Remembering Ron Miller and Dave Smithby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
It is especially tragic when someone you genuinely like and respect passes away, especially when they still had so much more to share. February saw the deaths of Ron Miller and Dave Smith who both showed me many kindnesses throughout the decades.
Their deaths truly mark the end of an era of Disney history and I am a bit troubled that the many obituaries out there simply seem to repeat the same standard information without offering any new insight into these two influential individuals who helped transform the world of Disney after the death of Walt Disney.
I know that both Ron and Dave interacted with many, many people over their lifetimes and I was hoping to see some interesting anecdotes and learn some new information. This column is an attempt to try to expand the understanding of these two people beyond the same press release material that seems to have been cut and pasted everywhere.
In 1984, it was fashionable to blame Ron Miller, who was president and CEO of the Disney Company, for ruining the company. Frank Wells and Michael Eisner who replaced him were hailed as saviors who rescued Disney from the hands of this dumb jock and brought Disney back from the brink of destruction.
In truth, Miller was doing quite well at re-imagining Walt's dream by bringing in new talent and attempting new things to break the mold of just repeating past Disney triumphs by taking a chance on previously unexplored concepts.
Unfortunately, he also faced a Board of Directors who opposed any changes from the way Walt would do things and also felt that the films he was producing were underperforming and were causing Disney stock to be undervalued.
Many of the things that Miller did during his tenure laid the groundwork for the early successes of Eisner and Wells and Miller rarely receives any credit for those efforts.
Ronald William Miller was born April 17, 1933, and died on February 9, 2019 at the age of 85. He was married to Walt's oldest daughter, Diane, who died in 2013 and took with her some of Ron's zest for life.
They were married in a small church ceremony at All Saints by the Sea Episcopal Church of Montecito in Santa Barbara, California on May 9, 1954. Playfully, Walt had a wedding cake prepared with the figures on top of Diane in Levi jeans and Ron in Bermuda shorts and bare feet, but wearing his USC football helmet. Walt cried throughout the ceremony.
Ron was drafted and when he returned he pursued his dream as a tight offensive end of the L.A. Rams football team in 1956, but Walt worried he would get injured playing in the games and offered him a position at the Disney Studios.
Walt sponsored his son-in-law and got him into the Screen Director's Guild and Miller worked as a second assistant director on Old Yeller (1957). He directed some of Walt's lead-ins for the popular weekly Disney television show.
Miller was a witness in the trial of stockholder lawsuits accusing Disney and its directors of paying "greenmail" in 1984 to Saul Steinberg. Miller got a laugh from the jury when his own attorney asked him how he got his first job at the company and he replied, "I married Walt's daughter."
Some of his co-producer credits appear on such Disney classics as Son of Flubber, Summer Magic, and That Darn Cat! His first movie with full producer credit was Never a Dull Moment (1968) but he was also responsible for several later films including Pete's Dragon, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Apple Dumpling Gang and many more.
In 1980, Miller was elected president and chief operating officer of Walt Disney Productions. In 1983, he became CEO of the Disney Company. During that time he supervised Disney's participation in the building of Epcot Center and helped negotiate the deal for the building of Tokyo Disneyland.
Miller was responsible for the creation of The Disney Channel; funded Disney's first produced show on Broadway (Total Abandon with Richard Dreyfuss in 1983); hired a young Tim Burton as an animator and gave him encouragement to develop his own style; acquired the rights and put into development the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit, against the wishes and advice of other Disney executives, especially Card Walker; and initiated Disney's first attempts into computer animation with Tron, as well as the first Walt Disney Home Video releases in their distinctive white clamshell cases. Dumbo was released for sale on tape in summer 1982, while Alice in Wonderland was released for sale in November 1982.
He was also responsible for starting a separate film label, Touchstone, to handle subject matter that might not have been appropriate for the more family-oriented brand of Walt Disney Pictures. The first release was the Ron Howard film Splash (March 1984) with Tom Hanks, and Miller had to aggressively defend it to stockholders who felt Disney was abandoning its family brand.
He was forced out of the company in September 1984 and replaced by the team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Ron moved to Northern California to run the Silverado winery that he and Diane had opened in 1981. He later supported her efforts to create the Walt Disney Family Museum in The Presidio of San Francisco in 2009.
"It was obviously a great atmosphere when Walt was alive," Miller told me. "If Walt liked something, we knew damn well it had to be good; it had to be successful. Obviously, things are not the same without him. Walt was a great leader, and in his own way, a genius. For that one genius it has taken 50 geniuses to fill his void."
In 1976 Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, with her daughter Diane and son-in-law Ron, purchased two vineyards in the Napa Valley. Their intention was to upgrade the property, replant to premium varietals, install new trellising and frost protection, but not to build or run a winery.
Their vineyards were clearly exceptional, producing top-quality fruit and award-winning wines year after year… for other wineries. So construction of the Silverado winery began in 1980. Architect Dick Keith designed the old California mission-style structure, which is often mistaken for an actual restoration, and the winery opened in 1981.
For decades, Miller avoided returning to Disney property or talking publicly about Disney, but with the death of his wife Diane in 2013, he had to come out to represent her legacy and responsibilities. That is why at the age of 82, he showed up at Disneyland for its 60th anniversary. No one seemed to notice.
