The Walt Disney Archives: it all started with a mouse – the role of Mickey Mouse in the establishment of the Walt Disney Archives

The Walt Disney Archives: it all started with a mouse – the role of Mickey Mouse in the establishment of the Walt Disney Archives – Special Issue: American Film and Television Archives

David R. Smith

Archives. When one thinks of archives, one usually thinks of something old and musty. If one has been to Washington, DC, the thoughts may turn to the monumental National Archives building between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, with the showpiece being a fading sheet of paper – the Declaration of Independence. But the past half century has seen the mushrooming of other archives throughout the country. Archives have been established not only in the federal, state, county, and city sectors, but also by universities, by religious bodies, and by corporations. It is in the last category where archives with some of the most interesting collections can be found.

Businesses have started realizing that their history is important. What they have accomplished is terribly important to the history of the USA in recent times. Businesses are realizing that they have made a real impact on America, and in many cases, on the world. How many places can you go in the world and find someone who doesn’t have access to a bottle of Coca-Cola, a piece of the Colonel’s chicken, a box of Kodak film, a McDonald’s hamburger, or even an IBM computer? But possibly the most internationally well-known corporate product of all is Mickey Mouse. He may be called Topolino in Italy or Musse Pigg in Sweden, but he is everywhere. This year Mickey Mouse will celebrate his sixty-eighth birthday. It was way back on 18 November 1928 that the feisty little cartoon character made his debut in a film called Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theater in New York City. That cartoon introduced synchronized sound to cartoons, but it was more than just a novelty. This new film starred a cartoon character with a distinctive personality.

Walt Disney was determined that his cartoons be of consistent high quality, so he poured all of his funds into the production of a series based on his new character. He hired capable animators, he took the time to plan funny and believable story situations, and he worked and reworked each cartoon until it was as good as he could make it. The care taken by Walt Disney and his staff was immediately evident. Mickey Mouse took the world by storm, and it wasn’t long before he was known from Texas to Timbuktu.

It takes a company a while to realize that it has a history, and this was true with the Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney died in 1966, and shortly thereafter, the company started thinking that perhaps something should be done to preserve his correspondence, his awards, and the items in his office. That was the time when I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

In 1967, I was a reference librarian at the University of California, Los Angeles. I had produced a number of bibliographies, including ones that the UCLA Library had published on the Monitor and the Merrimac ironclads during the Civil War, and on Jack Benny, so when I heard that Walt Disney had died, I thought it might be interesting to do a bibliography on him. I had long been a fan of Disney films, and when I had graduated from library school a few years earlier, I had even applied for a job in the library at the Disney Studio. After determining that no Disney bibliography existed, I contacted the Disney Studio and proposed my project to them. Indeed, I was surprised to get a favorable response a few weeks later from the Studio’s publications department. They agreed to help me with my research by opening certain files to me. So, in my spare time, I began work on my Disney bibliography, which was to list all of the Disney theatrical films, the television shows, the books, the sheet music, and the books and articles about Disney. On my days off, I would travel out to the Disney Studio in nearby Burbank and go through storerooms full of old Disney books, scrapbooks of clippings of newspaper and magazine articles, and files of production information on films. As my work progressed, the Disney staff members assisting me began to realize that my project might be of value to them, as they had nothing in the way of an accurate listing of the material in their own files. So, Disney contracted to purchase my bibliography from me when I finished and perhaps see it through to publication. Naturally, I was overjoyed. How often can one make any money on a bibliography? That is usually an academic exercise for a student or a librarian. But here was my chance to do something I enjoyed doing while at the same time being paid to do it.

It was as my bibliography was nearing completion that the Disney management began wondering about preserving Walt Disney’s memorabilia. Unbeknownst to me, the UCLA Library had contacted the Disney Studio while they were pondering this question to ask if Walt Disney’s papers might be deposited in their Department of Special Collections. One day in 1969, the UCLA librarian, Robert Vosper, invited representatives of the Disney Studio management and the Disney family out to the campus for lunch to discuss the matter, and, as I had had some acquaintance with Disney operations and personnel while working on my bibliography, I was asked to sit in on the meeting. Through this meeting it became obvious that what the Disney people were thinking about was the preservation of all of the history of the Disney empire, not just that of Walt Disney himself. It also became obvious to Mr Vosper and the Disney representatives that such a collection could not possibly be handled by the University. There were several reasons: (1) the collection would be huge; (2) there would be constant need for Disney to get into the collection; and (3) because the company was an ongoing, profit-making business, there would be constant concern about confidentiality and preserving certain proprietary information. Mr Vosper suggested that Disney might want to consider setting up their own archival program, and he explained how a number of major corporations in the US had begun establishing archives.

