Guest Blogger Jeremy Marx attended a special D23 event with Disney Archivist Dave Smith and shares this report:
On June 25th, 2010, Disney and D23 held an event on the Disney Studio Lot to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Disney Archives. While there were many exceptional moments throughout the evening, the one most of us who were there will remember was the Question and Answer session between Leonard Maltin and Dave Smith. Covering topics from Dave's childhood through how the Archives came to be, and on to the work that has continued.
Here is the transcript of this incredible conversation. Enjoy!
A conversation with Dave Smith- Hosted by Leonard Maltin
LM: It's great to see such a wonderful turnout for a momentous occasion like this. I date myself by simply telling people that I started working on my first Walt Disney project, the Disney filmography, before Dave worked here. So, you know, you can now mark that off and make it easy to chart on a map of years. But I don't think it's possible to be so glib, or succinct. I'm talking about the impact Dave's had on this company internally. On the Disney community, including all the fans, and the buffs, and students and scholars, and writers. And there's been a wonderful open door feeling you could at least, at least it's been my experience, the archive was there to serve people who needed assistance of any kind.
Obviously they couldn't answer every kids crayon scrawled request, but I think anybody who had a legitimate reason for needing material, information, questions answered, they found a receptive response. And this is not only the first studio to do this, but it always seemed to me that this is the perfect studio to do this. Because, unlike many other studios in town, it never changed hands. Think about it, it never changed ownership. Never changed location all these years. I still, when I drive by what is Sony Pictures lot in Clover City, it still says MGM in my brain, because it was MGM for 70 years or so. But that never happened here.
You know it was Walt Disney who built this studio we all are in today. So there's continuity. That was important too. And finally, they did tend to save certain degree a certain amount of stuff. We'll get into that in conversation with Dave, and find out how much was still here, and how much he had to accumulate and assemble. But, the Disney folks had a habit of, they knew early on, earlier then most studios there was value in their own past. And that's something a lot of other studios were very slow to catch on to, and some still haven't. Shame on them. I think that's a more than likely attitude throughout the movie industry these days. Largely because of DVDs, cable television. They finally wised up, that that stuff, those films, and some of the things, attendance for those films they were ignoring, has value. Not just archival value. Not just historical value, but even in some cases monetary value. So it's just smart, good business to take care of your belongings. To take care of your past.
Dave walked into a very receptive atmosphere here, and that was great. I think my most favorite thing Dave has ever done, is if you haven't read his article, I don't know how easy it is to find, maybe it is easy to find online, is Dave's article about Walt's signature. How many people have read that article? Is that online Dave? No. It will be soon, good. Good answer. Good answer. It wasn't written for a Disney publication, it was written for a publication about autograph collecting, right? And it is one of the most famous and most recognizable signatures in the world, right? But there's a lot that goes with that, and Dave did a magnificent job of tracking the history, the lore, the facts, the fiction about Walt's famous signature. And I love that piece. I just love it.
I think the most important thing I want to say before we turn this over, I'm going to interview Dave with a lot of questions that I'm sure have been in your minds. Most important thing to think about today is, how lucky Dave was to find and create this job. And how lucky the Disney company was to find him, and give him this job. I think it was a two-way street of equal value in both directions.
So please welcome back Dave Smith.
LM: I want to start with some basics, ok. Tell us a little about your background, where we born? Where did you grow up?
o DS: That's going way back isn't it? I was born in Pasadena, so I am a local person here in Southern California. I went through schools in Pasadena through junior college. I then went to Berkeley to get my BA, which was in history. And I got a Masters in Library science there also. I was expecting to work in a junior college library, but then I was offered an internship at the Library of Congress in Washington. And I figured I couldn't turn that down, I mean that's the best library in the world practically. So I went back there for a year and a half, then I came back to California. This was my home, my family and friends were all here, and I didn't like the weather in the East. So I came home.
LM: How did you get involved with working with Disney the first time?
o DS: I wanted to honor this man, and I started working on his bibliography. And this may of been the first time I wrote you, when I was working on the bibliography. I remember sending him a list of corrections to his filmography.
LM: And he hasn't stopped since.
o DS:It was that bibliography that really gave me an in to the Studio, because I got to meet people in the publications department here at the Studio. And, coming out here to visit them and learning a little bit of the lore of the Studio really got me interested in this place. So, when the possibility of a job came along I thought this could be a great career if I could arrange this for myself.
