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Archivist Puts Walt Disney's House in Order, Alphabetically

September 19, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

More than 25 years ago, Dave Smith became the first archivist of the Walt Disney Co.

As he recalls, "I was given an empty office and told, 'Start.' " He did, with a survey of the archival material scattered throughout the company.

"Companies don't realize they have a history until they've been around for a while," Smith says. Disney was looking forward to its 50th anniversary at the time, and Smith suspects that that 1973 milestone made Disney newly aware of the importance of documenting itself. And founder Walt Disney had only recently died, in 1966, the sort of sobering event that underscores the preciousness of the past.

Smith has tapped his unique access to Disney materials for "Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia." Newly published by Hyperion, Disney's imprint, the book is the first to bring together information on, among other things Disney, every film, TV show and theme park attraction, all in alphabetical order.

Want to know the name of all 39 Mouseketeers on the original "Mickey Mouse Club" (and who doesn't)? They're in there, from Nancy Abbate to Don Underhill. Indeed there are 6,500 entries, from actor Willie Aames, who appeared in several TV productions, to "Zort Sorts," a 1991 educational short in which an alien, named Zort, "comes to earth to learn how earthlings deal with garbage."

Smith, who lives in Burbank, within walking distance of the studio, pitched the idea to Hyperion's president the day after the Northridge quake. The building housing the archives had been damaged, so they sat at an outside table at the commissary.

When publisher Bob Miller asked for suggestions for future book projects, Smith said he thought an encyclopedia was inevitable. "Then I realized nobody's going to do this encyclopedia if I don't."

Smith says one result of the project is a new respect for people such as Noah Webster who compiled dictionaries and encyclopedias before the PC revolution. "I don't think, without a computer, I'd be able do anything like this." With a tireless chip doing the alphabetizing and other scut work, Smith was able to pull the information together and do a first draft in about six months.

"I already have 20 pages of additional material on my computer for the next edition," he says.

The 55-year-old Smith grew up in Pasadena, in a family that knew its Dewey decimal system. His father, L. Herman Smith, helped establish the manuscript conservation department at the Huntington Libraries and was head librarian, and later dean, at Pasadena City College. Smith's mother was a librarian, and "my great aunt was the first woman to head a major library system, in Cleveland," he says.

Before going to Disney, Smith got his master's in library science at Berkeley, did an internship at the Library of Congress and worked in the UCLA libraries. He was not a Disney fanatic before he became its archivist, he says, although "my first film memory is of a Disney movie, which is true for most people."

That first film was "Song of the South," which premiered Nov. 12, 1946, at Loew's Grand in Atlanta.

I know, because I looked it up.


People for the American Way recently published "Attacks on the Freedom to Learn," their 14th annual survey of attempts to ban books, tone down AIDS education materials and otherwise limit access to information in U.S. public schools. The document cites 475 incidents nationwide, 300 of them involving books (down from 338 last year).

For 1995-96, California led the nation in all types of incidents, with 56. Locally, Palmdale was the only community to have book-related flaps. There, parents asked that Jean Craighead George's "Julie of the Wolves" be dropped from the sixth- and seventh-grade curricula because of what they described as a rape scene.

They also requested removal of Bruce Coville's "My Teacher Glows in the Dark" from third-grade classrooms because of offensive language, specifically (but not too specifically because it will never get past my copy desk) the four-letter word for the rude sound third-graders are remarkably skilled at making with their armpits.

A committee considered the requests and ruled that the books would stay, although George's will only be classroom reading for the seventh-graders. The book remains in the middle-school library, where it can be checked out by anyone curious to know exactly what happens in an alleged rape scene.

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