Who writes the Disney history you love to read? A select group, immersed in the history and culture of Disney, from films to theme parks. Now these authors reveal their inspirations, their methods, and their secrets. Why just read Disney history when you can write it yourself!
In this engaging how-to anthology, Jim Korkis documents the history of Disney history, with help from Disney's Chief Archivist Emeritus David R. Smith, and then gives practical advice for conducting interviews with Disney notables; researching, organizing, and using information; and handling the media.
From there, fifteen of today's leading Disney historians share at length their best practices for researching and writing essays, articles, and books about every facet of Disney culture. The historians who contributed chapters to this book include:
SHARPEN YOUR PENCILS AND BECOME PART OF DISNEY HISTORY &MDASH; BY WRITING IT!
Section One: The Basics
What Is a Disney Historian?
The History of Documenting Disney History
David R. Smith and the Disney Archives
Why You Won’t Get a Job at the Disney Archives
History Is Happening Today
The Importance of Information
Sharing and When Not to Share
Thou Shalt Not Steal: Plagiarism and You
Disney Brand vs Disney Business
The Art of the Conversation
Handling the Media
Section Two: Good Advice
Todd James Pierce
Paula Sigman Lowery
Section Three: Recommended Resources
The Story of Theme Park Press
Final Thoughts of a Cheshire Cat
When I say I am a life-long Disney fan, I mean it. One of my prized possessions as a child was an illustrated book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. At the end of one chapter where there was blank space on the page I wrote in crayon: “A Walt Disney Production”.
My image of Walt’s world was not created by people in costumes parading through the streets. It came from a total immersion in Disneyana: addiction to the daily Mickey Mouse Club television show, attachment to a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, subscription to Uncle Scrooge comic books, and the firm belief that the arrival of each new Disney film at my local theater was “A Major Event”.
Most important, I watched Walt Disney himself on television every week, an affable man who might have been a favorite uncle sharing stories and taking me behind the scenes at his Magic Kingdom. I have a feeling that younger people who did not experience this blitz and only know of Disney as a corporate name, not a living person, might not understand the way so many of us feel about Walt and his work.
Was I brainwashed at the age of 5? I suppose you could say so … but I’ve never regretted it. Walt was my Pied Piper.
That’s why, on December 15, 1966, when I was home from school nursing a cold and heard the news that he had died, I knew I wanted to do something about it. Earlier that year I had taken on the roles of editor and publisher of a monthly magazine called Film Fan Monthly from its founder, who lived in Vancouver, Canada. I was 15 and bursting with energy and ambition. I knew how I wanted to pay tribute to Walt Disney: I would compile an annotated list of all his feature films.
I picked up my copy of the Manhattan telephone directory and made a cold call to Walt Disney Productions (as the company was then known). I asked for the publicity department and was connected to a nice young woman named Arlene Ludwig. I told her what I wanted to do and she immediately replied, “How can I help you?” I said I was going to do my own research but could use some stills, which she promised to provide—and did.
My local library in Teaneck, New Jersey, had the other resources I needed to build an accurate filmography, and that’s what I published in February of 1967. The last complete entry was for Monkeys, Go Home, which was about to be released. Other titles yet to come, which I listed, were The Happiest Millionaire, Bullwhip Griffin, The Gnome-mobile (which I mistakenly spelled Gnomobile), Blackbeard’s Ghost, and The Jungle Book, which I said was “one to look forward to”.
When the issue came out, I sent a handful of copies to Arlene in New York. She called me to say how pleased and excited she was. “We don’t have a list like this,” she explained, to my great surprise, and asked if she could purchase more copies. I said I could provide as many as she needed and wouldn’t think of charging for them.
Several years later, when I made my first trip to Los Angeles, Arlene arranged for me to get a tour of the Disney Studio in Burbank, California, which was arranged by their publicity chief, Tom Jones. It was an unforgettable day: the genial Mr. Jones arranged for me to meet animator Ward Kimball, walk onto a soundstage where Norman Tokar was directing a blue-screen shot for No Deposit, No Return, and get a private screening of a 35mm print of The Reluctant Dragon, which was impossible to see in those days.