LM: Who was it that had this idea? What was the job description sound like? What did they post?
o DS: There was no job description. There was no posting. It was actually... The representatives of Disney, which included Jim Stewart who is here today, came over to UCLA, because UCLA had suggested the Walt Disney's papers be deposited there in the library. And, at this meeting they realized that UCLA couldn't possibly handle a collection like this. And it was suggested that Disney setup an archive. And I was sitting in the back of the room, and I thought, "Hey this sounds really great". So, I went back home that night, and I wrote to Jim Stewart and Bill Cottrell, who were two of the representatives from Disney, and said that I can take a leave of absence and do some research for you guys and give you some ideas as what you can do to preserve the history. And they didn't have anybody in their staff that knew anything about archives. So they said, "Ok"�.
LM: And that was a great moment. How did you see your task? How did you envision, or plan how you were even going to begin this mountain of material?
o DS: Well, I was trained as a librarian. I knew very little about archives myself, other then having worked at the Library of Congress. I worked in the various division there. I worked with rare books, I worked with prints and photographs, I worked with manuscripts, and so forth. So, I did my reading of how archives operated. But, I also went a visited other archives, to see how they did it. And decided early on that you just had to start collecting information from throughout the company. And we didn't always collect the right things in the beginning. There are things people started asking us for, and we didn't have them. And immediately we started collection those. On the other hand, we started collection some things from the beginning that are still sitting on our warehouse that nobody has ever asked to see them. So... The thing is, every archive is different. So, it's hard to have any rules as to what you need to collect. I mean there's basics. You need to have a complete set of the company's annual reports. You need a complete set of press releases that are put out from any publicity department. Various things like that. But, other things we just didn't realize from the beginning we would need. One of the major ones being a file on each attraction at each of our parks. Because people would be coming to us, they wanted to know how much water is in the moat around the castle, or how many horses are on the carousel, or whatever. And we knew we had a lot of this information, but it just wasn't at our fingertips. And by setting up a file on every attraction. We use this daily now, when people are asking questions relating to particular attractions. Of course at the beginning it was just Disneyland, and now we have drawers for all eleven of our parks.
LM: When did you first meet Roy O. Disney? And tell us about your relationship with him.
o DS: First time. That's hard to remember. I don't think I meet him when I doing my initial survey. Could have. See, I didn't know you were going to ask me that question, I'm not sure. As soon as I started here I did get to meet with Roy, and work with him quite closely. He died in 1971, so I had a little over a year to work with him. One thing I will always remember, is that he came to me and asked me if I would do some work on the Disney family history. Well, I had done some work on my own genealogy, and so I had fun doing that, and so I thought it would be a very fun thing to do. He actually, out of his own pocket, paid me to take a trip around the country and on up into Canada where the Disney family had originated, and actually find all this information. And there was a huge family involved. His parents had like ten or, nine or ten brothers and sisters on each side. So, lots of Aunts and Uncles. He had sixty-five first cousins. I have nine. I think that's a bit more normal. But, that was really wonderful. And I took pictures while I was traveling around the country and one of those pictures actually shows some Disney relatives, a cousin and an uncle of Elias Disney, back in Ellis Kansas where the family first settled when they came from Canada. The bottom picture is the grave of Walt's Maternal grandparents in Florida. It's about fifty miles north of the Walt Disney World property. So, a lot of people don't realize there was a Disney connection to central Florida long before there was Walt Disney World.
LM:Elias's uncle? He must have been quite old.
o DS: He was in his eighties. He must have been quite young when he became the uncle!
LM:Well put. That's a good point. The that kind of assignment, that's not only unusual, it came from the head man, since his brother's death.
o DS: And the thing I found true about Roy Disney was that he was a very modest man. He was a very friendly man. He was the grandfather figure. I mean, you would have felt very comfortable having him in your home for Thanksgiving dinner. And I very much loved working with him. When I came back from the trip I had taken my camera along with slides, slides in those days before digital, and I took my slide show up to his conference room and showed it to him. And he was just in his element sitting there reminiscing about the family history, and about things that he had done related to the people that I was telling him about in the slides. So, that was really thrilling for me. I was so sad when he passed away in the Fall... December 1971.
