There are only a select few in this world with the amazing depth of knowledge on the subject of Disney as Mr. Jim Korkis. This internationally known Disney historian, writer, artist, animator, actor, Cast Member and teacher have worn these hats and more during his more than 30 years being involved with the Disney Company. Over the years he has penned countless articles, reports, books and has interviewed gaggles of Disney luminaries. He is also an amazing storyteller; anyone fortunate enough to hear him recant stories of Walt and Company can attest to this. Today, Jim has given the Disney community two more amazing books, both completely unique and both long overdue! I sat down with Jim as we discussed these new literary offerings and how they should grace every Disneyphile bookcase…
MN…Jim, you have worn so many hats during your Disney career. How has this influenced your writing of these two new books?
JK…As you mentioned, I have an extensive range of interests, from artwork to writing to performing and more. I was fortunate to have experiences in these many areas, because it gave me access to a wide variety of people. My interest in animation allowed me to talk to many of the Disney animators. My interest in the Theme Parks and working in them eventually provided me a chance to talk with the people who built the parks. All of this created the perfect storm, where all of this information just flooded into my life. I was very willing to ask questions and more than willing to listen to the answers and more importantly, write all that stuff down. Thankfully I have the opportunity today to share all this knowledge with people who didn’t get those same opportunities
MN…So your long career and all your roles helped in becoming the author you are today, to share these stories with people?
JK… With all of the things I’ve done, whether performing as Merlin the Magician, or teaching animation at the Disney Institute or working backstage and learning the Disney business have helped in gathering all of these stories and information so I could share them with others.
MN…Who or what influenced you the most in your writings?
JK…I think Walt Disney Himself. He was the ultimate storyteller. His stories were accessible to everyone, all ages, and all backgrounds. Those stories had a sense of timelessness, and a sense of friendliness that I worked hard at trying to capture in my own writing. I have read many books, but as a reader, I appreciated books that were very accessible and clear; that I didn’t have to re-read pages and chapters to understand them. I looked at books and ways of communicating that I enjoyed so I tried to write in the same way. I love to tell stories, and I wanted to capture that same type of oral communication in a book, so when you are reading it, it feels as if someone is talking to you. I like to take time to explain things, not assuming you already know a name or a place, and with a little humor and some surprises along the way
MN…These books about Walt Disney, his legacy and personal beliefs are totally new, the subject has never been broached in this manner. They also appeal to the hard-core Disney fan and the casual interest fan. What motivated you to write in this style?
JK… As you know, Disney history is getting lost, every single day. Almost every hour, something else is disappearing. Whether it’s the lawnmower tree being removed from Fort Wilderness, and no one really knows about this happening. Recently, I was talking to a group of people who were 20 something’s about Frank and Ollie and the response was “Who?” I said “Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston” and they looked like raccoons in the headlights. In the 90’s, Frank and Ollie were everywhere; they were the last surviving members of the fabled “Nine Old Men”. They were constantly appearing at art galleries, signing autographs and writing their books, and appearing on TV. There was even a documentary made about them. Yet within the last decade, people have forgotten who they were. So one of the biggest motivations in writing my books was “We have got to save this information” for future generations. I felt I had an obligation to do this, because I had the blessing to have known many of Walt’s original cast, meeting and talking with them. I feel I need to be their voice and tell their story for this newer generation. Tell it just as they told it to me.
MN…Let’s start with the Book of Mouse. It contains an astonishing amount of facts and figures, more than any other manuscript out there on Mickey. Tell us about the time and research you put into the book.
JK… It’s almost impossible these days to do research, because again, so many people passed away who had keys to the puzzle and the real story, and so much has been forgotten. It’s a long hard process trying to uncover magazines and newspapers from the time period that might shed a little light or going through libraries and archives. At one point I had to contact the Presidential Library of Dwight Eisenhower to find information about the space shows Walt did. It’s like being an archeologist. You never know where you are going to find things but it all takes time, sometimes months or even years. There are several books out there about Mickey Mouse, Mickey has done so much. He has been in comics, film, on merchandise and records. I found myself going through dozens of books and magazines and other documents when I needed to find these facts, and thought wouldn’t be nice to have one book, a compact location with all of these facts. I have been gathering this information literally for decades!