At the end of the afternoon, Jones said how helpful my Film Fan Monthly filmography had been to him and his colleagues and asked if I had considered expanding it into a book. I hadn’t thought of it until then, but he planted a seed that soon began to grow in my mind.
I pitched the idea to Crown Publishers, which had just issued my first hardcover book, The Great Movie Shorts, and they said “yes”. I knew what I had to do next: screen every one of Walt Disney’s movies. My friend Arlene Ludwig (who, it turns out, was the daughter of Irving Ludwig, the head of Disney’s distribution arm Buena Vista) arranged for me to borrow 16mm prints from their local depository in Paramus, New Jersey, not far from where I lived.
Every Friday afternoon I would drive to a modest, unmarked building and take home one or two prints to screen over the weekend in my basement. This distribution center handled all non-theatrical prints for rent and also maintained a special cache of prints that were earmarked for VIP use. The label on one of the shipping boxes indicated that it had just been to Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City’s mayor.
A few key titles like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia were notably absent, but virtually every other Disney title was available to me in beautiful Technicolor copies. I decided to watch the films in chronological order, which would help me retain a sense of context as I made notes for my book.
I learned, early on, that there was no place where I could find complete credits for these movies, so I took to using my projector lens as a kind of loupe and laboriously copied down every name on-screen. (It was then that I came to believe that music editor Evelyn Kennedy possibly had more Disney credits than anyone else alive.)
In the early days of this process, my basement theater was full of friends as I screened Disney classics every weekend. When I got to the mid-1950s I borrowed a CinemaScope lens from a friend and hung a bedsheet in order to project the widescreen images of films like The Great Locomotive Chase. By the time I got to the later True-Life Adventures, my audience shrank and then disappeared altogether. Undaunted, I plugged away through the 1960s studio output.
When, after one year’s time, I finished my homework, I contacted Arlene again to take the next step: interviewing Disney staffers. It was here that I hit a major snag. Since we had last spoken the company had arranged to publish a coffee-table book, The Art of Walt Disney, with the prestigious art-book house Harry N. Abrams. Unbeknownst to Arlene, my project was considered a rival or spoiler. Thus began a long series of cross-country telephone calls with a man at the studio in Burbank who could have shut me down but instead let me plead my case.
I kept insisting that I didn’t need their permission to write about Disney, but I did want their blessing. I finally got it, with one proviso: I couldn’t have access to the studio archives or anyone employed by the company. (By this time, Dave Smith had been employed to create an official studio archive. Part of my bargain with the company was that he would vet my biographical chapter on Walt and correct any mistakes he found, which I’m glad to say were few.)
This left me to do my own research for The Disney Films. Fortunately, Walt’s career was well-documented, and fortuitously, many of his live-action features were directed by freelancers who were no longer employed by Disney and only too happy to respond to my queries.
After The Disney Films’ publication in 1973, I received corrections from noted Disneyphiles Peter Adamakos, Brian Sibley, and of course, Dave Smith, who sent me pages and pages filled mostly with errors in nomenclature. I was delighted to be able to update the book and make corrections in 1984, 1995, and 2000. It gives me great satisfaction that the book is still used as a reliable resource decades after its inception.
But, as I came to realize, there is no end to the research to be done on Walt Disney’s long, multifaceted career.
I have known Jim Korkis since the 1980s. I was a contributor to Gladstone’s magazine Cartoon Quarterly (1988), edited by Jim and his friend and then-writing partner John Cawley, where I discussed my concern about the re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the wrong aspect ratio (cropping the top and bottom of the image) and my response from Michael Eisner. I even contributed a foreword for their first book about animation history from Pioneer Books, The Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars (1990).
In that foreword I wrote, “I salute their efforts and applaud their work. I just wish this book had been around when I was young.”
Nearly a quarter of a century later, those same sentiments apply to this book where Jim has gathered some of the top Disney historians around the world to offer guidance, advice, and “secrets” of the trade to a new generation of Disney researchers. Jim has always been sincere in helping others with their research and has long since proven himself to be a knowledgeable Disney scholar in his own right.
