy and then here was a copy! So, I think there are still things hidden away in the Archives collection that we don't realize we have but we do.

"You can't go in any archive really and catalog materials just like you would in a library. In a library, you can catalog all your books and you have your card catalog and now your computer and you know what you have in your library. You can't do that with an archival collection. You can catalog a box. You can say here's a box of Winnie the Pooh material, but you can't go through and catalog each piece of paper in that box.

"We have about 8,500 square feet now. We have about 3,000-3,500 square feet at the Studio in Burbank, which is our offices, our reading room and a large storage area where we have all the materials we have to get to on a regular basis.

"But we also have about 5,000 square feet in a warehouse building actually over at the Walt Disney Imagineering facility in Glendale. It's about three miles away from the Studio, so it's a very large collection. I think if you surveyed the various business archives in the country I don't think you'd find a larger archival collection than we have at Disney because there's just so many different things that our company's been involved in.

"Now, most libraries don't have card catalogs anymore, but they're still useful for us and we haven't had the time or the staff to go back and convert everything to the computer. So, sure, we're doing everything today on computer but we still have our card catalog and our reading room and we get a number of people coming in saying, 'Wow, you still have a card catalog? How wonderful!'

"It takes time to digitize things and people to do it. We'll never be able to digitize the entire collection. We have 2 million photographs, and getting more each day, and we've only done about 30,000. First, there are certain photos that are used all the time and those are the ones that they've done first, but we'll never do our 2 million, and it probably wouldn't be worthwhile doing our 2 million because there may never be a call for some of those pictures.

"We are the corporate archives for the company where we're collecting the major elements of the company. However, we have not gone into the detailed separate areas of the company, which already had historical collections that they were maintaining. The examples being:

  • The Animation Research Library. Animation Research Library maintains all of the animation art that the company creates. That's not in our archives.
  • The Main Files. This is the legal files of the company. All the contracts and the correspondence relating to contracts. That's not in our collection either. That's in the Main Files.
  • Walt Disney Imagineering has maintained their own historical materials being primarily the designs and paintings and that sort of thing done for the creation for all the attractions in the park but they've also maintained audio, video and still photography on the elements of the park. So that's the place you would go to find the historical materials related to the parks.

"We would have the documentation. We try to keep up with chronology of the openings and closings of all the attractions and shops and restaurants and all that sort of thing. We have files about the buildings of the park and the buying of the land in Florida and all that sort of thing but the actual audio and video and that sort of thing is primarily at Walt Disney Imagineering.

"Whenever they're doing a DVD they come to the Archives very early in the process and ask us what we have relating to that movie. Of course, the first question we get usually is that they want film footage that's never been seen before. Well, we went through video cassettes, they asked us that. We went through laser discs and they asked us that. Now we got to DVDs and they're asking us the same question. So that is on top of all the other work we have to get done each day.

"I prided myself in being a mentor for young people through my 30-year career. I get a lot of people that contact the Archives as their first contact with the company. They're interested in Disney history. They have a question they want to ask us and I've gotten to know some of these people and I think if you made up the list there would probably be a lot that I met when they were teenagers and went on to be writers or Disney cast members. I hope they continue to carry on what I have been trying to do over the years and keep in mind the importance of accuracy and truthfulness.

"Well you know, so many of the questions you get over and over again so you find that maybe 95 percent of the questions you can answer without doing any research whatsoever and then the other 5 percent, some of them take a lot of research to try to find the answers.

"That's the reason I wrote Disney A-Z: The Official Encyclopedia in 1997, so that I would have all that information at my fingertips rather than going through different file folders. There was no money to pay for photos, so I took my own camera out and took pictures for that first edition because since I was on salary, they didn't have to pay me anything additional.

"This has been fun but let's answer some questions from the audience now."



  1. By Pammer

    I love your articles - this was so informative about the archives; thank you!

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by Pammer View Post
    I love your articles - this was so informative about the archives; thank you!

    Thanks for always being so supportive. As a writer, sometimes you just sit in front of the computer hammering away on the keys and have no idea whether any of it makes any difference. Sometimes my only clue is that MousePlanet allows me to keep writing. So thanks for the kind and generous words.

  3. By TaraT

    I really enjoyed these articles on Dave Smith! (I registered just today so I could post this comment.) Thank you, Jim Korkis, for sharing Disney history with us all. The knowledge makes my visits to Disneyland that much more memorable. PS I just finished "Call Me Walt" last week and can't wait to start on another of your books. Keep them coming!

  4. By Ron Schneider

    Jim --

    As I think you know, around 1971 I was among the first Disney fans to get a tour of the nascent Disney Archives from new hire Dave Smith. He was then, and continues to be, a great friend and support to all of us, and throughout my decades in the business has been fondly remembered and respected. Thanks for these great articles, and all you do.

    Ron Schneider
    Former Dreamfinder

  5. Discuss this article on MousePad.