Interview: Jim Korkis, Disney Historian

Jim chats about Disney history, his new book, and the Gong Show

I'm jealous of Jim Korkis.

As a kid growing up in Glendale, California, Jim met and interviewed most of Disney's original animators and artists. With some of them he formed life-long friendships that were instrumental in his life-long ambition: to collect and collate the entire enormous corpus of Disney history.

I don't doubt he'll succeed.

Jim now lives in Orlando where in previous years he taught at the Disney Institute and worked many cool Disney jobs like performing magic on Pleasure Island and performing as Merlin at the Magic Kingdom's "Sword and the Stone" ceremony. During that time he also wrote, wrote, wrote about Disney. His work has appeared on such websites as MousePlanet and in such magazines as Celebrations, and his voice is often heard on Lou Mongello's WDW Radio podcast.

Jim also wrote a book earlier this year called "The Vault of Walt" which he describes as a 'Disney History Companion' and I describe as one of the most engaging, absorbing Disney books I've read in a long time. (My review will appear here on Disney Dispatch within the next few days. In case you can't wait that long, here's the conclusion: Buy Jim's book!)

I'm flattered that Jim found time to sit down with me for this interview. You're gonna love it...

Before we talk about your new book, 'The Vault of Walt', let's talk about Jim Korkis. You grew up in Glendale, California, not far from the early Disney creative community. You were able to meet many of Walt's original animators. How did you wrangle those meetings?

Jim: 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.
In those early days, everyone knew the name "Walt Disney" but not many knew the names of all the talented people working for the Disney Studios and what they did. I had been raised to be respectful of my elders and I think it helped that I was polite, somewhat knowledgeable, and very curious and excited.
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 Korkis 'with' Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog

Did you notice any common personality traits among the Disney people you interviewed during the early years? Were they generally the shy, reserved artistic types, or did you find them genial and garrulous? Do you consider any of them mentors?

Jim: Just like anywhere, there were as many different personalities as there are in any company. They all had different experiences with Walt and different perspectives on how to do the work. In terms of similarities, they were all talented and they all had very strong opinions about the work they did and the people they worked with and often those feelings were at odds with what others thought and felt.
Ward Kimball was wonderful. Sometimes all you had to do is say, "Ward, tell me a story about Disney" and he could go on for hours sharing a story he had never told anyone else.
My very first Disney interview was with Disney Legend Jack Hannah who at the time was teaching character animation at California Institute of the Arts. He was so kind and generous and opened so many doors to other interviews that he definitely stands out in my mind. I eventually became the Jack Hannah authority to the point that when Jack had to speak at Walter Lantz's birthday (Hannah worked briefly at Lantz after he left Disney) he phoned me to get information about his time working on Woody Woodpecker.

Your love for Disney arose early in life. How young were you when you began interviewing local Disney artists? Did you also visit Disneyland often in those days, or was your interest not so much the park but rather the people who designed it?

Jim: 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.

Jim Korkis (right) with Dave Smith, Founder of the Walt Disney Archives

Our family was not well off but we were able to visit Disneyland about twice a year, usually on a birthday or a holiday. We visited years before I started interviewing people. I wish I had taken photos or kept a journal or something.
For one Christmas, my one and only gift was the Art of Animation Kit available at the Disneyland Art Corner. It came with a pressed board animation table with glass, pegs, punched animation paper, Disney pencil, a book on how to draw Mickey Mouse, a book on how to draw Donald Duck, a book on animation, and two flip books. I still have the books today on my book shelves but learned very quickly that animation is HARD.
As I got older, I learned to appreciate the design of the park and how it was a natural three-dimensional extension of animation. Lots and lots of fond memories of visiting Disneyland. I was an annual passholder and I took many a very special date there to share my joy.

At some point, you moved from Glendale to Orlando. When did that happen, and why?

Jim: Moved to Orlando in 1995. Both my parents had developed health issues and the smog in L.A. was causing respiratory problems and just the stress of the place was not helping. My two brothers were in Orlando working for the Mouse so it was a no-brainer. I could always get another job but not another set of parents. In L.A., the doctors gave my folks maybe another year to live. By moving to Orlando and living with me, they got another ten years of life. No regrets on my part even though I left a lot of opportunities and contacts in California and had to start over from square one.

In Orlando, you worked for a short time at the Disney Institute. What did you do there? Was that the only time you officially worked for Disney?

Jim: Yes, I worked for several years at the Disney Institute as an animation instructor. I taught all the classes from classic hand-drawn animation to computer animation to stop motion animation to cel painting to history of animation to a class where I taught guests how to be voice-over artists. I had a side career in Los Angeles doing voice-over work. I also did special presentations on animation in the Disney Institute Cinema that was open to all Orlando residents.
When I first moved to Orlando, I started working for Disney doing magic and balloon animals at Pleasure Island. Then I was Merlin at the Magic Kingdom doing the "Sword in the Stone" ceremony. After the Disney Institute, I worked as a co-ordinator for College and International Programs at Epcot and then as a co-ordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center.

