An interview with Dave Smith, lead archivist of the Walt Disney Archives

May 2, 2010, 7:39 PM · About a week ago I got the chance to interview Dave Smith, Lead Archivist of the Walt Disney Archives. I did this for a school project, however, I thought all of you would enjoy to hear what he has to say as well! But please understand any personal view of Dave Smith are not the views of the entire Walt Disney Company.

1. How did you first get connected with Disney?

I had always been a Disney fan, going to Disney movies, watching the TV show, and visiting Disneyland when it opened. When I was in library school I had prepared a number of bibliographies. When Walt died in 1966, and I found out that no one had ever done a Disney bibliography, I decided to work on one, and was pleased to receive help from people at the Disney Studio. It listed all the Disney movies, TV shows, and books and articles written about Disney. Later on the company bought it from me--it is very rare to make any money from a bibliography.

2. What is the story behind your establishment of the Walt Disney Archives?

When I finished my bibliography, around 1969, I found out that the Disney company was trying to figure out what to do with Walt Disney's correspondence files and the things in his office. Later that grew to them wanting to preserve the history of the whole company. I let them know that I was interested, and they hired me to do a proposal for them. I took a leave of absence from UCLA, where I was working in the library, and for 2 months surveyed the various departments at Disney, learning about the quality and quantity of historical materials that they had saved. Six months after I turned in my proposal that they start a corporate archives, they decided to go ahead with it, and they hired me to start it. Thus I wrote my own job description! The Archives began on June 22, 1970.

3. Have you ever met Walt Disney? If so, can you share a special memory of him?

I saw Walt Disney in person twice in my life. First, when I was about your age, I ran into him at Disneyland. I asked him if I could have his autograph, but he politely declined. He said that when he started signing autographs that a huge crowd would gather around him, and he was unable to get his work done. Instead he told me to write him at the Studio; I did, and he sent me his autograph. He seemed like a very kind, unassuming gentleman. The only other time I saw him was when he was Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on January 1, 1966, and I was there watching the parade.

4. What do you think is your favorite aspect about the Walt Disney Company, either from the past or present?

The Disney Company is a very friendly place to work. Walt always insisted that it be a first-name company--he was just "Walt" to everyone. That helped make it friendly. But, more than that, the company has a fantastic reputation. The Disney name means a lot to people who have grown up watching and enjoying Disney movies and TV shows, and visiting the Disney parks. It is gratifying to travel the world, and whenever you tell someone you work for Disney, you get a smile on their face. (That wouldn't be true if you said you worked for Microsoft or Ford or Kodak.)

5. What is your favorite piece in the archives?

I am fondest of the materials related to Walt Disney himself, because these are things that most collectors cannot hope to have. Probably my favorite is a postcard which he wrote to his mother when he was 15 (is that your age?). She was over in St. Louis taking care of her brother, and Walt wrote her from Kansas City to say he had gotten 100 in his grammar that day. Up in the corner of the card he had written "It is 10 below today." On the back he did a pen-and-ink drawing of a man in an overcoat looking up at a thermometer which was registering 10 below. It is a beautiful work of art for a 15-year-old boy.

6. Do you have a favorite Disney Park? Why?

I love Disneyland, because that is the park I grew up with, but in Florida I like Epcot. Epcot has striking architecture and exciting attractions, not to mention restaurants serving delectable food.

7. What was it like when Walt Disney World opened? A big event like Disneyland? Were you there?

I wasn't there for the opening; my first trip was in the Spring of 1971, before opening. I was on Main Street the day they paved it. Orlando was just a sleepy little town then.

8. What is your favorite international Disney park?

I think it would be Tokyo DisneySea. It is beautifully designed and has wonderful attractions that are not in any of our other parks.

9. Is there a Disney park or attraction you absolutely dislike?

Hmm, hard question. Let me see...I guess I cannot think of any. There are some that I do not go on often, like the roller coasters, but I cannot say I really dislike any. How about you? Any dislikes?

10. Is there a part of Disney history you wish maybe never happened?

It would have been nice if Walt Disney had lived longer.

11. Does the Universal/Disney rivalry last outside of the theme parks as well?

It isn't that much of a rivalry, just a friendly competition. A lot of people that have worked on and in the Universal parks got their start at Disney.

