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Column One: Pack rat in the Mouse House

In 1970, Dave Smith stepped into the late Walt Disney's office. Forty years on, the archivist's discoveries could stock a museum.

June 24, 2010|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

After Walt Disney died in 1966, his grieving staff sealed his office suite in Burbank, and even as work proceeded on "The Jungle Book" there was anxiety that the company's past might be brighter than its future.

Four years later, those worries deepened as key executives approached retirement, including Walt's older brother, Roy O. Disney. That's why, in 1970, the company handed the key to Walt's still-sealed office to a former UCLA research librarian named Dave Smith, who was sent into the chamber to learn its history.

"I didn't expect this to become my life's work, but it did," Smith, 69, said on a recent afternoon as he gave a tour of the Disney Archives, a massive collection spread across several in-house libraries and high-security warehouse space filled with Disney movie props, costumes, toys, art, animation, vintage theme-park gear and company publications.

It all began with the items that Smith found in Walt's desk all those years ago.

"It was an eerie thing to sit … in his chair and count the paper clips in the drawer," Smith recalled with a nervous chuckle. On the bookshelves, he discovered books and letters given to Walt by Upton Sinclair, Winston Churchill and C. S. Lewis, who inscribed one of his books of poetry with the words: "From one visionary to another."

Friday, 40 years and a day after he was hired, Smith will announce his imminent retirement from a corporation that, as he put it, "reuses and returns to its past more often than any company in the world."

His one-man history department has become a team of 12 that is busy going through hundreds of boxes of artifacts never fully cataloged. For years, there simply wasn't time for Smith to do anything more than grab, save and store. Now, with wide eyes and sometimes racing hearts, the younger preservation experts make almost daily discoveries of forgotten treasures.

On a recent afternoon at one of the archive's secret Glendale warehouses, Disney archive manager Becky Cline held up one recent find — a cache of storyboards and concept art for the 1964 classic " Mary Poppins."

"This hasn't been seen or touched since the movie came out, and it's never been reproduced in any way," said Cline, who will take over Smith's title as official archivist after his departure in October. "This is simply amazing stuff. And we're going to get to show it to the world."

When Disney President and Chief Executive Robert Iger got his first tour of the warehouse — which resembles the piled-high repository shown at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — he knew the artifacts could be collecting more than dust.

Iger said this week that a fully dedicated Disney museum is a possibility and, when asked if the company's largely undeveloped industrial park in Glendale might be an option, he said yes. That parcel includes the old Grand Central Airport, a 1920s Art Deco relic that might be a candidate, according to some Disney sources, but Iger did not speak about that building specifically. At the least, Iger said, the company heirlooms will be displayed at the D23 Expo planned for next year in Anaheim or in a touring museum exhibit.

"I'm certainly intrigued by that idea, but we're exploring multiple ways to do it," he said. "It could be that we end up in partnership with an existing museum, figure out ways to exhibit these great works at museums around the country or the world. It also could be that we create our own. Obviously, there's significant investment associated with that."

Animating history

In its early years, Smith's work was hardly revered in every corner of the company.

The research librarian got the job by being the right man in the right place at the right time. At UCLA, he had toiled on a Disney bibliography, and one day at the campus he overheard one of his bosses tell a Disney executive that the company should create its own in-house archive to hold on to its past. Smith was intrigued and offered his services, but no one in Burbank was sure what the job description could or should be.

Smith took a two-month leave from the Westwood stacks to poke through filing cabinets, unlock dusty storage rooms and interview Disney old-timers about long-gone colleagues and half-forgotten projects. Some staffers were puzzled or amused by the earnest young man scribbling down dates and names. In those days, the notion that youth entertainment deserved the permanent-record treatment seemed, well, goofy.

Smith wrote a proposal for an in-house archive and in 1970 officially joined the Disney payroll. The job was a mix of discoveries and dashed hopes in the early years. Some employees were reluctant to surrender caches that were so much a part of their history and, in many cases, connected to their current work. Others watched the parade of departing boxes with a smile.

"They were just happy," Smith said, "to get the office space."

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