The idea of a Walt Disney Archives was fascinating to me. That night I went home and drafted a letter to the Disney representatives. I reiterated Mr Vosper’s discussion of the value of an archives in a corporation, and made a suggestion. I volunteered to take a leave of absence from my job at UCLA, and to come to Disney as a consultant to advise them on the feasibility of setting up an archives. My suggestion was received favorably, and it wasn’t long before I had arranged a two-month leave of absence. Disney set me up in an office in an anteroom of Walt Disney’s office suite, which had been closed up since his death, gave me some secretarial help from the Publicity Department, and authorized me to correspond with other archives as the Disney archivist. I immediately began visiting all the departments at the Disney Studio to learn the quantity and quality of historical material that had been saved. I was sent on a trip across the country to visit other corporate archives and gain ideas that could be used by Disney. The presidential libraries were especially interesting, because they combined a museum with an archival collection devoted to one man and his era. Out of my interviews and research came a proposal for setting up a Walt Disney Archives. This proposal was presented to the Disney management at the beginning of January 1970, and I returned to my position at UCLA. For six months, Disney studied the proposal and discussed various alternatives, and finally in June they made the decision that they would indeed like to set up a Disney Archives. And they asked me if I would like to return to the Studio and head up this new effort.

It is not often that one can create one’s own job and write one’s own job description. I even had to help the personnel manager set my salary – he had no idea what one paid archivists. On 22 June 1970, I began work at the Disney Studio, and the Walt Disney Archives was in operation. It did not take me long to realize how important an archives was to Disney. Can you think of another company in this country which makes as successful a reuse of its history as does Disney? The films and characters that Disney created many years ago are very important today for use in the current endeavors of the corporation.

Look at Mickey Mouse. He is sixty-seven years old, but he is still everywhere. You cannot go into a department store or a toy store anywhere in the world and not see his smiling face on a stuffed figure, a book, a game, or a puzzle. Walk down any street and there will be someone wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Turn on the TV, and there is a Mickey Mouse cartoon playing. What other cartoon character has maintained his popularity for sixty years? There isn’t any. No wonder the Walt Disney Company continues to use Mickey Mouse on their corporate logos.

Can you think of any other company in the world that could bring out a fifty-year-old product in 1987 and make $50 million on it? I bet you cannot think of any. But Disney did. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was originally released in 1937. In 1987 it was rereleased in theaters for the seventh time on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, and again it proved phenomenally successful. And films like Snow White are not only important for periodic theatrical reissues, but the company can use them for books, for records, for toys and games, for clothing, for educational materials, for computer software. Disney films are released on video cassette, shown on The Disney Channel, and syndicated on television. New attractions can be built at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or Tokyo Disneyland based on them. For all of these things, you can be using a fifty-year-old product, but a product that is just as important for Disney today as it was back in 1937.

When you make such use of a vintage film, you need a well-indexed collection of material about it which can be utilized to create these new products. That is the main reason why the Walt Disney Archives was established. Over the last twenty-four years, it has grown from a one-man operation to the present where a staff of eight oversees a huge collection of Disney history. The collection consists of the normal archival business records, but also includes memorabilia of Walt Disney, animation artwork, movie production files, scripts, costumes, props, samples of Disney character merchandise, books, records, photographs, posters and other advertising materials, awards, and books and articles about Disney. The collection is well-organized and by using both manual and computer catalogs one can find answers to questions about Disney history easily. As with most business archives, most of the use of the collection comes from within the company. Probably seventy-five per cent of the use of the Archives is internal. But the collection is also open to students and writers from outside the company, by advance appointment, if they are working on serious Disney research.

