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Forty years of cataloguing, preserving and protecting the Magic

Jim Hill

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Forty years of cataloguing, preserving and protecting the Magic

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The summer of 1970 wasn’t exactly a time when Walt Disney Studios was covering itself with cinematic glory. By that I mean, its big new release for the summer movie-going season was that utterly forgettable Don AmecheRobert Morse Aquacomedy, “The Boatniks.”

Movie poster for "The Boatniks"
Copyright 1970 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

But to give Mickey credit, at a time when many of the great studios in Hollywood were busy off-loading their pasts (witness the infamous MGM auction in May of 1970), Disney was making a real effort to preserve its own. Which is why – 40 years ago today -- the Mouse hired Dave Smith to found the Walt Disney Archives.

Mind you, back then, Dave’s job wasn’t quite so glamorous. There were no trips to Hong Kong to familiarize himself with the Company’s 11th theme park. No, back in 1970, Smith’s duties involved regularly prowling around the studio looking for things that actually needed preserving. Which often meant opening up janitor’s closets and then finding maquettes that had been used in the production of “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” & “Fantasia.” Or – better yet – actually fishing animation cels from “The Aristocats” out of the studio’s dumpsters.

And because of Dave’s diligence, decades of Walt Disney Company history have now been carefully catalogued & preserved. Which is why the Walt Disney Archives is now considered the model for corporate archives all over the country.

Disney Chief Archivist Dave Smith and his friend Mickey Mouse
Dave Smith and friend (Dave's the one on the right).
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

In recognition of this tremendous achievement, D23 is holding a special anniversary celebration for the Walt Disney Archives this coming Friday night. And at that time, Disney President and CEO Bob Iger will be presenting Smith with his 40th anniversary service award. Which honors Dave for both his personal & professional contributions to The Walt Disney Company.

Earlier this month, I got to sit down with Smith in his ground floor office in the Frank Wells building and he talked about the mission of the Walt Disney Archives has changed over the years.

“Early on, we used to collect a lot of merchandise samples. But – as it turns out -- no one at the Studios wanted to see those,” Smith remembered. “They wanted to know when these items were made, what companies produced them. But as for the items themselves, they weren’t interested in seeing those. So we had to refine our idea of what was really worth preserving.”

Dave Smith shows off a piece of the Disney Archives' collection at a D34 event
Dave shows off a piece of the Archives' collection at an earlier D23 event.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And you’d think – what with us living in the age of scanners and digital cameras – that preserving & maintaining items for an archive would now be a whole lot easier. But that’s where you’d be wrong.

“What if the medium that you chose to preserve a particular item in suddenly fell out of favor, like Betamax tapes?,” Dave continued. “That’s why – at least when it comes to paper goods – we always try to hang onto a physical copy. File that away in addition to whatever photos or scans we may make.”

Long story short: Smith see the Walt Disney Archives as an information resource for the entire Company. A place that Disney employees can reach out to if they need to know something seemingly inconsequential (EX: What Mr. Toad’s first name is? Which is J. Thaddeus) and/or vitally important (EX: When did Hong Kong Disneyland open? Which was September 12, 2005).

Hong Kong Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And speaking of Hong Kong Disneyland … Dave recently made a trip to that theme park. Not so he could experience all of HKDL’s rides, shows and attractions. But – rather – to make sure that the Walt Disney Archives was on all the proper distribution lists for Hong Kong Disneyland.

And once all of those internal HKDL newsletters & magazines begin arriving in Burbank, Smith will take those paper goods and – just like he did with that faux Playbill that the Disneyland Resort had created for the world premiere of Disney’s World of Color – have his staff at the Archives first catalogue these items and then carefully file them away. So that some future Disney historian might then be able to look back on the early-early days of the Company’s first theme park in China and/or research how much original animation footage had been created for DCA’s nighttime spectacular.

And speaking of film footage … Friday night’s event (which will be held on the Burbank lot inside of the historic Studio Theatre) will feature the premiere of a brand-new documentary, “Archiving the Archives: Forty Years of Preserving the Magic.” Which will take D23 members from Roy O. Disney’s decision to hire Dave Smith back in 1970 right up through allof the exhibit & outreach programs that the Walt Disney Archives runs today.

Film historian Leonard Maltin
Film historian Leonard Maltin. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

All in all, it promises to be a very special evening. What with film historian Leonard Maltin leading a Q&A session with Dave. Plus Archives Manager Becky Cline introducing several special guests who are bringing along items that (they hope) will eventually be accepted in the Walt Disney Company’s burgeoning collection.

“So what’s the downside?,” you ask. Well, D23’s special celebration of the Walt Disney Archives is only open to members in good standing. More to the point, this event is already sold out.

But the upside is … Thanks to Dave’s hard work (as well as the continuing efforts of all the other dedicated members of the Disney Archives staff), we can make use of reference books like the official Disney encyclopedia Disney A to Z or enjoy paging through paperbacks like The Ultimate Disney Trivia Book (which Smith co-authored with Kevin Neary).

Judy Garland's ruby slippers from 1939's Wizard of Oz
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute. All Rights Reserved

So even if you didn’t manage to score an invite to Friday night’s big shindig, it’s important to remember that – 40 years ago today –after MGM had already sold off some of its most famous props and costumes (EX: Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz”) to the highest bidder, the Mouse was realizing that the real key to Disney having a future was to carefully preserve, protect & catalogue its past. And that happened – in large part – due to the efforts of Dave Smith.

And if Smith hadn’t done that … Well, how would we now know that “The Boatniks” was initially released theatrically on July 1, 1970? Or that this Norman Tokar film was shot in Balboa Bay? Or that … Well, you get the idea.

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  • In the early days, Dave Smith would go to the flea market sales at the Rose Bowl to find new artifacts for the archives. I was fortunate to have made one of those trips with Dave.

  • Congratulations to Dave on his 40th anniversary with Disney. He's one of the good guys at the Studio who has always held a genuine respect for Disney's history and film legacy. I've known him since 1981, when he was kind enough to give me a tour of not only the Archives, but the walking tour of Disney's wonderful movie backlot as well. I wish that the Studio was still what I remember it to be back then, but I'm afraid that everything changed in subsequent visits years later. But Dave Smith and his assistants over the years should be applauded for their unfailing efforts to maintain the dignity of Disney's rich history through the Archives.

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