LM: Tell us about other people you met. When you started here quite a large number of the people who created all of the Disney history were still alive. And a fair number of them were still working.
o DS: Exactly. I was very glad to have a chance to meet all these people. All nine of the nine old men of animation were still here at the studios. And they were all full of stories. I really enjoyed talking to some of them had thousands and thousands of great stories. Others a little quieter. They maybe would come up with the same stories when you talk to them. But, I got a lot of the history of Disney out of them. But, the other person who was still here was Ub Iwerks. The man that helped Walt Disney design Mickey Mouse. And he was in a little tiny office over in the ink and paint building. I've loved talking to him. He had a hard time remembering going back to the 20s. what do you expect, this was the 70s, couldn't remember back 50 years. Just having a connection with someone that had that early connection with Walt.
LM: Amazing. And transcripts of these conversations went in to your files.
o DS: That's right. Exactly.
LM: I don't want to start you with stories of the nine old men, because I'm sure there's so many we could go on with those and fill in the evening very easily with those. But, you did something that would make you, I'm sure, the envy of everyone sitting here in this room. You got to ride both Ward Kimball's and Ollie Johnson's trains in their backyards, right?
o DS: Yes. Ward of course had his train running up and down the driveway of his home out in San Gabriel. And I went out there several times when he steamed up his locomotive. He had most fascinating collection of miniature trains, toy trains also that he just loved to show off. Ward was also very generous in giving us some early Disney toys. Noe, in the early 30s, there were no collectors of Disneyana, except Ward Kimball. And Ward had actually saved a number of the licensed toys that had been made of the Disney characters.
LM: He was a lifelong pack rat.
o DS: Yes he was. He was, and so he was such a wonderful person to interview because you mention a topic and he could go on for half an hour on that topic, and then he would suggest a topic that you never even thought to ask him about, and he could go on for a half an hour on that, and that would be just as fascinating as the other one.
LM: He also did something for the archive that was very unusual.
o DS: Yes. He was one of several artists that I went to and asked them, could you help me diagram what the earliest studios looks like. And which building was which, so Ward did a great one for me of the Hyperion Studio, and there it is. I mean we have all seen the photographs, but we weren't sure which building was which, which came first, and so forth. So this sketch helped me to figure that out. But, even more interesting I was able to find several people who were still alive that had worked at the old Kingswell Studio before Hyperion. So, that would have been 1923, 24, 1925. We have a description of where people have their desks. This was great to be able to get this while we could. Now there's nobody left that worked at Kingswell and there aren't that many people around that worked at Hyperion.
LM:If you were trying to start this project from scratch today you would have a very hard time.
o DS: Yes, definitely.
LM: You also at one point, I know, traced not the publicity version, or the apocryphal version, but the real facts of the original incorporation of the company, did you not?
o DS: Yes. The company when I came here, they knew they got started in 1923, but nobody had come up with the date. But, after doing a bit of research I realized that the company essentially started when Walt got his first contract to make movies. And that was the contract he signed with Margaret Linkler for the Alice Comedies. And, I went up to our legal department and went through their files and sure enough, there was the contract that Walt signed, so October 16, 1923. So there we had a date for the beginning of the company, and ever since that time we use that date.
LM: You set it in stone.
o DS: I set it. I also did Mickey Mouse's birthday. I didn't know if you going to ask me that, I'll tell you about it. I noticed when I started the archives that there were many different dates that had been used for Mickey Mouse's birthday. It turned out these were all handy Saturdays in the fall when they could get a lot of kids in the movie theaters to celebrate Mickey Mouse's birthday. But always in the publicity they talked about Mickey being born when Steamboat Willie opened at the Colony Theatre in New York City. Did anyone bother to look up what date that happened? No. And so I started doing some research, and as you can see on the screen now we actually found the program for the Colony Theatre for that day. And there's Steamboat Willie on the program. And the continuous performances started at noon, so we even know what time Mickey was born. Because he was the first thing on the program.
LM: Eastern standard Time
o DS: And from then on we have promoted that date as being Mickey's birthday, and it's really gratifying to me to open up a magazine, a book, a newspaper and they say, "and Mickey's birthday is November 18", and I think, that's because of me.