I’m sure this book will introduce me to things I didn’t know. That’s the exciting part about diving into Disneyana: there’s always more to discover.
Over the years, I have received a mountain of heartfelt and lengthy pleas from people I don’t know begging me to help them (or some relative) get a job as a Disney animator or Imagineer. It never seems to occur to any of them that if I had that type of influence, I would have gotten myself such a job long ago.
Several of them even suggest that they would be willing to sweep the floors for free, just to be in the same building as their Disney heroes.
“We would never hire any of them to do that job,” laughed a good friend who has worked for WDI for many years. “We would want someone who passionately cared about sweeping the floors and had some great skills in that area to do it and do it well. We wouldn’t want someone doing a mediocre job while they were trying to look over our shoulders, ask endless questions, or try to show us things they had drawn. We would never get anything done.”
In the last several years, I have been also receiving similar requests from people who want to be a Disney historian.
Many of my good friends and colleagues who write about Disney are the recipients of similar entreaties along with the usual assortment of “What is this torn and used paper plate of Mickey Mouse I found at a garage sale worth financially and is Disney interested in purchasing it from me for their archives?”
Some of these people who want to be Disney historians are truly sincere about wishing to spend their lives recording Disney history, and those of us who have been researching and writing about Disney history are not getting any younger.
In fact, several notable chroniclers have already passed away in recent years, namely Dr. Robin Allan (who received a PhD for his studies on Disney from Exeter University in the UK) in 2014 and John Culhane (the inspiration for the characters Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers and Flying John in Fantasia 2000) in 2015, leaving behind boxes and boxes of notes for things that now will never be written by them.
I decided it was time for those of us who have continued to blaze a trail in an occupation that is just a little over a quarter-century old needed to share some “tricks of the trade” to help and encourage others.
Too many self-proclaimed Disney historians merely cut and paste material from the internet with little regard to its accuracy or even its source. Like the flim-flam con artists of old, they have been able to dazzle an unsuspecting but eager audience into believing that they are experts who have some mysterious and can-never-be-revealed source of information.
Unless something is done, these charlatans will overshadow the hard work done by true researchers who have justly earned the right to be called Disney historians and will flood the world with urban myths, false “facts”, and other misconceptions that unsuspecting people will accept as true treasures coming from so-called “experts”.
This book is to be used as a guide for those seriously interested in exploring Disney history. These are not the Ten Commandments of Disney History but merely a selection of advice and suggestions from veterans to get people started and point them in the right direction. Everything from technical to philosophical information has been shared to provide a firm foundation for the budding historian.
This is not a text book. It is a conversational and anecdotal coaching seminar filled with personal experiences. It is also filled with tools that have been hewn over many years and unfortunate experiences. Pick the tools that are most useful to you.
I grew up in Glendale, California, a city adjacent to Burbank, the home of the Disney Studio.
My first-grade teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School was Mrs. Margaret Disney, the second wife of Walt Disney’s older brother Herbert who spent most of his life working for the U.S. Post Office.
When I learned of this Disney connection, I immediately took a large sheet of easel paper and proceeded to create a full-figure drawing of Jiminy Cricket, my favorite character at the time for a number of reasons, including that his first name was similar to what I was called in elementary school: “Jimmy”.
I also liked that Jiminy knew so much about things, as demonstrated by his appearances in short animated segments on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show.
One day, after much labor and much erasing, I proudly gave the drawing to Mrs. Disney in the hope that she would rush to the Disney Studio where I would without a doubt be instantly offered a job and I would not have to learn my multiplication tables (which I still do not know to this day). Apparently, portfolio review was backed up for a couple of decades, because I did not start working for the Disney company officially until 1995.
At the age of twelve, I was enthralled by the weekly Disney television program, especially the episodes devoted to animation, since I maintained hopes of being a cartoonist until I became a good enough artist to fully appreciate how bad I really was and that I wouldn’t get much better.
I later realized I was more interested in writing about animation than actually doing it, although my brief experience with the art form helped me to better understand the process and the answers I got from the animators I interviewed.
