No one knows Disney history, or tells it better, than Jim Korkis, who presents an inaugural set of 28 stories from his Vault of Walt. Whether it’s Disney films, Disney theme parks, or Walt himself, Jim’s stories will charm and delight Disney fans of all ages.
The best-selling Vault of Walt series has brought serious, but fun, Disney history to tens of thousands of readers. In this, its first volume, former Disney cast member and master storyteller Jim Korkis weaves his home-spun, entertaining tales, from the early years of Walt Disney to the present.
Step inside the vault with Jim to hear about
Discover these and many other new tales of Disney history, as only Jim Korkis can tell them, in The Vault of Walt: Volume 1.
Then be sure to check ALL the volumes in The Vault of Walt!
Foreword by Diane Disney Miller
Introduction by Jim Korkis
Part One: Walt Disney Stories
The Miniature Worlds of Walt
Horsing Around: Walt and Polo
Walt’s School Daze
Gospel According to Walt
Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
Walt’s 30th Wedding Anniversary
Eating Like Walt
Part Two: Disney Film Stories
Disney’s Ham Actors: The Three Little Pigs
Snow White Christmas Premiere
The Alice in Wonderland That Never Was
Secret Origins of the Aristocats
So Dear to My Heart
And the Oscar Goes to…Walt Disney
Part Three: Disney Park Stories
Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel
Liberty Street 1959
Zorro at Disneyland
Tom Sawyer Island
Mickey Mouse Revue
The Carousel of Progress
Part Four: Other Disney Stories
Khrushchev and Disneyland
A/K/A The Gray Seal
Tinker Bell Tales
FBI’s Most Wanted: The Mickey Mouse Club
Chuck Jones: Four Months at Disney
Walt’s Women: Two Forgotten Influences
The Man Who Shot Walt Disney
Some years ago, our son Walt brought to my attention an article on the MousePlanet website. It was that rare thing; an honest, well-written piece that was so authentic, so true to my dad’s spirit, so unprejudiced and non-judgmental, that as I read it I could see the twinkle in dad’s eye, hear his laugh.
I immediately wrote the author, Wade Sampson, a letter of appreciation. Some weeks later I received a reply, and learned that Wade Sampson was actually the pseudonym of Jim Korkis, who worked for the Walt Disney World Company as a coordinator at the Learning Center, and was well-known and respected as a Disney historian. Since that time, I looked forward eagerly to “Wade’s” ongoing output, learning some things I didn’t know, but always delighted with what he chose to write about, and his obvious understanding and even affection for his subject.
Jim does not put my father on a pedestal, but he does like him, and I do not think that disqualifies Jim from having objectivity in his opinion of him. I find myself in the same position.
I am so pleased that many of his writings are now bound together in this book. Dad’s personality, character, and values are displayed in the selections Jim has offered here.
I have not hesitated to correspond with Jim whenever I think of something that might interest him, or to add some insights into something he has written about. Dad did not hide anything about his life. He loved to talk about it. But he never really talked about religion, and his feelings about prayer, and I learned from Jim’s article how deeply these feelings went.
I look forward to his continued exploration of Dad’s life and times. Something interesting and illuminating always seems to turn up, some little event and angle that adds to the story of his very good life.
For over three decades, I have researched and written about Disney history for a variety of magazines and special projects. Several years ago, the opportunity presented itself that I could select some of my favorite stories and have them published in a book.
The Vault of Walt was released in the Fall of 2010. I was overjoyed that the book was so warmly received by both reviewers and fans and has continued to sell well ever since. In the last two years, I have had the opportunity to attend many events around the United States where people personally shared their love of the book and I have received many e-mails filled with praise.
In all that time, there have been no factual corrections identified in the text and that is also very pleasing, to be assured that I did the best I could with my original research. However, as I noted in the original introduction to the book, it has been my experience that there is always more to be told about any story.
It has always been my intention to do an updated version of the book, especially since I keep uncovering new information. For instance, last year I was a guest speaker at the wonderful Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. During my time there, I had the opportunity to examine even more closely part of Walt Disney’s fabled miniature collection. The chapter in this book about Walt’s hobby remains accurate. However, on my visit, I discovered new things and a new perspective that would enrich that tale.
I was considering pulling the book from distribution for a period of time for me to work on an updated edition. Sadly, even in this age of electronics, books do go out of print for a period of time. I have been disappointed that books that I delayed purchasing went out of print within the first six months of being issued.
While I was contemplating how to exactly handle this situation, I partnered with a new publisher, Theme Park Press, for a new book that has just recently been released, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South (And Other Forbidden Stories).
That book is the first extensive look at the history of the making of Disney’s most controversial film from the very beginning in 1938 to 2012. The rest of the book is filled with stories the Disney Company never wanted told from how it produced television commercials in the fifties to why working at the Disney studio depressed director Tim Burton to why Walt Disney became a Republican to the secrets about Jessica Rabbit.
Since the publication of The Vault of Walt there have been significant changes in the publication of Disney-related books. I wanted a more streamlined travel-size version available at a more affordable price. It was agreed that doing so might attract new readers who were intimidated by the size and the price of the original edition despite all the good reviews.
So, some stories are missing that appeared in the original book to make a more compact package. However, just like Walt himself, I always want to give my readers something extra. There are five new chapters for this book that will also be eventually revised for the updated edition or a sequel:
Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South answers these questions in much more detail in its dozens of pages as well as providing never-before-told information about the screenplay, the actors, the animation, the filming and, of course, the misunderstandings surrounding the film.