Jim Korkis in the studio

For years, you wrote under a pseudonym: Wade Sampson. How come? And why the recent switch back to Jim Korkis?

Jim: I checked with Disney Legal and while it was fine for me to write about Disney history as long as I didn't reveal any current proprietary information, I didn't want there to be a perceived "conflict of interest". I did not want to be seen as an "official" spokesman for Disney and Disney didn't want that either.
However, it was the worst kept secret in the Disney historical community. Just about everybody knew "Wade Sampson" was my pseudonym but understood the reason behind it. When I was laid off from Disney along with thousands of other hard-working folks, there was no longer any possible conflict. Of course, with the release of the book, I didn't want "Wade" to get all the credit!

The information in 'The Vault of Walt' is not only a joy to read but a feat to behold: how long did it take you to locate, absorb, and classify so much Disney lore?

Jim: I tell people it took over thirty years. Thirty years of interviewing people, finding long lost documents, interacting with other Disney historians, and more. Every day I learn something new and find another piece of the bigger puzzle that is Disney history. Over the years I wrote for a variety of magazines and I consider those articles a rough draft. Once they appeared, others came out of the woodwork with additional information or corrections or a different perspective. The final book features all of that new material.

I'm fascinated by the research. When did it start? Did much of it come orally, from interviews, or are there underground bunkers of Disney documents that you were allowed to read?

Jim: It was a period of years doing the initial research. It takes a while to prepare for an interview, do the interview, transcribe the interview, correct the interview, and more. Then, it takes time even with all the great Internet sources to track down obscure magazine and newspaper articles. There are still things I can't find after decades. Thankfully, over the years I built up friendships with other researchers and they graciously shared some of their treasures.
The hardest and longest part was not finding the information but verifying the information. For each piece of information, I tried to find three separate sources to confirm it. There are too many urban legends out there about Walt and Disney in general that "everyone knows" but are completely wrong.

Once you had your research in place, how long did it take you to actually write the book?

Jim: It took over a year to write the book. I started writing and several months into the project my computer got a bad case of malware and everything was fried with no back-up. Fortunately, I had printed out pages of some of it so was able to use those to start again.
It was tough to select which stories to tell and I tried to pick the ones that had never been in any other book. I would start writing as soon as I got up in the morning and wouldn't finish until late in the evening. Some days were spent pulling out material and trying to track down other material.

How would you differentiate your book from the many Disney 'trivia' and 'hidden magic' books already on the market?

Jim: I describe the book as a Disney History Companion. It explores the nooks and crannies that aren't in other books except for a brief sentence or two if at all. I have just about every Disney book printed so wanted to avoid any areas that they covered. I have almost three dozen book biographies of Walt so the goal was to tell the stories that didn't appear in any of them.

Would 'The Vault of Walt' appeal to the casual, once-a-year Disney park guest, or do you think its appeal is limited more to hard-core Disney fans?

Jim: I tried to write the book so that someone with no background knowledge or just a casual interest would be able to understand clearly the story and enjoy it. For those who consider themselves Disney experts, on each page the goal was to have at least three pieces of information that they never knew before reading the book. So far the reaction I have gotten is that I succeeded with both goals.

At over 400 pages, the book is stuffed with facts. You organize them neatly into four long parts that contain stories about Walt, Disney films, Disney parks, and miscellaneous topics. The nice thing about the organization is that readers can dip in anywhere, read a short essay, and then turn to whatever interests them next. Is that how you intended the book to be read?

Jim: The book was even longer. The publisher had me drop two chapters to make it a more manageable length. People have very little time these days, and so many Disney books are ponderous - the academic ones are even more overwhelming. I wanted to have self-contained chapters to let someone commit for only ten pages at a time. They only had to read the things they wanted to read since some people love the parks but don't care about anything else. Some people want to know everything about Walt but are just casually interested in the films.

Jim Korkis with Margaret Kerry, the original model for Tinker Bell

I love the story you tell on page 221 about how Walt most enjoyed the characters in his films who reminded him in subtle ways of himself. I assume that story came from an interview. Would you say that most of the information in the book came from your interview transcripts?

Jim: That insight came from writer Bill Walsh who wrote so many of the memorable Disney films. Yes, I tried to pull information from as many primary sources as I could whether it was interviews I did personally or interviews from magazines and newspapers of the time or letters or memos or whatever.
However, you have to be careful. Just because someone says something sincerely doesn't necessarily make it true. They may have only seen their part of the project or not realized someone else was also working on it or may even have an agenda to promote themselves or diminish someone else.

You write a column for MousePlanet. You also write a column for Celebrations Magazine. You're a regular guest on Lou Mongello's podcast. I've probably missed some others. How much of your day is taken with writing about Disney? Is that what you now do for a living?

