How Jim Korkis Invented the Term Disney Historianby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
One of the questions I get asked frequently is “What is a Disney historian?” It is always easy for me to give an answer because, after all, I am the one who invented the term. It is one of the reasons that I smile every time I see someone else identified as a “Disney Historian.”
Thirty years ago, the term “Disney Historian” did not exist. The term “film historian” did exist but usually referred to people like the legendary Kevin Brownlow, who researched and wrote about silent movies. Eventually, as years passed, the area of cinematic research kept expanding, as well, especially into the films of the 1930s and 1940s and later the 1950s. Today, it is not uncommon for film historians to write about films from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s from an historical perspective.
Author Leonard Maltin began writing about film history when he was 15 years old, and his work appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines. He also wrote several terrific books about films. He became, without a doubt, a well-known and respected film historian. Most people know him primarily for his connection to the television show Entertainment Tonight. He began his television career as a reviewer on that show in 1982. Later, he evolved into a special reporter concentrating on interviewing classic film stars and doing segments devoted to classic films and unfortunately, classic film stars who died.
Maltin created an entire career for himself out of thin air and became a model for many of us. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I have known, liked and respected him for decades. Visit his website and, if you love old movies, subscribe to Maltin’s newsletter (and get the back issues of) Movie Crazy.
More importantly, Maltin was the first film historian to write books about Disney (Disney Films) and classic animation (Of Mice and Magic). In a world with no Internet, these were vital and groundbreaking references at the time.
I also began my writing career when I was 15. Primarily I wrote about comics, animation, and, occasionally, Disney. However, whenever I identified myself as an “animation writer,” people would always ask “what characters or series do you write?” I had to explain I was writing about animation, not writing animation scripts.
Leonard Maltin was once again my model. He was the first person to identify himself as an “animation historian” as he wrote more and more articles for magazines about animation and hosted all sorts of animated film events. It was a natural extension that a film historian who was focused on the history of animation would be an “animation historian”. I, and many others who were writing about classic animation, immediately adopted that same term. Whether I wrote a monthly column for Animation magazine or for Animania/Mindrot, Animato, or a host of other venues, I was comfortable using the term “animation historian”. (I was identified as a “comic historian” when I wrote for a variety of comic fanzines.)
In the 1980s, there were a plethora of Disney fanzines and I wrote for just about all of them.
A fan magazine is an amateur produced publication (in the earliest days done in ditto or mimeograph but eventually Xeroxed or printed) by fans of a particular genre. Most people believe that fanzines began with science fiction fans in the 1930s. The term “fanzine” originated in the 1940s to distinguish these types of publications from “prozines" (professional magazines).
There were fanzines devoted to Star Trek, horror movies, rock 'n'roll, sports, comic books and just about anything that could be imagined including animation and Disney. For younger readers, it was sort of a printed version of a Website or a blog but available much less frequently.
As I said, there were several Disney fanzines that I wrote articles and columns for, including The Duckburg Times, Persistence of Vision and the Carl Barks Collector. It became confusing to identify myself as an “animation historian” because I was writing about all aspects of Disney including Disneyland, Imagineers, Walt himself and more. Shouldn’t an authority on animation just be concentrating on Disney cartoons?
At the time, the usual identifications were “Disney expert”, “Disney authority” (both of which I felt uncomfortable using because I felt I wasn’t an expert since even then I knew how much I didn’t know), “Disney trivia fan” (which wasn’t accurate since even then I was doing deeper research than just “fun fact” trivia) and “Disney aficionado” (which quickly disappeared because people couldn’t remember how to spell it and were often unclear of the definition of the term).
Again, trying to identify myself as a “Disney writer,” someone who wrote about Disney, brought up questions as to what films I wrote or what comic books I had scripted. So, following Maltin’s example, I coined the term “Disney Historian” as a natural extension of “animation historian.” It seemed to perfectly describe what I was actually doing, researching and recording Disney history, and newspapers and television shows loved having a title to describe me when I was interviewed.
It wasn’t such an amazing creation. I am sure that someone else would have eventually come up with that term if I hadn’t since it was so natural. Even today, people accept that title without question. However, I was the first one to ever identify myself as a “Disney Historian.”
So what is the difference between a "Disney Archvist" and a "Disney Historian? I have been a friend of Dave Smith’s for decades. I still have the first letter he wrote to me, correcting two errors I made about Disney (one was nomenclature) in an article I had written in a fanzine. To this day, I still write Disney articles as if he was looking over my shoulder, making a face if I didn’t get the facts or the names right.
A "Disney Archivist" is like a great librarian. He gathers material, catalogs material, organizes material and preserves material. An archivist helps people locate the material they need. In the case of the Disney Archives, at one time, its most frequent client was the Disney Legal Department, who needed information about dates and names to generate lawsuits or to defend the company against lawsuits.
A "Disney Historian" is someone who does original research, like interview people, locate material (in the old days, we did some of this by going through newspaper files and trying to read microfilm and microfiche files in libraries), verify material, and organize that material into a coherent structure.
Most importantly, a "Disney Historian" takes the raw facts and connects them into a story so that people can better understand the facts. For instance, most people know that Steamboat Willie is considered the first theatrically released Mickey Mouse animated cartoon. That is a fact. A "Disney Historian" can tell the story of why that is such a pivotal film, how it compared with other cartoons at the time, share the stories of those involved with the cartoon, reveal what the experience was like to see the cartoon, discuss the making of the cartoon and so many other levels that help people truly understand and appreciate it.
