I have to admit I was very nervous and self-conscious about my interview with Mr. Korkis. After all, I was about to meet an internationally known Disney expert and historian. I do pride myself on my love of Disney history and facts, but–to be in the presence of such an authority–I had pangs of inadequacy. However, the minute he entered the room with a mile-wide smile and warm handshake, my fears evaporated. Jim Korkis was just like any other lover of Walt Disney’s legacy. I found that Jim loves to talk Disney, and he loves to share his stories and memories with anyone who inquires about Disney even more!
Jim and I sat down, and for over two and a half hours, we just talked Disney. Anything and everything . . . we both shared our knowledge and love of Walt. Time flew by so quickly when we realized we hadn’t started the interview, but that is the real Jim Korkis. He believes that stories and historic facts about Walt and his company should be told and shared with all–not kept secret.
What information Jim has to share! Gleaned from more than 30 years involvement with Disney history, working for the company, and meeting hundreds of Disney luminaries (from Roy E. Disney to Diane Disney Miller and everyone in-between), Jim has amassed a storehouse of memories and untold stories. His resume is just as impressive, garnering a B.A. and M.A. from Occidental College in L.A. as well as boasting experience as a professional show director, actor, professional magician, and writer. He taught animation at the Disney Institute, was a trainer for Disney Adult Discoveries, spent some time as a trainer, and much more. But in order to know and understand Mr. Jim Korkis, the following interview will tell the whole story:
DDLIFE: Thank you, Jim, for sharing your time for this interview.
JK: My Pleasure.
DDLIFE: Have you always been a Disney Fan?
JK: Yes, absolutely! I grew up as a Disney kid in Glendale, California. My folks took me and my two brothers to Disneyland all the time. It was the greatest thing in the world.
DDLIFE: Were your folk’s big Disney fans?
JK: They liked Disney, but they weren’t what I would consider Disney fanatics. But they were always supportive.
DDLIFE: You have quite the impressive resume. It states you are an actor. Did you always have that dream?
JK: Absolutely! Ever since I had a 5th grade teacher who used to put on talent shows every Friday afternoon in class. I would watch the Ed Sullivan show (especially the stand-up comics) and try to write down their jokes for the talent show. I would always volunteer for the comic. In Jr. high I took theater classes. I actually wrote the Jr. high school play. It was called “Robin and His Merry Women” because there were more girls in the class than boys. Over the years, I did a lot of theater, and even performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. For a while, I pursued a career as a professional actor.
DDLIFE: You also taught animation at Disney. Can you give us a little background on that?
JK: As a kid, I was fascinated by animation. How do you make that move? Fortunately, growing up in Glendale, I went to Disneyland and one of my Christmas gifts was the Disney Animation Kit which was sold at the Art Corner in Disneyland. There was a book on how to draw Mickey and Donald and another on animation. I kept studying on my own. I got to the point where I was a good enough artist to know how bad I really was, and I wondered if I really wanted to spend my life hunched over a light board drawing thousands of drawings where each one moved a smidgen of an inch each time.
DDLIFE: Did you receive any professional training?
JK: Growing up in the LA area was a huge benefit for me. There were several animators who gave private lessons. I had several lessons with Chuck Jones, a Looney Tunes director. In fact, the one piece of advice that he gave me that has stuck with me to this day is: ”Jim, every artist has ten thousand bad drawings in them. You have to get those ten thousand bad drawings out of your system before the good drawings start to come.” I think I’m still working on those first ten thousand drawings!
DDLIFE: When did you start working for Disney?
JK: The big joke out in California was that I was the most “Disney” person that people knew that was not working for Disney. I was writing articles on Disney. I was doing presentations about Disney, but not working for Disney. In 1995, my folks moved to Florida for health reasons, so I sold my house, took my Disney library, and started working for Walt Disney World at Pleasure Island, doing magic. After a few months, I worked at the Magic Kingdom as “Prospector Pat,” an old gold miner. Disney was experimenting with a new Streetmosphere program, but ended it after one summer. I was then moved over into the role of Merlin the Magician. In 1996, the Disney Institute opened, and I worked as a salaried animation instructor and taught animation history.
DDLIFE: You have quite an extensive background in animation.
JK: Yes, I never knew what job I would be out of work from!
DDLIFE: What other jobs did you do?
JK: I also taught a class called “Voices of Disney” because I had done voice-over work, teaching people how to voice different characters. That led to me doing a voice-over for a Disney syndicated TV series filmed at WDW called “Secrets of the Animal Kingdom.” It lasted 26 episodes. It was about two kids running around Animal Kingdom looking for clues. I am the voice-over announcer as well as voices of several of the animals. The show was successful, but Disney decided not to continue it.
DDLIFE: Did you ever meet Walt Disney?
JK: No, but I met Roy E. Disney. I have met Lillian Disney, Diane Disney Miller, and many people that worked for Walt in various capacities as animators, Imagineers, and as associates and friends of Walt. I spoke with Walt’s housekeeper who ended up a multimillionaire without realizing it. She started with the Disney family in the ‘50’s. For her birthdays and holidays, Walt would give her (as part of her gift) shares in the company. He said, “Hang on to these. They will be worth something one of these days.” She did. When she came to the end of her life, she found she had over nine million dollars worth of stock. She became a multi-millionaire without realizing it. Each time I had a meeting, it was an amazing experience!
