Inside the Walt Disney Archives – Celebrating 40 years with chief archivist Dave Smith

in Disney, Disneyland Resort, Events, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

In a special ceremony today at the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, Calif., the Walt Disney Archives will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In the process, Archives chief archivist will be honored by Disney CEO Bob Iger, film historian Leonard Maltin, and other surprise guests.

Dave Smith is also expected to announce his 2011 retirement at the ceremony, after having helped to found the Walt Disney Archives four decades ago.

This past Monday my brother and I were able to sit down with Dave Smith for a half hour and chat with him about the Walt Disney Archives. I went into the interview with a vastly different view of what the Archives is. But Dave quickly put me straight, telling us how the Archives was founded, what occurs on a daily basis inside, and what’s in store for its future:

I thought the Archives existed for the fans but that is not the case. The Archives exists to serve the Walt Disney Company. I thought it was a sort of museum, keeping all sorts of large items from Disney’s history. While this is true of some of the pieces in the Archive, they don’t typically keep large items. I also thought the Walt Disney Archives kept records of all the animated films as well as the designs for the parks and all of the 35mm film prints. But Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Imagineering, and Walt Disney Pictures each have their own archives in some form.

What surprised me most is that the Walt Disney Archives is mostly documents and photographs. Dave Smith is a historian. History is his passion. He takes into the archive what is necessary to tell the history of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company. It isn’t necessary to keep large sections of extinct attractions like my personal favorite, Horizons, because it doesn’t serve to tell the story of the Walt Disney Company. Having photographs of the attraction serves that goal much more effectively.

When we first entered Dave’s office, we noticed he was using an Apple computer. We commented about it and he said that Steve Jobs was pleased to see him using a Mac when he was in the office a few weeks ago. John Lasseter was showing Jobs around the studio lot. Josh and I were astounded to be standing in the room that Steve Jobs and John Lasseter were standing in just a few weeks prior. Smith commented, “I’ve known John for years since he first came to the studio as an animator, around the ’70s.” And when I pointed out that Lasseter has since moved up to hold many more prominent roles at the Walt Disney Company, Smith laughed and joked, “And here I am in the same job I was 40 years ago! Other people move up, I just stay in the same place.”

Dave Smith is an official Disney Legend and while a historian himself, he has certainly taken his own place in Disney history. Upon his retirement, Smith will be succeeded at the Archives by current manager Becky Cline, but never replaced.

Jeremiah Daws and his brother Josh are theme park fans and filmmakers living the dream in California.
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Photos from our time within Dave Smith’s office at the Walt Disney Archives:

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