LM: Let's talk about something I alluded to before. What you've found here when you started working here. Talk to us about both sides of that coin. What did you find that was here easily accessible, if not all in one place. And what did you find not here that you felt you needed to acquire?
o DS: Okay. The here question first. A lot of departments in the company had saved file sets of their own materials. So it meant me going to these departments, whether it was the publications department, where they had all the books and comics. The music department, where they had sheet music and phonograph records. Publicity department where they had posters and other publicity materials for the films. So I found out where these things were, and then our job was to go to these departments, and to convince them that they needed to turn the files over to the archives. And that wasn't always easy. Some of these departments were very protective of their files, because they did need to get into them from time to time and they were a little hesitant of having them outside of their control. But, with in a short time we were able to convince them we would be able to take care of their file sets probably better than they were and then they turned them over to us.
LM:Of course they have access to their material.
o DS: Ready access to the materials at any time they wished. So we were lucky there. Other departments were delighted to give us their file sets because they wanted that storage room to put something else in there. Now, the things we did not find in the company. The company had not saved samples of thier early merchandise. They never really considered them as Disney products, because they were not made by Disney. We simply license the use of our characters to manufacturers of toys and games and clothing and so forth, and they went ahead and make the merchandise. But the company had not saved samples of these. And I thought this was something that would be very valuable for the company to have a collection of the merchandise. So, thank goodness before there was a lot of Disney collectors I went out there and started trying to search out some of his early material. And I was lucky in finding a tremendous amount of things for very low prices for your collectors. And we'll develop a nice representative sampling of the different types of things. You can see two examples on the screen right now. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I found his stencil set at an antique toy show up at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. And this was one of only three merchandise items that have been made by licensees during the period that Disney was making Oswald. The others are a pin backed button, and a candy bar. And I don't think we'll ever find the candy bar.
LM: And what's the Donald toy?
o DS: And the Donald toy is a wind up celluloid toy that I found at the Rose Bowl swap meet. I paid $18 for it. And it's mint in its box as you can see, and is probably worth $2500 or so today.
LM: Did you have specific goals, other than looking for rare materials, that plain, but did you want to have the example of every Mickey Mouse licensed piece, or were you looking for variety? What were some of your criteria?
o DS: We are looking for variety. We wanted a sampling of the different types of materials that have been licensed. There were a few things that were like a set, and we thought this would be nice to have the whole set, and we did work on that. But in many cases it was, well" Number one, just trying to find items that were available that we could purchase and, number two, things that were not too expensive that we could afford. And then third, things we thought we could use for displays and other purposes in the archives. We now have a very nice collection which would be nigh unto impossible to put together today.
LM:And you did all of this before eBay?
o DS: Yes we did. EBay has made it more difficult really because it's raised the prices on collectibles.
LM: Now, one thing. I know you've been asked this many times before, but it's a question we can't ignore. Are you yourself a collector?
o DS: Not of Disneyana. I always felt that that would be a conflict of interest if I were collecting the same material that I was collecting here. But, I have always been a collector. And I started as a stamp collector when I was about eight years old I guess. But the thing that really interest me because I was a history major was collecting historical autographs and documents. And that is my major collection, which I still collect today. I've got all the presidents, I've got the vice president's, I've got most of the generals on both sides of the Civil War, I've got all of the signers of the Constitution, and all except one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
LM:Who are you missing?
o DS: Button Gwinnett. He's very expensive.
LM:As you started accumulating more and more material, was there ever an issue where it was going to go? How was it be stored? How was it be displayed?
o DS: Well, at the back of my mind I thought this was an issue, but I had such cooperation from the company. Every time we ran out of space in a storeroom, they would give us either a larger storeroom or another storeroom. And so, we incrementally started enlarging the physical size of the archives to hold all of the materials that we were acquiring.
"LM:Now as you have mentioned before when you first came to work here there was only one Park, and that was Disneyland in Anaheim. What are your memories of the opening of Walt Disney World? What did you make of your first trip there?
o DS: Actually made my first trip to Walt Disney World in the spring of, oh, there's some pictures of it, in the spring of 1971. And I can date my first stepping onto Main Street. They were still paving it as you can see here. So that dates my first trip to Walt Disney World. I wasn't down there for the opening. But, we were very lucky that we were able to document Walt Disney World from day one. There was 15 years of Disneyland before the archives, and so that was a little more difficult to go back in history and try to document the things that happened before the archives came along.