Animator Glen Keane was in a story meeting for The Great Mouse Detective (1986) when Miller turned up to look at the storyboards. Miller, a 6-foot 6-inch tall ex-football player who weighed close to 300-pounds of muscle, was a very large, imposing figure and his physical presence tended to intimidate some people. Keane quickly drew a caricature and adapted it for the character of the villain Ratigan to menace the much smaller Basil of Baker Street. Miller never noticed the resemblance.
Despite his physical presence, Ron was always friendly and supportive to everyone he worked with and that often caused people to underestimate him and feel he was in "over his head.".
I felt that the time I spent with him at an informal lunch before one of my presentations at the WDFM was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and I can still see the good-natured smile of this gentle giant.
His death truly marks the end of an era of the Disney family who knew and worked with Walt. His years at Disney deserve a serious, in-depth re-examination and re-appraisal.
The Disney Company promoted Dave Smith as the ultimate authority on Disney and it would be hard to argue with that designation. His devotion to accuracy extended to even the most minuscule item.
He spent countless hours debunking myths about Disney history as when the game of Trivial Pursuit asserted that actress Marilyn Monroe was the model for the character of Tinker Bell. It was actually performer Margaret Kerry.
Dave was generous with his time and knowledge mentoring many young people, myself included, in the processes of studying Disney history. He was the first person people immediately went to with any question about Disney.
David Rollin 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 UC Berkeley.
Before Disney, he had library and archival experience while working in the Manuscript Department of the Huntington Library in San Marino, working at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for a year and a half and being on the staff of the Research Library at UCLA for five years.
As Dave told me:
"One thing that I had been interested in both in library school and in working at the library was doing bibliographies. So, I thought, you know, it'd be kind of fun to do a Walt Disney bibliography. I contacted the people at the Disney Studio and suggested this and they said they'd be willing to help me. They opened up some of their files for me and let me come in and go through some of the Disney publications and things like that.
"Anyway, I created this bibliography over a 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.
"UCLA inquired about having the studio deposit Walt Disney's papers at their special collections. However, at a meeting, it was determined it was too huge collection and since the company was still active, it would need to constantly access this material.
"I was sitting in the back of the room because Disney had invited me because of my bibliography 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 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.
"I took a two-month leave of absence from UCLA and went to the Studio 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 Disney people, especially Roy, felt that before they decided where they were going, they better know where they had been. That was how the Disney Archives started. I was the only person in the department for a long time."
Smith became a Disney Company employee on June 22, 1970. His first assignment was to document all the items in Walt Disney's offices.
For four 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 July 1983 for the Disney Channel magazine as well as the Disney Magazine and it still appears today on the D23 website and magazine.
In 1973, Smith officially established that Mickey Mouse's birthday was November 18, 1928.
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.
Dave was an active member of the Society of California Archivists. He served from 1980 to 2001 as executive director of the Manuscript Society, an international association of collectors, dealers, librarians, archivists, and others interested in manuscript material.
"He liked seeking out things - the thrill of the find," said Jean Marana, Smith's sister.
In 2007, he was made a Disney Legend. He retired in October 2010 on his 70th birthday after more than four decades locating and cataloging treasures of Disney history. He continued to work with the Disney Company as a consultant with the title chief archivist emeritus. He passed away at the age of 78 on February 15, 2019.
I knew 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. I had left out the word "The" in a title of a cartoon.
Dave was not malicious nor took joy in pointing out errors. He felt it was part of his job to keep Disney information as accurate as possible and not have falsehoods or sloppy writing proliferate the wrong information.
One time I had made a discovery of new information that made something Dave had said previously incorrect. With the eagerness of foolish youth, I confronted him with the material and instead of being angry or getting defensive, he thanked me and said something that has stuck with me for the rest of my life and it is a sentence that I use myself to this day.
He smiled at me and said, "Nobody can know everything…especially about Disney." It was true then and it remains true now. However, Dave knew a heck of a lot.
When I asked him what inspired him to tackle the daunting task of writing the book Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia and to keep updating it, he replied that he did so because he wanted a source of information that would be handy and that he could trust to answer all the questions that bombarded him without him having to constantly dig through the files of the Disney Archives.
When Disney's budget for photographs in the book was so small, Dave himself took his camera out into Disneyland and elsewhere to snap photos that he incorporated into the book without pay because he was on salary.
Dave was a shy and private man, but he learned how to become the public face of Disney history since he was prominent at many events and on special features for DVDs as well as countless media interviews.
He could sometimes be "prickly" as well, especially if he felt he was being pressured in some way. He did take joy in his job and did have a sense of humor.
He didn't grow up being a huge Disney fan, certainly not in the same sense of Disney fans today but he did enjoy the worlds of Disney. He did admit to me that when it came to cartoons, when he was younger he was fond of the ones with Tom and Jerry.
He worked closely with Roy O. Disney not only in establishing the Disney Archives but on a private project documenting Disney ancestry. He did meet Walt Disney once, very briefly and he shared that experience with me in a 2005 interview:
"Song of the South 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 sixteen or so, I was walking in through the castle, into Fantasyland, and there was Walt Disney walking in next to me.
"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-foot 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 still think about the fact that if I knew what I was going to be doing 15 years later, I would have asked him a lot of questions that could have saved me a lot of time later."