12. How do you keep track of EVERYTHING Disney ALL of the time?

Well, computers help. :) It is hard trying to keep up with everything that is going on, since our company has expanded so much. I seem to be updating my Disney A to Z encyclopedia every day with something new or something that has changed. Do you have the book?

13. Do you think Walt would have been somewhat angry about the old amusement park theme of California Adventure (before the recent changes occurring which will be amazing)?

I do think he would have been surprised to see the carnival atmosphere of Paradise Pier, because that was what he was trying to get away from when he build Disneyland.

14. How does a typical day work when working at the Walt Disney archives?

There is no typical day--that is what makes the job so interesting; it is different every day. We never know when we come in to work what we will be doing that day. It depends on the questions we get or the materials that receive. But, there are some routines--normally first thing I answer the emails that have accumulated overnight--there are usually a dozen or more. Some questions are easy and can be answered off the top of my head, but others need some researching. I have to do a lot of reading during the day--publications and press releases that are coming in from all over the company, and newspaper and magazine articles about Disney. Depending on what I read, I may have to add a new entry to Disney A to Z, or update a chronology of park attractions/restaurants/shops. We get telephone inquires during the day, and people dropping by to get information. We often have tours of visiting cast members from the parks. (I give orientations to new company employees every Monday morning.) Often I will get books, magazines, and other materials for proofreading/fact-checking. Then there might be a press screening of a new Disney film.

15. Are you constantly getting more and more to archive?

Current materials are coming into the Archives from all over the company constantly, and occasionally we will get calls from departments where they are clearing out files and are wondering if there is anything we might want.

16. How do you think Disney is able to compete with the all of the thrill capitals of the world and still bring all of those guests and more to their somewhat less thrilling Disney parks?

By providing a quality experience, and emphasizing family entertainment.

17. Are the imagineers always so very secretive about their work or are their meetings and such pretty much like
normal ones?

They have to be secretive so our competitors do not find out what we are doing and then copy the ideas before we have a chance to use them ourselves.

18. If a land, park, or attraction of any sort were to be made in some kind of memory of Walt Disney or made in memory of something Walt would have really loved, what would that attraction be?

I guess this would be something like the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, or the One Man's Dream attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

19. Do you believe Disney has been able to avoid being to much of a commercial giant and still be able to communicate to the public without seeming too commercialized?

This is naturally hard for a large company that has stockholders that need to be appeased. But I think we do a pretty good job.

20. What kind of measures does Disney take to make sure all of the resorts really seem to be the Happiest Place On Earth?

Again, it is the constant striving to present a quality product. All keep the place clean and welcoming, and hire pleasant, helpful, and friendly cast members.

21. Do you visit Disney parks almost weekly?

No, not at all. WDW maybe once or twice a year. Disneyland maybe every couple of months.

22. How is it that Disney is able to seclude its parks into their own worlds away from any life we knew before?

In most places they have been able to build a berm around them, or in other ways ensure that you don't see the outside world when you are in the park. People like to go someplace that is clean, happy, and where most people are polite and friendly.

23. What is your favorite Disney hotel, anywhere in the world, inside or outside the parks?

Hmmm, I think for decor and personality it is the Yacht Club at Walt Disney World.

24. How has Disney accepted new parts of their company like when PIXAR or when MARVEL will come in? Do they treat the company as just another asset or like a part of the family?

It takes a while for them to be considered part of the family, especially when they are headquartered many miles away.

25. How in one way do you think Disney has influenced the world in a way that will leave a mark for years to come?

Walt was a genius in knowing what the public wanted in the way of entertainment. He was willing to take chances, to do things that no one had ever done before, in order to give them that special entertainment. The company's credo was "The finest in family entertainment," and this is where he differed from a lot of other movie and TV producers, and builders of amusement parks. He ensured that his entertainment was for the family, not just for children and not just for adults, but entertainment that could be enjoyed by the entire family.

Replies (5)

May 2, 2010 at 8:40 PM

That is quite an interview! Good Job with it!

May 2, 2010 at 9:11 PM

What a great opportunity. Those were some good questions for him. Thanks for posting that.

May 3, 2010 at 12:18 AM

Oustanding piece!

May 3, 2010 at 4:39 PM

Nice work, Nick. Thanks for sharing!

May 3, 2010 at 9:11 PM

I love pieces about Walt. I'm deep into the Neal Gabler book about him. He sort of reminds me of Nixon in that he was brilliant but flawed, much because of his stern upbringing.

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