A "Disney Historian" also has the obligation to share the material with others. In the old days, that was done through the pages of magazines. (Animation historian John Canemaker wrote some amazing magazine articles and animation historian Michael Barrier published Funnyworld, which was filled with important information that still has not appeared elsewhere.) Today, Disney historians primarily share through Websites and blogs—although a few of us older guys still prefer to do so through magazines and books.
Because of the informative and fascinating articles that Dave Smith has written over the years, I consider him a "Disney Historian" as well as a "Disney Archivist." However, when I interviewed him on stage 12 years ago at the Walt Disney World Resort, he adamantly responded, “I am not a 'Disney Historian.' I am not interested in trivia.”
Dave felt that the term Disney historian referred to those fans only interested in trivial things about Disney and who missed the larger picture.
I am still somewhat unique in the world of Disney historians because my interests and expertise span many different arenas. Often a Disney historian will concentrate on a particular area like animation or Disney or Disneyland or Walt Disney World or comic books or the original Mickey Mouse Club or a host of other narrow topics. Within those topics, some Disney historians narrow their focus even further like concentrating just on Disneyland during the Walt years or just the DELL comic books or just a particular artist or just a particular character or film.
As readers of this column know, I may not have the same depth of knowledge of someone who has only devoted his research to Disney and World War II but I do still have something to share about the subject that others may not know. I may not have the same depth of knowledge of someone who is only interested in just Disney comic books or Carl Barks but I still have written some interesting things about those subjects.
I am truly fascinated by all things Disney and, unfortunately, other topics, as well, which is frustrating when some folks see me as “only” a Disney historian. In the last 15 years, because of my work situation, I have concentrated on Disney history, but I still occasionally write articles about animation and comics and theater and old movies and more for a variety of other venues.
In addition, in the world of Disney historians there are two extremes. First, there are those Disney historians who are completely committed to the standards of academia. Every sentence is extensively footnoted and the bibliography is almost as long as the article. Even the style of writing is scholarly (and sometimes convoluted) and follows the format of professorial papers.
Some of you might be aware that there is an accepted way in the world of academia to present material so that it is considered legitimate and professional. My master’s thesis on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was praised unanimously by my review board of professors is not written in as interesting a style as my columns for MousePlanet.
Second, there are those Disney historians who are much more casual in their approach to writing about Disney history. Their articles are often spontaneous and conversational in nature, relying on a single source for a fact or a story and sometimes even writing something without any corroboration.
I think there is value in both styles. I straddle the line between the two extremes by trying to verify and identify information, but, in a way, that hopefully is accessible to readers who don’t have a strict academic background. Anyone who has heard me speak knows that my background in entertainment infuses any historical presentation I give with a little different approach than many other Disney historians. To me, it is important to use the facts to tell an interesting story.
“Disney Historian” is not an official Disney Company role. I was “coached” several times by Disney University management at the Walt Disney World Resort that I could not identify myself ever as a “Disney Historian” because that is not an official role.
I provided documentation that I had been identified as a "Disney Historian" for more than two decades. I pointed out that the Disney Company itself did indeed identify me as a "Disney Historian" on the 100 Years of Magic Vacation Planning Video sent to millions of people, as well as in several Disney publications, including my writing for the Disney Vacation Club. That explanation made no difference to my management at the time. As far as they were concerned, there is no such thing as a "Disney Historia" and they had no interest in being told differently.
So, Wade Sampson was temporarily born to continue to share the stories of Disney history. When Walt Disney World laid me off two years ago, along with thousands of others, I once again became “Jim Korkis, Disney Historian”. In fact, I have been identified that way in articles and videos from the Disney Company in the last two years as well where I have done work as a freelance contributor.
Apparently, others are identified as "Disney Historians," as well, these days and I wish them all well in preserving stories that are in danger of being lost or forgotten. They should probably thank Leonard Maltin for inspiring a title that carries with it a degree of dignity and authority. I never would have thought of coining the term without Leonard’s example.
If every "Disney Historian" sent me just $1 a month to license the use of that title, the world would be a much better place. No one I know makes a living just being a "Disney Historian." Everyone has some other form of income, usually a full-time job or a spouse with a full-time job or a retirement check. Doing interviews, obtaining material, contacting people and more all cost time and money that are never even come close to being repaid when the material is finally published.
A "Disney Historian" has to be obsessed with finding and sharing the information, because even a minimum-wage employee at a fast food restaurant makes more money by the end of the year. From personal experience, I know the role can be frustrating, as well as rewarding.
Within the last two months, I have found three places on the Internet where my articles have been reprinted without attribution to me. In one case, someone even put their own name on the article, even though it had references to my personal life and had my own eclectic style of writing. I just sigh.
After all, that is the bottom line about being a "Disney Historian." The job is to discover the stories and to share them so that the stories stay alive. Hopefully, those stories enrich the appreciation people have for Disney. I know people who withhold stories because they are fearful these treasures will be stolen by others if they were ever shared.
After three decades, I still discover something new. So for those interested in carrying on the legacy, there are treasures waiting to be uncovered. "Disney Historian" Didier Ghez and I write to each other several times a week sharing all sorts of stuff that we have found that we never knew existed.
It puts a smile on my face when we come up with questions for an interview of an aging Disney artist or discover a new book or find a forgotten newspaper clipping or picture. I smile even broader when others offer their knowledge about the item.
If you decide to take on the role of "Disney Historian," remember that the title comes with responsibility to your readers and all of us who have gone before you. Perhaps you will be the one to invent even a better term than “Disney Historian.”