LM: Explain to me what you mean by the word document. They are building a new theme park. It's going to have many attractions, some will be duplicates, or replicas, however you want to put it, like here in California. What is your goal? What are you setting out to do?
o DS: We are setting out to acquire the materials that will tell the history of the elements of those parks. Like Walt Disney World, since you mentioned that as an example. It doesn't mean the blueprints. It doesn't mean the designs, because those are all kept a Walt Disney Imagineering. So, we are looking for things like construction photos, documentation on what the attractions would be named, like nomenclature lists, menus from the restaurants, samples of ticket media. So we have all the tickets that were used ever in Walt Disney World. So its picking and choosing the things that we know people are going to be asking us about in the future. A complete set of press releases is really important because there in chronological form is essentially a history of the park.
LM: And you followed this then with each of the other nine parks that have been built since?
o DS: Yes.
LM:That's a lot of work.
o DS: It is. And last month, I finally got over to Hong Kong Disneyland. Si, I've hit all of the parks now. Oh yeah, here are a few of the pictures from Hong Kong Disneyland.
LM: I hear you were quite the celebrity over there.
o DS: Well, I put on several programs for the cast members, and the middle picture there the publicity department and set up a meeting between me and Disney fans in Hong Kong. And I was surprised by how many Disney fans are in Hong Kong. And they also had to press the documenting me meeting with the Disney fans. And it was really a lot of fun.
LM: What was your impression of the park?
o DS: Hong Kong Disneyland is a gorgeous park. It's small. It's had its complaints because it's small, but it's growing. And they've got a number of new attractions under construction right now, and I think it's really going to catch on in the next couple of years.
LM:You've had interesting relationships with all sorts of people at the studio, veterans, contemporary people, at all levels of operations from Mr. Iger all the way down the line. Tell us about the night we got the phone call from Frank Wells.
o DS: I was down to Walt Disney World for the 25th anniversary. Yes, 25th anniversary for the park. And anytime they did anything historical like this, they like to have me down there to do radio and television interviews, talking about the history of the park. So I was staying in the Contemporary Resort that night, and my phone will rang in my room at 3 AM. I pick up the phone and it's Frank Wells. Frank Wells was the President of the company at that time. He said, Dave, I'm going to be on Good Morning America tomorrow morning, and they are going to ask what is Goofy? And I don't know the answer to that. So I had to give Frank Wells at 3 AM a quick education as to what Goofy was.
"LM: A tutorial from the archives.
LM:There's so many things I want to ask you, we want to cover so many turfs that people expect me to ask you I'm sure. I'm curious about some of the different things. One thing people do want to know of course is some of your personal thoughts. Not your corporate thoughts, but your personal thoughts. Do you have the favorite Disney film?
o DS: Yes. Well, I have several different favorite Disney films. That's a bit difficult. The first film I ever saw as a kid it was, Song of the South, and I've always had a fond place in my heart for that film. I was about the same age as Bobby Driscoll who appeared in that film, so I was kind of identified with him in that film. My favorite of the early animated films is Pinocchio. I've always felt that that was one of the more technically perfect at the Disney films. A film that really could not be made today, it would be prohibitively expensive. It's just a beautiful gorgeous film. And more recently my favorite is Beauty and the Beast.
LM: You have good taste. Yes that's a good start. And you've done so much for the history of the characters. Do you have a favorite character?
o DS: It's actually Pluto. I'm a dog fan. I always felt Pluto was a great character.
LM: He's a great dog.
o DS: He is.
LM:That's something that's always interested me, that obviously Walt was a dog lover. And you wouldn't have to look that up in a book or ask anybody about it. You just have to look at Pluto. Nobody could produce those cartoons, and create those cartoons, who didn't really love dogs. So I think you're in line with the boss there.
LM:One of the things you've done, one of the services you've done for years in various Disney magazines, you've been the answer man. And a lot of people who have never met you, have never seen you in person know you still from your Ask Dave columns and all of that. So there are people who do believe that you know everything. Everything! A to Z. Complete. Start to finish about Disneyland. There you are with some of your friends. What do you tell people when they ask something as daunting as that?
o DS: Well, I very quickly say no, I don't know everything. However, we do have great files in the archives, so we can go look up things very quickly and we have them at our fingertips. I've always said that, and this speaks to many of you here in the audience as Disney fans and collectors, you can specialize in something very particular like the license plates they sold through the years with Walt Disney World and so forth on them. And you can become the world's greatest expert on that. I don't know that much about the license plates, but somebody that can take the time to learn about it, they're going to know more about that subject. But, we like to meet these people and have them tell us the history, then we'll have in our collection.