DDLIFE: What was your favorite job at Walt Disney World?
JK: I enjoyed working at the Disney Institute because there were so many guest speakers–Ward Kimball, John Canemaker, Michael Graves, and John Lasseter to name a few. After that, I worked with Disney Adult Discoveries which were the backstage tours. Then it was over to EPCOT, and I worked with college and international program students.
DDLIFE: What Disney family member do you admire most?
JK: I would have to say that member would be Diane Disney Miller. She is an amazing woman! She has become a spearhead with the Disney Family Museum and the Disney Family Foundation. She is one of the last original sources, and she wants to get this information out for everyone to enjoy. She’s funny, informative, and very caring.
DDLIFE: When did you realize that all these untold and unwritten stories should be collected and written down?
JK: In high school . . . tail end of Jr. high about 1968-70. I had first met Jack Hanna, a Disney animator who lived fifteen minutes from me and consented to the first Disney interview I ever did. I wrote it for the school paper. It was picked up by the local newspaper, the Glendale News Press. This helped start my career. I started to realize as early as 1980 that as I was interviewing people, they were already old. Some passed away shortly after I interviewed them, and many I wanted to speak to had [already] passed away. As the years progressed, it was becoming apparent these stories were being forgotten. At Disney, it was always an oral tradition. Everyone was so busy; there was no time to record anything. If you wanted to know about a Mickey Mouse cartoon, they would say, “Go ask Les Clark or Ub Iwerks. They worked on it.” It was worse at Walt Disney World. There were no archives; everything was new. There were rich back stories and history; I started to write these down. When I interview now, I try to get not just the big picture, but the nooks and crannies . . . the little things.
DDLIFE: You have just written a new book, The Vault of Walt, which contains all these unwritten, untold historic stories about Disney. Can you tell us about it?
JK: I have an extensive Disney library with over three dozen biographies on Walt alone. Some of these stories were told over and over, but there were many gaps–little blips–missing. Looking at past interviews I had done, I realized that I had some of these stories. I started to collect my favorites and the ones I believed people would be interested in. These are the stories that have never been told anywhere else.
DDLIFE: Was the Disney Company helpful in your research for the book?
JK: Disney has closed the doors to any researcher not in the company for a variety of reasons. Sometimes Disney does not know the material they have. They have warehouses filled with material, and a lot has not been cataloged. Archivist, Dave Smith, did a heroic job starting the archives in 1970. He was bombarded with all this material, and even decades later they are discovering things that were misfiled or that they didn’t know they had. As a company, Disney wants to control the story of its business and its founder, so–unfortunately–they aren’t always interested in helping writers.
DDLIFE: What is the difference between an archivist and historian such as yourself?
JK: An archivist gathers and catalogs material and is its caretaker (much like a good librarian). A historian takes that information and puts it into a story, explaining why things happened and the relationships of people to that story.
DDLIFE: What stories are in the book, and how is it laid out?
JK: I wanted to make the book as reader friendly as possible. Though the book is 450 pages, you don’t have to start at page 1 and slog your way to the end. There are separate chapters–each one a separate story, self-contained. There are four sections to the book. The first section is about Walt himself. The next is on the theme parks. Then there is a section on Disney films–films you won’t find anywhere else. And last are the miscellaneous sections–stories that don’t fit anywhere else.
DDLIFE: What is your favorite story?
JK: They’re all favorites at different times. That’s why I included them. I wanted stories I loved reading and stories important to future researchers. I have a special affection for those stories about Walt.
DDLIFE: Do you see any indication that Disney history is being lost for future generations?
JK: Absolutely! I see stories being lost for several reasons. Most people don’t know the story exists, and sometimes Disney does not want the story told because it conflicts with the current brand they are trying to sell. Some material is thrown away because it was in storage and costs too much to store. The biggest problem is that Cast Members don’t know all the stories behind the attractions, and it costs money to train them.
DDLIFE: This book is like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls of Disney. Do you have plans for other books?
JK: I have enough material for three more books this size. In fact, I have a 40,000 word article on Song of the South. I have already started writing the second book. The important thing about stories is if you don’t know them, you will never understand the foundations of the attractions, files, or Walt himself.
DDLIFE: Where can fans purchase your book?
JK: It’s now available on Amazon.com and on a publishing site called Createspace.com. Soon it will be in Barnes and Nobel. Disney is reviewing the book also for sale on property since it is not an expose.
DDLIFE: Disney’s history and untold, unwritten stories are so important for preserving Walt’s legacy. Your book and your research combined are an important historical reference. I am looking forward to seeing future books on Disney. I want to thank you for spending time on this interview, and I wish you good luck in the future.
JK: Thank you. It was a pleasure and much fun talking Disney! I hope this interview was interesting enough that your readers will pick up a book for themselves or their friends!
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.