walt disney archives

A Historical Legacy: Preserving the Magic

By Kimi Thompson and Ed Ovalle, Walt Disney Archives

Last week we shared A Historical Legacy: The Beginning of the Walt Disney Archives, and today we’re continuing our look back at the history of our department and how we preserve the magic of The Walt Disney Company.

After Disney Legend Dave Smith established the Walt Disney Archives in 1970, he continued with the project of inventorying and cataloging Walt Disney’s office materials located in Suite 3H of the original Animation Building at The Walt Disney Studios. In the spring of 1972, the items belonging to Walt in this location were moved into storage and the Walt Disney Archives moved to the Casting Building. This was the very first building constructed on the Disney Studios lot in 1939, and was originally utilized as the site’s construction headquarters. It would go on to be used as a warehouse, and later served the Studios’ casting and personnel functions. Today it is part of the Hyperion Health Club.

walt disney archives
Original Archives sign from the Casting Building.

Built in 1976, the Roy O. Disney Building served as the Walt Disney Archives’ third official location from June 1976 to September 1997. Dave Smith, who also happened to be the building’s first occupant, recalled that he felt honored to work in a space named for the man who hired him. He said that, “Roy was greatly interested in the work of the Archives, even asking me to compile the Disney family history for him. I was thrilled to work alongside Roy for two years before his untimely passing in 1971.”

walt disney archives
Dave Smith working in the Roy O. Disney Building.

Our Photo Library became a part of the department in October 1986, when the historical collections of the Studios’ Publicity and Still Camera Departments were turned over to the Archives… and we’ve been adding to the collection ever since! We currently house over 4 million negatives and transparencies in the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library. With the recent addition of the Fox Archives photography collection in 2019, we added more than 20 million negatives, prints, and born-digital files!

Dave was made Archives Director in May 1991 and had four staff members working with him. In 1994, the Roy O. Disney Building sustained damage from the Northridge earthquake and forced the Walt Disney Archives to temporarily move their offices and materials offsite, placing historical artifacts into storage. It was during this time our current Director, Becky Cline, was on the staff as the secretary. 

The current location of the Walt Disney Archives is still on the studio lot, albeit in the Frank G. Wells Building. In September 1997, the department moved files and artifacts from storage into the ready-built space. This was an exciting move as it was the first time the department would occupy a space designed specifically for the unique needs of the Archives—a space to preserve the collection, work with researchers, and showcase historical objects for guests to enjoy.

For his contributions in preserving The Walt Disney Company’s history and heritage, Dave was honored as a Disney Legend in 2007. After his 40th anniversary, Dave retired in 2010, and continued working as a consultant for the Company with the title of Chief Archivist Emeritus.

“He was the unsung hero of Disney’s history who, as our first archivist, spent 40 years rescuing countless documents and artifacts from obscurity, investing endless hours restoring and preserving these priceless pieces of our legacy, and putting them in context to tell our story. Dave was a true Disney Legend, and we are indebted to him for building such an enduring, tangible connection to our past that continues to inspire our future.” – Bob Iger

To this day, one of Dave’s biggest contributions that has had a lasting impact was his first project for the Company—the preservation of Walt Disney’s offices (Suite 3H). After Dave packed up the items from Walt’s offices in 1969–70, various occupants, including Disney executives and producers, used the space as production offices from 1972 through 2015. When the final production team left Suite 3H, the project to restore the space and recreate Walt’s offices was greenlit with the support of Executive Chairman Bob Iger. Led by the Walt Disney Archives, and with the help of the Studio Mill, restoration lasted from July to December 2015. Walt Disney’s offices were officially dedicated and re-opened as a new permanent exhibit curated by the Archives on December 7, 2015, with Bob Iger and members of Walt’s family present for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Over the years, the Walt Disney Archives has expanded to a department now with 30 staff members who specialize in research, collections, exhibits, photography, digitization, and operations. With the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019, we added the Fox Archives to our collection and their accomplished staff joined our unique team. Together we engage with Disney fans around the world through traveling exhibits, special events, presentations, screenings, tours, and social media. We also work with multiple internal departments and provide research and historical content for numerous types of projects, from books, films, and television shows, to new streaming series you can find on Disney+! We look forward to continuing our work collecting and preserving the history of The Walt Disney Company for future generations to come.

“We have great hopes for the future of the Walt Disney Archives, for we feel it is a genuinely worthwhile endeavor.”—Dave Smith, 1972