LM: What I do is I use your Dave Smith encyclopedia of Disney, which I refer to all of the time, that's my go to. If any of you don't have a copy of that, your library is incomplete. How many of you would, if you don't already, have it on your shelf tonight if you can get one tonight? Everyone right?
LM: What kind of stumpers do you get asked? What is it that people ask you that throws you a curve?
o DS: Well, I think the weirdest question we ever got was, how much does Walt Disney World weigh? You know, when you think about it though, there's a reason for that. Because the Magic Kingdom in Florida was actually built on the second level. Because the high water table there, they had to build their tunnels on top of the ground. So then the park was built on top of that. So yeah, there is weight, and it's pushing down on the tunnel structure, but how you would measure it, I don't have the slightest idea.
LM: Well, I hope that person wasn't too disappointed by not getting a precise answer to that.
LM:How do you see the future of the archives? What is your vision, what do you have in mind in a continuing role of the archive, or any changes or expansion for the archive?
o DS: Well, I think the archives can only become more valuable to the company because of the number of years that have gone by since we did so many of the things in this company. When I started, as you mentioned, a lot of the old timers were still here. And when you have so many of your original employees you can always walk down the hall and get your answers really quickly. But, now they are all gone. I mean some of them are retired, some have died, and you just can't get your answers that quickly. So people are having to come to the archives to get their answers. Additionally we have started in the last four years collecting more props and costumes. Creating more of a museum collection than we ever did in the early days with the thought that someday the company may want to do a museum. Bob Eiger talked about that in the LA Times article this morning. So, someday, when that someday comes, now we will have a nice collection of props and costumes, which are always great things to show in a display. It's hard to display a letter from Walt's correspondence files and have that be really exciting. But, to show the ring that turned the boy to the shaggy dog, or the snow globe from Mary Poppins which we have in our collection. That's really different.
LM:In what I find so fascinating is that, I don't know about the props, I know in the case of the costumes, a lot of them were just sitting here in general wardrobe for a long time. So it wasn't as if they were discarded, they were kind of hiding in plain sight.
o DS: That's right. Well, we had not collected a lot of props and costumes in the early days. So we hadn't raided the prop department, we haven't raided the costume department. And when we heard they were going to be shutting them down, that was our incentive to go in there and save everything that we could save.
LM: Well, again, you've done it in the nick of time, and I know future generations will be grateful to that, as we are now.
LM: I don't know how to sum all this up Dave. We've just scratched the surface of your accomplishments over 40 years. Do you have any kind of summing up that you would like to pass along?
o DS: Well, other than saying it's been really gratifying to have this job for 40 years, to be able to work with the material that mean so much to so many wonderful people around the world. It's hard to find anybody that hasn't grown up with Disney. And to have all the material related to Disney in the archives is really wonderful. It makes me feel very humble to have the responsibility, to have had the responsibility, for these 40 years to collect and preserve these materials. As I retire in October I, I believe I am leaving a pretty viable department here for Becky Cline to take over. This department will go on for a long time I think.
LM:And you have a wonderful staff. You've always had great people working with you haven't you?
o DS: Yes.
LM: That's also a credit, that reflects well on you. I'm serious, that you hire good people. You knew the right kind of people to hire.
o DS: I always thought that I have a good eye for picking the people that would be good in the archives. And people would come to the archives and stay for 15-20 years. I mean, it wasn't something they would come to for a year or two like most kids coming out of college that would come into a job for a few years and then move on to something else. But, our staff has tended to stay.
LM:That says a lot about the company and about the excitement of the job. The constant stimulus that the archives provide. It certainly supplies stimulus for those of us outside and get to see the results. And I'm sure is true on the inside as well.
LM:I just have two words, I have nothing else I could possibly say, except thank you. Thank you.
Read Jeremy's Other Blog:
The Disney Tribute to Robert and Richard Sherman!