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New edition of "Disney A to Z" is a great starter book for budding Disney history buffs

Jim Hill

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New edition of "Disney A to Z" is a great starter book for budding Disney history buffs

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John S. writes in to ask:

Jim --

My son and I recently discovered your website and we've really been enjoyed digging through all of your old stories. Since my son is now showing such a keen interest in the history of the Walt Disney Company, I thought that I might give him a Disney history book as a Christmas present. Do you have any suggestions about a good Disney history starter book for a 10-year-old boy? One that could perhaps give him an overview of the history of Disney Studios?

John S.

To be honest, only one book really comes to mind: Dave Smith's "Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia" (Disney Editions, September 2006).

You really can't get much more basic than "Disney A to Z." Now in its third edition, this 768-page hardcover tries to touch on virtually every aspect of Disney Company history. Smith takes readers from Willy Aames (The "Eight is Enough" star who actually started out his career by appearing in episodes of "The Wonderful World of Disney" like "Runaway on the Rogue River") to "Zort Sorts" (A 1991 film that Disney's educational division produced to teach students in grades K-6 about recycling). And in the 6500 entries inbetween ... Well, Dave does Disney.

If I have a complaint about "Disney A to Z," it's that Smith's own story gets such sort shrift. I mean, sure. The guy gets a paragraph in the book which sort of describes Dave's career & accomplishments. But the real story about how Smith came to be the director of Disney's corporate archives (Or even how the Mouse House actually came to have an archives) is so much more involved & entertaining than that.

You see, back in 1967, Dave was a librarian as UCLA. But while he was working at that university, Smith compiled the first real bibliography on Walt Disney. It took the man more than a year to pull together this then-definitive listing of all the books & magazine articles that discussed Walt's life & works. And -- almost as a courtesy -- Dave sent a copy to the finished bibliography along to Disney Studios.

As it turns out, the timing of this couldn't have been more fortuitous. You see, at that time, Walt Disney Productions were wondering how best to preserve Walt's legacy. In particular deal with all of his awards, papers and memorabilia. With the hope that Smith might have some ideas how to handle this material, Disney execs hired him to do a study.

The scope of that study slowly expanded beyond Walt's professional & personal papers. It eventually began to encompass the history of the company itself. Which is why -- in June of 1970 -- Walt Disney Productions decided to establish a corporate archives and Dave was hired to be its director.

Now you have to understand that -- back in the early 1970s -- Smith was basically bucking the trend in Hollywood. It seemed like all of the other studios couldn't wait to be rid of their legacies. Take -- for example -- the infamous MGM auction of May 1970. Where -- over 18 days -- 50 years worth of costumes, sets & props were sold off to the highest bidder.

Whereas Dave ... He was out to preserve & protect whatever was left. So Smith wandered the length & breadth of the lot, sometimes finding treasures in the most unlikely places. Like the set of "Fantasia" maquettes that he once found in a janitor's closet. Or that huge pile of "Aristocats" cels that Dave had to fish out of a dumpster on the lot.

Smith collected & carefully catalogued all of this material. And -- over time -- the Disney corporate archives grew in size & scope. Until it became the envy of all of Hollywood (Not to mention being the model for modern corporate archives all over the country). And Dave -- though he never actually aspired to this job -- eventually became the final authority when it came to Disney history.

Truth be told, "Disney A to Z" was actually an outgrowth of Smith's role as the Grand Poobah of all Disney history. Rather than have Dave spend his days just answering the phone, forever dealing with seemingly inane questions like "What the correct spelling of Mr. Toad's first name?" (Just for the record, it's T-H-A-D-D-E-U-S) ... It was felt that -- if there was a book that collected at least some of this info -- it might then free up Smith & his staff to handle more important matters. Like making the archives' wealth of material available to folks who work for the company as well as outside researchers like Neal Gabler.

It took Smith nearly 400 hours to finally pull together the first edition of "Disney A to Z" in 1996. A second edition debuted two years after that. And now -- finally -- we have the third edition of this Disneyana encyclopedia.

Back in March of this year when I made a brief visit to the Disney Archives, I found Dave hard at work in his office proof-reading the third edition of "Disney A to Z." After we exchanged a few pleasantries (Smith joked "They actually let you on the lot"?), I told him how much I was looking forward to the updated version of his Disneyana encyclopedia. How I consulted his book for virtually every article that I wrote for this website.

Dave then sighed and said that the toughest part of the job was actually keeping "Disney A to Z" updated. Which is why the Archives has established an on-line supplement to the book. Which is where the most up-to-date info about the Walt Disney Company can now be found. In fact, if you go there now, you read about upcoming Walt Disney Pictures' releases like "Meet the Robinsons" & "Under Dog" as well as DAK's still-in-previews "Finding Nemo -- The Musical."

Anyway ... While "Disney A to Z" may not be long on information about Dave Smith himself, Mr. Smith has made sure that the latest edition of this Disney encyclopedia is chock full of up-to-date info about the Walt Disney Company. It also features some great pictures of the Disney theme parks. Many of which Dave himself took.

So if you're looking for a good "starter book" for your son, John S., one that gives a great overview of the history of the company, "Disney A to Z" really is the way you ought to go. This Disneyana encyclopedia is arguably the best overall Mouse House-related reference book on the market today.

So if you really want to please your budding Disney history buff, stuff a copy of "Disney A to Z" in his stocking.

Then again -- given that this hardcover weighs over 4 pounds -- maybe it might be wiser to slide the updated edition of this Disneyana encyclopedia under the tree instead.

Your thoughts?

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  • Since I'm trying to "de-villify" myself, I'd like to let anyone that has friends and/or co-workers at the Disney Studio lot -- Dave Smith will be signing these on November 29th at the store there.
  • This is just what I've been looking for! Right up my alley.
    Thanks, Jim.
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