Since the Disney company had been around for forty-seven years before the Archives was established, there were, of course, many materials that had strayed over the years, and some that just didn’t exist. For example, Disney, because of its reissue policy, had carefully preserved copies of all of the films that had been made since Steamboat Willie. But my bibliographical work had turned up almost 100 titles of films that Disney had made before Steamboat Willie, in the silent era. When I arrived at the Disney Studio, there were only two of those films in the vaults. One of my first projects was to try to find some of those missing films. During the past twenty-six years, diligent searching has turned up about half of those films along with the realization that most of the others probably no longer exist. But, at least, now we have a representative sampling of the film product that was made by Disney in that early period. These films turned up in traditional but also sometimes in unexpected places. The Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the British Film Institute helped, as did dealers and private collectors, but films even surfaced in such places as at the Rhode Island Historical Society, in the garage of a lady who had starred as a little girl in some of Walt Disney’s first films, and in the basement of the headquarters of the American Dental Association in Chicago.

As a former librarian, I naturally had a primary interest in seeing that the collection of Disney publications be as complete as possible. During my bibliographic work, I had come to realize that the collection of Disney publications held at the Studio was a real treasure trove. While Disney had not kept samples of the licensed toys, the books and comic books were kept. Disney had a specific reason for this – each book had to be copyrighted, so there was a legal reason for having a sample. Before coming to Disney, in order to list the Disney books in my bibliography, I had done exhaustive research in library catalogs. After checking my bibliographical information against the Disney Studio collection, I came to realize that only a very few titles were missing from the Disney collection. It did not take long to fill in those gaps through checking ads and visiting used book dealers. Today, we are primarily missing only a few variant editions. The first Disney book, the Mickey Mouse Book, was published by Bibo and Lang in 1930. The first hardback book was The Adventures of Mickey Mouse (McKay, 1931).

There are many collectors of Disneyana, and useful guides have been published to help them over the past few years. The first manual for the Disney collector was Cecil Munsey’s Disneyana: Walt Disney collectibles, published by Hawthorn Books in 1974. Munsey included a listing of Disney books up through 1950, prepared by use of my bibliography. In 1985, Tom Tumbusch published his comprehensive Disneyana Catalog and Price Guide (Tomart Publications, PO Box 2102, Dayton, OH 45429) in three volumes, and a supplemental volume has recently been added. Heide and Gilman published their Cartoon Collectibles (Doubleday), which is solely on the subject of Disneyana, in 1983, and now have a new book published by Hyperion. Mickey Mouse Memorabilia: the vintage years 1928-1938, with an introduction by Bevis Hillier, was published by Harry N. Abrams in 1986. All of these books are useful for those trying to identify Disney collectibles. To help the authors, the Disney Archives has over the years built up a significant sample collection of Disney collectibles. For those items not in the collection, licensee contract and correspondence files, photographs, and merchandise catalogs help with identifications.

As the books on Disney collectibles helped to define the whole field of Disneyana, clubs began springing up. One of the major clubs, the National Fantasy Fan Club (PO Box 19212, Irvine, CA 92713), was begun in 1984. It has grown to over a thousand members and publishes a periodic newsletter. It holds its convention in July, in Anaheim. At the convention, hundreds of Disney collectors and enthusiasts from all over the country (and often a few from Europe and Japan) congregate to buy and sell Disneyana, hear Disney speakers, and learn about each others’ collections and interests. The clubs are not sponsored or officially recognized by the Walt Disney Company, but their members represent some of the company’s greatest supporters. Starting in 1992, the Walt Disney Company itself began sponsoring an annual Disneyana Convention.

As part of the public relations of the company, the Disney Archives answers letters and telephone inquiries about Disneyana and Disney history not only from the members of the clubs, but from people all over the world. While we do not do appraisals or authentications, we are often able to help with identifications of memorabilia. I have written a column in The Disney Channel Magazine in which I answer trivia questions from the more than 7 million subscribers, and I have co-authored two volumes of The Ultimate Disney Trivia Book.

The collections of the Walt Disney Archives are perhaps more varied than those of any other archives in the country. And, besides its own need for its historical materials, since Disney has become so well-known internationally, it was incumbent upon the company to preserve its history for posterity. In the years since it was established in 1970, use of the Archives has grown by leaps and bounds, as the Walt Disney Company continues to expand and as more and more people outside the company become interested in its history.

The Walt Disney Archives are not open to the public except by appointment. Please write to David R. Smith, archivist, Walt Disney Archives, 500 South Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 915-201-1200, USA.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Carfax Publishing Co.

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