Dave Smith and The Birth of the Disney Archives

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Disney Archives officially opened on June 22, 1970 and this week it celebrates its 50th anniversary. When the Archives opened, David Rollin Smith was the only employee in that department.

I interviewed Dave many times and he was always helpful when I needed information for an article. Here is an excerpt from one I did with him on March 16, 2005, at the Walt Disney Story Theater in what was at the time the Main Street Exposition Hall at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. The complete interview appears as a chapter in my book How to be a Disney Historian

This interview was done on stage in the afternoon in front of more than 300 eager cast members and we discussed the birth of the Archives. To save space, I have eliminated my questions because I think you can understand what they were just from Dave's responses.

First Disney archivist Dave Smith with Jim Korkis

Dave Smith: On December 15th, 1966, what happened? Walt Disney died. 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?"

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.

The UCLA Library where I was working had a Department of Special Collections so they had contacted the Disney Studio and said, "How about depositing Walt Disney's papers here at the library?"

Dr. Robert Bosker, the librarian, suggested that they come out to the library for a meeting. 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.

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, since this is an active, ongoing company, the company has business secrets that they weren't ready to let out they we didn't want everyone going out to their garage and making an audio-animatronics 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.

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.

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 (O. Disney), 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

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. 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.

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.

Around 1972, they suddenly decided, we need to use this space. 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 be sure we knew where everything was so that we could get them out again when we were ready to reproduce Walt's offices.

Back in 1970, I went around the departments. 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 is? (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.

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.

Disney Legend Dave Smith and Mickey Mouse

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 Archives. 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 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.

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.

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

Our collecting policies have changed quite a bit through the years because we didn't really know 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 like merchandise.

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. They did want to know when something was sold and what company produced it. So in general we stopped collecting toys because we just did not have the space to store it.

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 snow globe 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!"

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 we certainly couldn't afford to purchase a copy—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. 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.