When Disneyland technician Stephen Valley needed to find out what makes Tinker Bell tick, he headed straight for the ultimate source--a Disney trivia wonderland that has remained largely hidden from the public eye.
There, Valley pored for hours over pictures of the wand-waving pixie while, across the room, Ward Kimball, who helped animate most of the classic Walt Disney full-length cartoons, described the creation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Minutes later in another part of the room, David R. Smith giggled as he squeezed an old gray jack-in-the-box that produced a frowning, long-necked and long-billed Donald Duck, an early version of the quacky curmudgeon.
Playing With Toys
Welcome to the Walt Disney Archives, where grown men play with toys, research fictional fairies and regale listeners with endless tales of yesteryear.
Smith, 46, a soft-spoken former librarian, is director of the archives, a collection of memorabilia, records and correspondence documenting the history of Walt Disney movies, cartoons, developments and other commercial ventures.
Housed in more than 8,000 square feet at the company’s Burbank headquarters, the archives present perhaps the most creative historical collection of any corporate library in America.
Now, after years of availability only to academicians, researchers, Disney employees and others who sought special permission to peruse the archives, the private museum may soon be opened to the public.
Disney officials say they plan to put many of the treasures on public display as part of a combined office, commercial and entertainment complex called the MGM-Disney Backlot the studio wants to build in downtown Burbank.
Council Approval Needed
The company’s engineers and creative artists are now working on specific designs for the center and are expected to present those to the Burbank City Council in November. The back-lot project is expected to cost $150 million to $300 million and still needs final approval from the council.
“Everything is still up in the air at this point, but we’re making plans for it,” Smith said. “It would be wonderful for people to see some of the things we have.”
If the project is completed, Smith would be counted on even more than he is now to be the keeper of the Magic Kingdom, the resident expert on the history of Disney and Disney characters.
“Every day, either someone writing an article or someone from the company has to find out something about the origin or tradition of a character or movie,” Smith said. “We may want to duplicate it in one of our theme parks or in another movie.”
The archives boast a near-complete collection of Disney merchandise produced since 1932, including comic books, records, toys, silverware and the first Mickey Mouse watch. Also in evidence are early personal drawings Walt Disney did before fame caught up with him in the late 1920s and original drawings from Disney cartoons.
The collection also contains oral histories from Disney and key artists and executives, Annette Funicello’s Mouseketeer outfit, the carrousel horse from “Mary Poppins,” a diving helmet from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and the magic doorknob from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” Even company phone directories and employee newsletters are catalogued.
Also stored in warehouses are original nitrate prints of early silent shorts Disney made when he ran his Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City in 1922 and the cartoon “Steamboat Willie,” which introduced Mickey Mouse.
More than 8,000 photographs of Disney and more than half a million negatives related to Disney projects are boxed in the archives, along with promotional and publicity materials. Smith even has the first ticket sold when Disneyland opened in 1955.
Since its establishment in the ‘70s, the archives have been closed to all but Disney employees and serious researchers who come to consult Smith on Disney trivia.
As archivist, what is the question Smith is most frequently asked? “Name the seven dwarfs,” he said. Smith said he was especially stretched last week with the re-release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on the 50th anniversary of the film’s premiere.
“It seems like everyone is calling here wanting to know something about Snow White,” he said.
The re-release of the film coincided with Disneyland’s 32nd birthday, which prompted Valley, 22, a member of the Tinker Bell crew at Disneyland, to do some historical research on the character from “Peter Pan.” The crew was assigned to design new activities for Tinker Bell’s continuing appearances at the amusement park.
“We’re doing something special with Tinker Bell for the park’s birthday this weekend, and we have to make sure Tinker Bell looks authentic and that the legend is upheld,” Valley said during his visit last week.
The 8,000 square feet the archives now occupy is a long way from the small, empty office Smith had when he first joined Disney in 1967. It was probably the only historical collection to begin with a spoon--a Mickey Mouse spoon that Smith sent away for with a cereal box top when he was a child.
Because Disney executives were impressed with a bibliography on Walt Disney that Smith had done in 1967 when he was a researcher at UCLA, they offered him the position of official archivist. They also asked him to write his own job description. He took the job, beginning in 1970.
“There had been nothing collected in a logical way before Walt Disney died in 1966,” said Smith, sitting in an office almost overloaded with Disney memorabilia and a picture of Smith with comedian Groucho Marx.
“The executives gave me a master key to the company, and I was allowed to go into any nook and cranny I wanted to. And most of the historical material was all there,” he said.
What Smith didn’t find, he picked up at area swap meets. Collectors also donated their Disney toys to the archives.
He said one of his most treasured acquisitions was a stencil set of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character that was the predecessor of Mickey Mouse. The set, which sold for pennies around 1927, would be worth about $150 today, he said.
A Snow White radio that came out in 1937, with carved facsimiles of the heroine and the dwarfs, could be worth as much at $600 today, archivists said.
Even though collectors who specialize in Disney memorabilia have told Smith he has a dream job, he seems to approach it with a certain nonchalance. Still, he said, he does take pleasure when a new employee tours the archives and marvels at the artifacts.
“You realize how much these films have touched everyone’s life,” he said. “Everyone has special memories of Disney, the Mickey Mouse Club, Snow White.
“I guess it’s a dream job. After all, how many people get paid to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons?” Or fiddle with a Donald Duck jack-in-the-box during office hours.