Diligently, I scribbled down the names in the credits at the end of those television shows. At that time, I still didn’t know the difference between an animator and a background artist or a special effects person.
I went to the Glendale-Burbank phone book (the cities were then small enough to have just one book to cover them both), looked up the names I had written down, and called those people.
“I saw your name on the Disney TV show. How did you make things move?” I innocently but firmly inquired.
Eighty percent of the people I talked to were incredibly patient and kind and invited me over to watch them draw and listen to stories about working at Disney. About fifteen percent thought that it was some type of gag, being perpetrated by one of their work cronies, having a twelve year old phone and say he liked the way they did cartoons. Five percent were wrong numbers.
Fortunately, the first person who agreed to talk with me was the legendary Jack Hannah who had animated, done story work and directing assignments at the Disney Studio, and was currently teaching classical animation at the California Institute of the Arts.
He also lived in Glendale, but in the richer part about fifteen minutes away. I arranged an appointment for a Saturday afternoon since I still attended school during the week. My mom dropped me off at the address about an hour early, at my request, because I was fearful of being late or Mom getting lost driving to an unknown location.
I was dressed in the same black suit I wore to church with a clean white shirt and thin black tie, looking very much like a teenaged undertaker. I had a bulky tape recorder, several school notebooks, and my shirt pocket was filled with multiple ballpoint pens for fear that they might all somehow run out of ink.
To kill time, because it would be rude to show up so early, I walked slowly around the block in the California heat. That was not enough, so I walked around the block the other way and then finally once more. It was now about ten minutes before my scheduled interview. I walked up the steps on the hilly incline to the front door.
A kindly older woman opened the door. I explained that I was Jimmy Korkis and that I had an appointment with Mr. Jack Hannah.
She turned to the living room and yelled, “You were right, Jack. It IS him.”
Jack came to the door wearing a short-sleeved shirt. He laughed, “We’ve been watching you from the front window for about an hour. We were wondering when you might come in.”
He ushered me into his living room. It was a pleasant, homey room, and he sat in an overstuffed chair by the front window. Near it was a coffee table with a lamp. I set up my tape recorder and sat in a straight chair that was on the other side. Mrs. Hannah left to do something in the kitchen.
I think we both expected that the interview might be a half hour. It lasted for over three hours, so I was lucky I had brought several extra blank cassette tapes.
Fortunately, Jack was enthusiastic about talking about the good old days to an appreciative and awestruck teenager. It was as if the doors to Wonderland had been opened wide to me as he rattled off unfamiliar names, interesting stories, and patiently explained some animation concepts.
Jack was 64 years old when I first interviewed him. He embraced what he was then doing as an instructor in the animation department of the California Institute of the Arts rather than nostalgically living in the past. In that first interview, his statement that “nobody seems old in this business” was never truer than when applied to Hannah himself.
It took me over two weeks to transcribe the interview, something I had never done before in my life. Then I typed it out using my dad’s old manual typewriter. I mailed it to Jack and in a few days he told me to come up again so we could go over some changes.
It was my first experience of having someone I interviewed remove things that they had said, not because I had misquoted them but because they felt such things didn’t need to appear in print.
“It doesn’t add to the knowledge of animation to attack guys who can no longer defend themselves,” he told me as I pleaded with him to let me include some of the stuff he cut out about Ben Sharpsteen. “Sometimes you get in a mood and days later you start thinking a little clearer. I think you’ve got enough stuff here.”
An edited version (for space) of that first interview appeared in the animation fanzine Mindrot #11 (July 1978) published by David Mruz in Minneapolis. Jack even did a quick sketch of Donald painting a painting for me to include in the piece. Other contributors to that issue included Jerry Beck, Mark Kausler, Ron Hall, and Jeff Missine.
With Jack’s help, I was even able to put together a filmography of his work at Disney. It was the first time Jack received published recognition outside of Disney.
At the end of that meeting, Jack smiled and said, “You know, you should also be talking to Kimball,” and he picked his phone and called Disney animator Ward Kimball to explain that there was this nice kid interested in animation and that Ward should talk with me sometime. That is another much more interesting story.