Jim: I try to write something everyday about Disney. Every day. It may not be a full article. Sometimes it is just a paragraph or two that I submit to a variety of websites from Didier Ghez to Jeff Pepper to Werner Weiss. It is important to get the information out there and available for everyone.
Lately, I have a real fear that all this information is being lost. Disney has literally shredded documents over the years rather than pay for storage. Some information was never written down but only communicated orally. But what happens when that person leaves the company or passes away? Since I had the opportunity to meet so many of Walt's "original cast", I feel the obligation to share their stories and the knowledge they shared with me.
Right now, I am a freelance writer. In the past I was a freelance writer in addition to other things like teaching and performing.

I'd be surprised if you had time, but how often do you visit Disney World? Any favorite restaurants or attractions?

Jim: When I worked at WDW I visited all the time, almost every day, including the days I was off. Today, I get to the parks maybe once a week because I am also trying to find a full-time job. Asking for a favorite restaurant or attraction is like asking someone to name their favorite child. Actually, the answer changes based on my mood. Fortunately, WDW offers a lot of great choices. I am glad you didn't ask about which ones I don't care for as much.

What non-Disney book are you reading now? Favorite TV show and recent movie? Any hobbies that don't involve Disney?

Jim: I am reading "The Making of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol", "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca", and "Atomic Knights". I have a background as an animation historian (written four books) and a comic book historian (regular columns in several fanzines) and theater and film (countless published articles). I think it is very healthy to have interests outside of Disney because it gives you a broader appreciation of life and of Disney.
I have lots of current favorite TV shows including "Mad Men", "Dexter", "Boardwalk", "Walking Dead", "Pawn Stars", "American Pickers", and too many more. I haven't seen any movies lately that really excite me. I am the type of guy whose favorite film is "Casablanca" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and would be content to spend the rest of my life just watching Turner Classic Movies.

When's the sequel coming out?

Jim: As I tell people, they have to vote with their wallets. If enough people buy this book, I have enough material right now for two or three more books. I have a 40,000 word essay on the entire history of "Song of the South" from when Walt first thought of doing it all the way through to today and the controversy surrounding it. In between, I document information that has never before been revealed about it. If there is a sequel, I definitely plan on including this essay (which will be enlarged and improved before it appears in the book).

Some stuff people might not know about Jim Korkis: the "Gong Show": you were on it (and won!); the "Dating Game": you were on it (and lost!); "Camouflage": you were on it (and won - a Cadillac!). All that happened - how?

Jim: Besides writing and teaching, I was also a professional union actor with appearances on television and movies, including the game shows you list. In those days, union actors could participate in game shows and get "scale" (minimum payment for a television appearance) but weren't supposed to reveal their identity to the other non union-contestants who weren't being paid anything. The directors liked sprinkling in professionals every now and then because they gave a better show and worked every moment.
On the "Gong Show", my brother and I performed as the Quasimodo Belairs, a singing and dancing hunchback duo. The judges (who didn't gong us) were Jaye P. Morgan, Mort Sahl, and Trini Lopez. Chuck Barris (right) was incredibly nice and supportive to everyone in the Green Room. He loved the Quasimodo Belairs and was going to use us in the "Gong Show Movie" but it never happened. He did cast me in a pilot for an unreleased game show called "Origins" about the origins of words and phrases. I won the $10,000 prize but because the show never sold nor aired, all I got paid was "scale".
(Each network had different restrictions. One said you could only do a game show every six months. Another had rules that you could only do a game show on their network three times in your entire life. These type of restrictions were put in place so people couldn't make a living doing game shows as a regular gig and also because of the concerns stemming from the Fifties about game show intergrity. In fact, every game show I was on, there was someone in the audience watching me constantly to see that I wasn't turning to someone to get a clue or looking at a piece of paper or whatever. If that happened, filming would have stopped instantly and the person would be walked off the set.)
On the "Dating Game", I went on with my two brothers and the person asking questions was Desiree, a Universal Studios stunt woman whose six foot five, 300 pound stunt man boyfriend was in the audience. My brother Mike won.
"Camouflage" was a short-lived game show (about eight weeks) where you were shown a large detailed drawing and had to find the small item outline hidden in it (it could be any size, it could be upside-down, etc.). You competed against another contestant and each correct answer removed some of the picture detail so it was easy to find the outline. Over the course of the show only two folks won a Cadillac. I was one. (It was cherry red.) My car had broken down on the way to the taping and I had to push it into the parking lot. I drove off in the Cadillac - which is now long gone, replaced with a 1997 Ford Taurus).
By the way, I won on the question "Do fish get sea sick?"

On that, we'll leave Jim to dreaming of his Cadillac and you to pondering the riddle of whether fish really do get sea sick. I know but it'll take a Cadillac for me to tell.

Thanks, Jim, sincerely, for such wonderful answers and insights! You're a cool guy.

Jim Korkis: A Partial Bibliography

Jim Korkis has written a lot of stuff over a lot of years for a lot of places. Here's the majority of his on-line Disney scholarship. Dive in! We'll expect you back next month.

(If you're wondering whether Jim sleeps, well, so are we.)

Don't stop there! More Features Await...

Stuff Not to Skip

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