If this is your first experience with The Vault of Walt, there are many treasures to uncover about the worlds of Disney. If you are an owner of the original edition (perhaps soon to become a collectible curiosity), this book provides five brand new stories to maintain your interest.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it.
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:
In this excerpt, from "Other Disney Stories", Jim tells the story of Thelma Howard, one of the most important woman in Walt's life—not a relative or a business associate; but a housekeeper.
Thelma Howard was the Disney live-in housekeeper and cook for thirty years, beginning in 1951. Her nickname was Fou-Fou, sometimes spelled Foo-Foo, which was the closest one of the Disney grandchildren could come to pronouncing Thelma. Walt just referred to her as “the real-life Mary Poppins”.
Thelma has also been described as being more like the feisty maid in the Ted Key comic panel Hazel than like Mary Poppins, because she was gruffer than a spoonful of sweet¬ness. Like Walt, she loved to smoke. She also loved to play gin rummy, and she was accepted as part of the Disney family.
Her friends described Thelma as a handsome, quick-witted woman who loved football and the color pink, and who baked a lovely boysenberry pie. She was a perfectionist in her work, making sure the Disneys were well cared for, down to the tiniest details, and she did not hesitate to give orders. Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, said: "She was a combination of real loving and kind of crusty, a chain-smoking, no-nonsense type, but very loving, like TV’s old Hazel character."
Thelma had her share of tragedy in her early life. She came from a poor family in Southwick, Idaho. Her mother died in childbirth when Thelma was just six years old, and her sister died in a fire in their kitchen years later.
After graduating from high school, Thelma attended business college in Spokane, Washington. She hoped to become a legal secretary, but ran out of money and had to drop out. She stayed briefly with relatives in northern California, and then in 1931, moved to Los Angeles, where she did office work and cleaned homes.
Before working for the Disneys, she was married briefly and had a son, Michael, who was constantly in trouble.
Thelma made sure that the fridge was filled with hot dogs, because when Walt came home from work, he liked to grab a few. He’d give one to his pet poodle, and then eat the other two himself, even though they were cold and uncooked.
Although he acknowledged that Thelma was a great cook, Walt would often try to get her to visit Biff’s, a diner near the Disney Studios, to learn how to cook some of Walt’s favorite items from their menu. Grudgingly, she would make the trip, and then back home attempt to duplicate Biff’s pan-fried potatoes (actually hash browns) that Walt loved so much, or the silver dollar-sized pancakes.
On Thelma’s days off, Walt and Lilly went out to eat, usually at the Tam O’Shanter or the Brown Derby.
Walt’s grandchild Chris Miller said:
My grandfather had an incredible rapport with her [Thelma]. They seemed to share everything, from a sense of humor to their notions about what was happening with the kids and what was best for them.
Walt felt comfortable teasing and joking with Thelma, but she was capable of giving back as good as she got.
Howard’s niece Cheryl Wallace remembered visiting her aunt at the Disney home and staying in Thelma’s quarters. When the Disneys were gone, they would spread themselves out, pretending the house was their own: “We would sit at their big dining room table, and I remember she would act silly, like a schoolgirl. She would sit at one end, and I would sit at the other end, and we would shout like, 'Could you pleeeeeeze pass the peas?'”
“I guess there isn’t any sucker bigger than the one who sounds off about the fair sex,” moaned Walt when, during an interview, he was reprimanded for suggesting that women don’t have a sense of humor. (What he said was that he no longer brought Disney films home to screen for his family because Lilly and Thelma didn’t “laugh loudly enough” during them.)
When Thelma started as a housekeeper for the Disney family in 1951, at age thirty-eight, she’d get a few shares of Disney stock for Christmas as well as for her birthday and for special events. Walt advised her to hang on to the stock, because it might become valuable one day. She lived frugally throughout her life, apparently unaware that the rising value of the stock had made her a multi-millionaire by the time of her death.
Through numerous splits, her holdings had grown to 192,755 shares. Between 1980 and 1993, the stock increased in value tenfold, and her shares were valued at $8.39 million. Her property and savings pushed that total to over $9 million.
Thelma left nearly four-and-a-half-million dollars to poor and disabled children, and nearly the same amount to her son, Michael, the only child from her brief marriage. Michael was then in his mid-50s, living in a home for the developmentally disabled.
Jack Shakely, whose California Community Foundation assists the Thelma Pearl Foundation in dispensing the money: "She was told to hang onto it, and she did. She never sold a share of it. I don’t think she knew what it was worth. She had great faith in the Disneys and wouldn’t part with it."
In 1981, Howard retired to a modest, two-bedroom bungalow in West L.A. Her health began to fail, and by 1991, she had been moved to a nursing home in Santa Monica, where she was not treated well, and where a man claiming to be her husband (with no proof) was trying to gain control of her estate.
Around that time, Diane Disney Miller became concerned because she hadn’t received Thelma’s usual Christmas cards, and she discovered her in the nursing home. Thelma had kept a framed, autographed photo of Walt and Lillian by her bedside, but recently it had been stolen. Diane gave her another that Thelma kept hidden.
Soon, Thelma was moved to a retirement home, with beautiful gardens, where she had a private room. Diane sent fresh flowers every Monday and visited often.
Thelma Howard died on June 10, 1994, just before her 80th birthday, and was buried in Forest Lawn in a pink coffin. Her grave overlooks the Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The foundation that bears her name has awarded over four million dollars in grants since 1995.