Little did I realize it at the time, but it was that encounter with Jack Hannah when I became a Disney historian. Quotes from that interview have appeared in several Disney books including John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (HarperCollins 1987).
So, for the next few years, thanks to living in the Los Angeles area, I got to talk with other Disney animators and Imagineers and write about it for my school newspaper and local newspaper, as well as “fanzines” (non-professional magazines self-published by fans) that were focused on the world of Disney. In college, I wrote for professional magazines and newspapers as well.
I spent many, many hours in different libraries, haunted used book stores for books and magazines and pressbooks, attended local events like the ASIFA-Hollywood show and sales, and ran up huge phone bills talking to people in other parts of the United States trying to find any information I could about animation and Disney.
Fortunately, I took notes or recorded the conversations and transcribed them, because most of those wonderful folks who then already seemed ancient to a teenager are no longer around to share their stories.
In the last few years, I have felt an obligation and urgency to tell those stories that never seem to appear elsewhere. Those stories were a great gift and they needed to be shared and not hoarded.
When I think back, I also recall how patient, generous, and helpful all those people were to a much too eager kid. In the last few years, I have felt an obligation to pay back those kindnesses to a new generation as well as share the stories they shared with me.
I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, but I also worked hard and made mistakes. I have boxes of index cards, school notebooks, and decaying cassette tapes in my storage unit, and my house looks like a library and a toy store exploded and I decided to live amid the debris.
I have done many different jobs over the decades, from being a professional performer to a newspaper cartoonist to a public school teacher to even cleaning toilets (which can prove to be a wonderful Zen experience), but nothing has given me greater satisfaction than researching, writing, and sharing Disney history.
No one has ever written a book on this topic, and I doubt anyone else ever will. This book may never be a best-seller, but hopefully it may inspire people to be better Disney historians both now and in the future. Even I have learned valuable new things from the contributions of others in this book.
When I was younger, one of the books I most frequently checked out from my local library was entitled Tips from the Top Cartoonists. A wide variety of cartoonists including Mort Drucker, Doug Wildey, and VIP Partch were each given two pages to explain what they did and how they did it. They had to communicate complex ideas clearly in a limited space, and I used that same format as the model for this book. Tips was a helpful and revealing book for me as an aspiring cartoonist as I hope this book will be for those interested in Disney history.
For those not interested in being a Disney historian, I think the material is still fascinating and imparts good advice that will be valuable to people in whatever endeavor they decide to do or at least to better appreciate what a really good Disney historian does.
Just go ask Alice:
I give myself very good advice. But I very seldom
follow it. Will I ever learn to do the things I should?
— Alice from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
Noted Disney historian and author Jeff Kurtti shares some thoughts about Disney scholarship
We live in a remarkable age of information. We have at our fingertips the collective knowledge and data of centuries. One might think that this access would breed a higher standard, and somewhat more competitive scholarship in any given field. But for students of Disney and other popular culture, a peculiar inverse is the norm. In the age of the internet, “Disney historians” are a dime a dozen.
Much as might be imagined in an auditorium with an open microphone, whoever can get to the mike and speak convincingly (whether accurate or not) captures the discourse. There’s a conventional wisdom that if you like something, and can cobble some cohesive sentences together, and post them for people to read, some degree of expertise is inherent, or at least implied.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet has bred lazy scholarship, celebrity historians, and armchair experts who would be laughed out of any typical scientific or academic enterprise. I recently spent far too many hours on a web site trying to pull the plug on yet another Disney myth being put forward as “truth” by an overly enthusiastic—and quite ill-informed—fan. (Seriously, his resource was that “a bartender at [the location being discussed] told me”.) And don’t get me started on the bogus “Walt Quotes” and memes that people excuse with, “Well it sounds like something he’d have said.”
In their eagerness to be a part of the community, too many people don’t treat their own scholarship with gravity, and don’t start from the beginning.
In many ways, I think becoming a “Disney historian” is not due to intent as much as a natural inclination. I didn’t set out with a goal of being a writer, researcher, author, or scholar on the subject, it just “happened”, slowly, and over the course of 30-plus years.
