09 November 2008

The Archives - Disney's Living History

I’m sure that just about anyone listed in that column on the left can attest to this, but sometimes, as a Disney blogger/podcaster/web site designer you start to feel like an amateur archivist. Between cataloguing all the papers and postcards you’ve collected, reading over books and magazine articles, photographing, and finding new pieces that you have to add to your collection, it can be a bit overwhelming. Of course, that isn’t to say that we don’t love every minute of it. In fact, I would say some of us find our greatest problem is just finding the time to do what we love.

That said, I can only imagine what wealth of information Disney Archivist Dave Smith has stored in his brain to coincide with the extraordinary collection he has been charged with overseeing since 1970 (although I do know several friends, myself included, who would consider working with Dave Smith a dream job). In the Spring of 1987 the Disneyana Collector gave us a glimpse into the inner-workings of the Disney Archives.

There’s hardly anything that been made into a Disney product somewhere in the world. Pinocchio bread, babes in Toyland linoleum, Mickey Mouse gas mask, Donald Duck cola. These are just some of the thousands of items that can be found in the Archives at the Disney Studio in Burbank.

Located in the Roy O. Disney Building near the intersection of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive, the Archives collects, preserves and catalogues historical materials relating the Walt Disney and to the company he founded.

After Walt’s death (on December 15, 1966) questions arose about what to do with Walt’s personal and business papers and his memorabilia. The UCLA Library offered itself as a repository but it was determined that, because of the mass of material, the company itself would need to establish a centralized records-keeping system in an archives.

The task of establishing the Disney Archives fell to David R. Smith in 1970 when he was hired as the archivist. Dave came to the company’s attention when, as a reference librarian in the UCLA Library several years earlier, he compiled a Walt Disney bibliography listing Disney motion pictures, television shows, sheet music, books, periodicals and comic books – more than 3,000 entries.

Setting up the Archives required searching the studio for old files. Some were located in old storage facilities and in remote areas of the studio under leaking water pipes. Others were discovered that had been visited by termites (the termites evidently liked the graphite lines on early drawings for they had eaten only the lines, leaving delicately etched pieces of paper.)

The Archives contains all of Walt Disney’s office correspondence files from 1930 until his death, along with some earlier files that date back to the days of Walt’s Laugh-o-Gram studio In Kansas City in 1922. The collection includes some 8,000 different photos of Walt and a compilation of the history of the Disney family.

There have been over a thousand titles of Disney books published in the United States and the Archives has a complete collection, properly catalogued. Of the many thousand foreign Disney books, published in over 35 languages, the Archives has a good representative collection. Much of the material printed in pre-war Europe was destroyed in World War II during the book-burnings and the bombings.

The Archives has a practically complete collection of over 1,300 phonograph records by the Walt Disney Music Company, plus several hundred singles and albums of Disney songs by other recording companies, such as the first Disney records issued in 1934 by RCA Victor.

Tape recordings, sheet music, comic books, and magazines by the hundreds are all part of the Archives’ Disney history. Since the 1920s thousands of merchandise items have featured the likenesses of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. The Archives contains an extensive sample collection of these merchandise. Catalogs, correspondence files, photographs, and contracts help identify merchandise not in the Archives’ collection.

Dave told The Disneyana Collector, “We still have practically all of the original animation drawings since Plane Crazy, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon animated in 1928. We also have other materials related to the making of our films – story meeting notes, scripts, makeup and costume records.”

Movie props and costumes in the Archives include such diverse items as the ornate books used in the opening sequences of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Annette Funicello’s Mouseketeer outfit, Mary Poppins’ carousel horse, a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea diving helmet and the magic bedknob from Bedknobs And Broomsticks.

Because of its vast pool of historical information, the Archives is called upon to act as consultant on many Disney projects. Dave recalls when he was asked to lend a hand at Disneyland in setting up the Walt Disney Story attraction. “Almost without exception,” he said, “everything on display in Walt’s recreated office at Disneyland is exactly as it was in his office at the studio.”

When it was necessary to establish the actual founding date of the company for its fiftieth anniversary in 1973, Dave searched through old files and discovered Walt’s first legal contract which determined the founding date as October 16, 1923.

A more prestigious birthday – Mickey’s fiftieth in 1978 – raised the question of the actual birthdate. The files indicated that many different dates had been used in the past. Mickey’s fifth birthday had been celebrated on September 30, 1933; his seventh on September 28, 1935. By the 1960s, October dates were being used.

“We decided that once and for all we should determine the correct birthdate,” said Dave. “We knew Mickey’s birth was tied to the opening of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theater in New York so it was necessary to establish that opening date. Our search through Walt’s correspondence proved Steamboat Willie wasn’t even completed on the September or October dates that were used in the past. Finally, two pieces of evidence helped us complete the puzzle. We discovered a printed program for the Colony Theater dated November 18, 1928m which announced Steamboat Willie as the featured attraction, and we found reviews dated November 19 that referred to the film’s opening the previous night at the Colony.”

While the Archives is primarily a center for information for use within the company, the facility is open to accredited and serous research scholars and writers of books, articles and theses. Its wealth of accurate information on just about any Disney subject brings inquiries from company personnel, the press, merchandise licensees and scholars.

So, whether it’s the number of Silly Symphonies films produced, the name of Zorro’s horse, the license plate on Donald Duck’s car or the height of the Matterhorn at Disneyland, the Archives has the last word.

On a personal note, Mr. Smith, if you’re reading this, is there any way you could arrange a tour of the Disney Archives for myself and several other amateur Disney archivists out here? It’s worth a shot asking, right?


Unknown said...

Thanks for this article Ryan! As a current archivist-in-training at the University of Michigan, it is fun to get this glimpse into my dream job after graduation!

Ryan P. Wilson said...

My pleasure. Dreaming is always fun, peaking behind the dreams is even better!

Unknown said...

That is a great article. The next time I am on the West Coast, I am going to arrange some kind of tour or meeting. I have to!

Although, working at the Imagineering Research Library would be pretty awesome, too!

Ryan P. Wilson said...

I thought of you when I found this article George! I knew you'd like it.

However, if you arrange a tour, you have to take me with you!

Cory Gross said...

Yeah George, if you could pencil me on that tour as well, that'd be great ^_~