Walt Disney Co. archivist Dave Smith, an ‘unsung hero’ who cataloged company secrets, dies at 78
For almost 50 years, those within and without the Walt Disney Co. had a simple response when it came to almost any question regarding the history of the entertainment giant: “Ask Dave.” Whether seeking obscure ephemera, wondering whether Prince Charming has a real name or needing a long out-of-date contract, Dave Smith no doubt had the answer.
Smith, who created and maintained the Walt Disney Archives for 40 years, died Friday, the Walt Disney Co. said. While the company did not release an official cause of death, those who knew him said he had been in fragile health for much of the past year. He was 78.
A steward of the company’s vast repository of intellectual property, Smith cataloged the company’s secrets and debunked myths. The archives, housed at Disney’s Burbank headquarters, have long been essential for animators, executives and Imagineers in need of research help — or inspiration.
In an industry that’s notorious for neglecting its past, Smith stood out as perhaps the most respected, if unheralded, member of a small group of in-house studio historians. Smith is credited with helping Hollywood understand the cultural value of its past, starting at Disney in 1970 when rival studios were auctioning or dumping their histories.
“This was an era in the movie business where everything that went into the history and the making of films was regarded as a means to an end and disposable,” said Jeff Kurtti, a veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering. He referenced MGM’s infamous 1970 auction, which The Times once described as “ 18-day wake for Hollywood.”
“That was the same year Dave came into Disney and said: ‘Look at this stuff. This is important,’” said Kurtti, who wrote numerous books on Disney and was instrumental in constructing and curating San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum.
Smith retired in 2010 but continued to consult for Disney. He was beloved for his willingness to share the company’s history. From the early ’80s until his death, he answered fan questions via his “Ask Dave” column, most recently published by the company’s fan club publication D23.
“After some years behind the scenes at the studio, he became a somewhat more public figure with the rise of Disney fandom and the existence of regional and national conventions — gatherings where he was greeted as a kind of hero,” said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.
Smith was considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on the company.
“People tell me I am,” Smith told The Times in a 2016 interview. “Then again, I don’t know all these facts in my brain…. I look them up in the files of the archives.”
In a statement, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger called Smith an “unsung hero” of the company’s history, noting the archivist’s rescue of “countless documents and artifacts from obscurity.”
“We are indebted to him for building such an enduring, tangible connection to our past that continues to inspire our future,” Iger said.
Smith was born and raised in Pasadena, the son of educators. A fateful trip to Disneyland in 1956 when Smith was 15 years old forever tethered him to Disney. As Smith told The Times in 2016, he spotted Walt Disney walking through the newly opened theme park and worked up the courage to ask for his autograph.
The mogul demurred, saying he didn’t want draw a huge crowd — but promised to mail Smith an autograph if he would write him. Smith did his part, and Disney followed through.
“I’ve always wondered, what if he would have realized then what I would be doing 15 years later?” Smith said in 2016. “And what if I had realized then what I would be doing 15 years later? The questions I could have asked him. It would have saved me a lot of time!”
After earning a B.A. in history and a master’s degree in library science from the UC Berkeley, Smith was able to reunite with Disney. In 1970 — four years after the animation tycoon died — the company hired him to be its first archivist.
When Smith created the archives, it was a one-man operation; by 2016, the workforce had grown to 24 people.
Paula Sigman Lowery was hired by Smith in 1975 after graduating from UCLA’s librarian program with a specialty in children’s literature. While continuing to consult today for the company, she recalled that during her 20 years working closely with Smith, he would engage the staff in many of his passions, from U.S. history to musical theater and travel, which came with slide shows of his expeditions at lunch.
He also made sure new hires understood that a job in the archives was not a place to explore one’s fandom. Disney archivists were strictly forbidden from being Disney collectors themselves.
“He said this right at the very beginning,” she said. “If you’re interested in Disney and working at the Walt Disney Archives, you can’t be a collector yourself because that’s a conflict of interest. You can be interested, and you can be passionate about a certain aspect of it; yet if there was any sort of a fan interest, it had to be subdued subservient to your overall interest in what you were preserving.”
Smith spent decades stocking the archives with a trove of valuable items. The collection includes such varied artifacts as Walt Disney’s parents’ marriage certificate from 1888; the original script for “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey Mouse’s debut; ticket No.1 to Disneyland; and a 20-foot model of the Black Pearl ship from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. All of it has been preserved alongside more mundane material such as training manuals for theme park workers and DVDs of recent films.
“He liked seeking out things — the thrill of the find,” Jean Marana, Smith’s sister, told The Times in 2016.
Smith wrote several books, including “Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia.” The fifth edition, published in 2016, clocked in at more than 850 pages.
The reference book sets the record straight on many Disney-related issues, and has become a research tool for reporters and others who write about the company. Maltin said he would be “really sunk” without the encyclopedia.
“It’s my go-to reference anytime I’m introducing a Disney film or writing about Disney. It represents Dave’s life work,” he said.
Smith also served as a debunker of false tales about Disney — including apocryphal yarns about the company’s founder — and told The Times he relished his role as keeper of the “true facts.”
“That’s one thing the archive has always tried to do,” he said.
Lowery said such a mission had two key effects. One, it allowed academics and researchers to find accurate info, resulting in serious writings that advanced pop-culture as a work of art. Second, it aimed to instill a deep sense of tradition in those who joined the company.
“That was really the key mission of the archives, so that people working on projects today for tomorrow would know what they had available to them,” she said. “We always believed that you can’t know where you’re going unless you understand where you’ve been.”
Smith is survived by his sister.
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