To me, scholarship follows characteristic behaviors and attitudes. I’m not sure how much, if any of it, can be taught or learned. But I do have some thoughts about Disney scholarship that I’m happy to share, for those who are inclined to follow such a path.
Examine your motives
Recently, many areas of cultural history have become beset with “fanboi experts”. It’s easy to see why. Like so many glamorous vocations, the public perception of this life is one of endless Disney Legends ceremonies, movie screenings, D23 Expos, and theme park events. Those things can certainly be a part of the ultimate reward, but they are not a part of the proficiency or discipline required to get there.
I counsel many young friends who claim to be actors. What I come to find out is that fewer than half of them actually are actors. There is a line in a movie called My Favorite Year where the swashbuckling hero cries out, “I’m not an actor; I’m a movie star!” This is a key and crucial idea that I find in my young thespian pals. They desire fame, or money, or attention. That’s someone who wants to be a movie star. Actors need to act just as artists need to paint or musicians need to play. It’s in them, and needs to be made manifest.
You don’t want to…
It’s the same with Disney, or any kind of cultural or intellectual scholarship, I think. You do it not so much because you want to (although you do, every waking minute); it’s more because it’s simply a characteristic of your personality and personal culture. You have to.
If the study and communication of this subject matter is about your own fame or your own public identity, that is not sufficient—either as a means, or in the final analysis, as an end. Scholarship is work. Lots of it. Work that never really stops. I have been reading, researching, interviewing, strategizing, and producing Disney scholarship pretty constantly since about 1977. You will not get rich from it. You will not likely make a living at it.
It means looking through file boxes in library collections and other repositories where you don’t exactly feel welcome. It means reading obscure books that no one has checked out for a decade. It means talking to a lot of people. It means dead ends, seemingly wasted time and effort, disappointment, and expense.
It means going to places and examining things, and developing an innate sense of critical thinking about the people, places, and projects; an internal compass that guides your study and your conclusions. It means remaining humble about your knowledge, because the amount you do not know about something will always exceed what you have been able to learn.
And if your scholarship is sound, all of the above will bring you varying degrees of joy.
If you feel ready to commit to the idea, and are looking for some guidance in the mechanics, read on. Disney scholarship is a lot like any form of creatively-based study, and you’ll find the same ideas apply across subjects and interests of many kinds.
Research and sources
As a researcher, the internet is your best friend. It is not, however, your only friend. An internet search can be most useful as a kind of road map or infrastructural aid to an overall research strategy. By searching and reading blogs, lists, databases, and wikis, you can gain a general sense, “take the temperature”, if you will, of the subject.
A lot of standard information and general resource can be drawn: names, places, dates, and opinions. But each of these elements may be most useful as a starting point for further research.
Taking the recurring and apparent material as a base, and expanding outward, yields the true riches in research. This is background that helps guide you to archives, libraries, books, files, and human beings who can then begin to inform and enhance your understanding and context of a subject.
It is during this process that you should keep a Velcro mind (aka “sticky thinking”) to pay attention to repetitions, echoes, overlaps, redundancies, and complete contradictions that will even further develop and enrich your research.
Because the internet is a more accessible and vast vox populi than any other resource for research—it is also the most unreliable. Other, older, more established, and more verifiable sources are highly desirable. As in any journalistic effort, multiple sources bring credibility to any information.
And about sources—identifying sources is all-important when looking at things. Of course, books have footnotes and bibliographies, but when using blogs, websites, and the like, it’s vital for the researcher todetermine if these sites cite sources—and then the researcher can go find those sources, and further explore.
In addition, the alchemy and algorithm of perception, deduction, and critical thinking by the scholar must constantly come into play; a perpetual cross-reference and cross-check of all the apparent information is imperative.
Continued in "How to Be a Disney Historian"!
Prolific author Brian Sibley shares some tips about the art of the interview.
So you’re about to do your first interview as a Disney historian? What do you need to know?
To begin with, I have to come clean and tell you that not everything you are about to read will be relevant to you: I have had the privilege of interviewing many “Disney names”, some of whom have worked in front of the camera and (a great many more) behind the scenes. Some of my interviews were for books, but most were made for inclusion in radio or TV programs that I was making where the requirements are often quite different to those of the writer of a book, essay, or article, since they need not just stories and facts, but also a sense of performance.
Some of the best conversations I have ever had about Disney were with a veteran storyman with whom I became good friends; yet whenever I put a microphone in front of him, he totally dried up. Although we had many hours of fascinating conversation over lunch or dinner, he made only rare appearances in my programs. In contrast, I have had interviewees who have talked incessantly without saying anything interesting (or, often, succinct enough) to make the final cut.
So, you have been warned and given license to ignore all that follows.
There’s something important you must know before you set off for your interview: the burden of your Disney fandom! I’m sorry to put it so crudely, but the first time you are faced with meeting someone whose work you know about and, possibly, much admire, you may find yourself a tad star struck.
I well remember a long-awaited interview with Julie Andrews (it had been on and off for a month or more) and when the final moment came and we were sitting next to one another on a sofa in her suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London, I wondered whether I would be able to ask even a single intelligible question.
The real danger about such encounters is that the weight your own knowledge (combined with a perfectly understandable anxiety that your interviewee should know that you know all there is to know about his or her work) can all too easily result in your asking questions that include so much information that the person you are talking to has nothing left to say in reply. So, here’s Rule Number One: try and hold your personal excitement safely short of a full-on gush—at least until the interview is over.
And, please, don’t try too hard to impress your interviewee with how much you know. I made that mistake once in interviewing Roald Dahl and was very nearly shown the door!
I say this because we are not always aware of the danger that is represented by the extent and weight all that Disney history piled up in our heads: the facts and figures (as well as, probably, the myths and legends) that we’ve read about in books and articles and heard discussed on DVD bonus extras, TV programs, and convention platforms. Our acquired knowledge (and knowledge is an indispensable requisite for every historian) needs to be mentally stored, ordered, and filed so as be available for effective retrieval, but we really don’t want to display it all at every possible opportunity.
Also, and this is very important, try and remember that, however much you think you know, your knowledge should always be open to challenge and review.
The best advice I can give is to begin your preparation as if you were about to go into an exam. So—do your Disney revision.
Ask yourself what are you wanting to get from the interview: it might be new facts and details, confirmation of things you have read, an answer to some conflict in more than one version of past events, or, like me, you may be looking for those gems that the broadcaster refers to as the “sound-bite”.
Personally, and it may not work for others, I have always written out my rough questions, refined and polished them, and then written them out again (written, not typed) in clear handwriting. I then rehearse the questions, like the script of a play but with the exception that I know I may end up leaving the script in favor of some unexpected ad-libbing.
What is curious is that having put it all down on paper and rehearsed it, I find I rarely need look at the questions during the actual interview. As a result, I can focus my attention on the interviewee, silently encouraging them, listening to what they say—and don’t say.
The single most important thing about question writing is to avoid the trap of what is called “the closed question”—that’s a question that is actually nothing more than a statement: “So, then, in 1964, you made Mary Poppins.”
Closed questions have to be avoided at all costs because—like a closed door—they lead nowhere. Many interviewees will do their best to answer a question even if you haven’t actually asked one, but, be warned, closed questions can all too often be answered with a simple “Yes,” which will get you no further than confirming what you already knew! Always aim for open questions—ones that invariably begin with an “H” or a “W”: “How…?” “Who…?” “What…?” “Where…?” “When…?” or “Why…?”
Be prepared for the curious experience of interviewing someone and hearing them answer your questions in exactly the same words as you have heard or read somewhere else. This really isn’t too surprising because people who get interviewed will have probably been asked the same questions so many times before that their answers have inevitably settled into a well-rehearsed pattern that provides what they think of as the “best version”.
Add in the further consideration that the events about which they are being questioned probably happened a long time ago and which, at the time, may not have seemed as important as later turned out.
Your real job as an interviewer is not to get your interviewee to tell the story you know they can tell, but tell you in a way they haven’t told it before—or, better still, tell you a story they haven’t told before!
So, how do you do that?
Continued in "How to Be a Disney Historian"!