MN…So the Book of Mouse is a “Bible” on Mickey. Everything you wanted to know is in one source, and an easy readable source.
JK… And when we say “Bible” we mean it like the term that is used in animation or television. One source with all the information about the characters, possible storylines, backgrounds, etc. The Book of Mouse is 300 pages of everything I could cram in about Mickey. Even then, I had to summarize some sections and leave out some material.
MN…Was the Walt Disney Company supportive or helpful in you research?
JK…Not at all. There are individuals in the company who were supportive, but as a company, Disney was not just interested in it. The company does not celebrate Mickey’s birthday because they are afraid of the age issue. They feel young kids are so ignorant, they will feel Mickey is a senior citizen and not “Timeless” But Disney did not stand in the way of the book either, which was helpful.
MN…Who was the most helpful in your research?
JK… The most helpful in all of my books was the late Diane Disney Miller. She was so supportive. She always said, “I love what you are doing, keep doing this”. She also directed me to other people that I may not have had access to on my own. Animation historian David Gerstein and writer Didier Ghez to name just two of the people who had already done some research and generously shared it with me. And of course over the years I have developed my own network of people and resources. Over the years I have interviewed many different people including artists like Floyd Gottfredson, who drew the Mickey Mouse comic strips and Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey. My greatest support comes from the readers themselves when they say “I just love this” or “I enjoyed your book”, it makes all the hard work worthwhile and encourages me to continue!
MN…It is said that Walt is Mickey and Mickey is Walt; do you agree?
JK…Absolutely! It was a happy mixture of Iwerks artistic skill, creating this character out of circles, and Walt, giving him a personality that was unique in animation and remains unique today. In fact Walt’s wife Lillian said that after his passing, she could not watch the early Mickey cartoons because they reminded her so much of Walt.
MN…How much time was spent on the book?
JK… It literally takes years to do a book. The more you start writing, the more you realize what you don’t know! You have to discipline yourself. Sometimes you get artistic spurts, and sometimes you are overwhelmed with hopelessness that the words will never be right. You just have to keep at it. The shortest time for a book I have written was a year and a half. However, it is a little difficult to tell because I often work on two books at once so if I get stuck on one, I hop over to the other until the juices start flowing again.
MN… The cover design on the Book of Mouse is very unique. Who drew it?
JK…That was my design. I have a background as an artist. The design on “Who’s the Leader of the Club” is also mine. I used to do a lot of design work out in Los Angeles, just another hat I wore. I am especially proud of The Book of Mouse cover design
MN…What was the most important part of Mickey’s Career that made him the most recognizable character in the world?
JK… The early black and white cartoons from early 1929 to mid-1930. It took a while for Mickey and Walt to hit their stride. I think those years really established the Mickey Mouse we know and love today. Everything else was just embellishments over that basic foundation.
MN…Do you think that Mickey would be as famous if Ub Iwerks did not stay with Walt after Charlie Mintz hired away his animators?
JK…Without Ub Iwerks, I don’t think there would have been a Mickey Mouse. I think Walt might have created a different character that might have been popular, but Ub contributed significantly to Mickey, especially in the beginning. Later, other artists like Les Clark and Freddie Moore reshaped Mickey. But Iwerks, not just for the fact that he could draw Mickey, but that he could draw hundreds of drawings a day helped the Disney Studio survive and flourish. It takes 24 drawings for one second of animation. Imagine having this artist that could literally turn out an entire cartoon in two weeks by himself, where generally it would take four to six months for several animators
MN…Later in Mickey’s career, story men said it was harder and harder to write stories for him, yet they had no trouble with Donald or Goofy. Do you think they were getting tired of Mickey?
JK…Basically what was happening was complaints were coming from the audiences that if Mickey was getting to violent or mischievous, letters from parents and churches saying “Mickey is our hero” he doesn’t act like that. Many dramatic possibilities were taken away. There was even an unwritten rule at the studio that Mickey couldn’t even fight Pete unless something grievous was done, like kidnapping Minnie. It got so restrictive that Mickey was not allowed to be like the scamp he was in the earlier cartoons. Over time, he became “Suburbanized” and has become the corporate symbol he is today. And then again too, the only person that could really write a good Mickey Mouse story was Walt Disney. But later his attention was scattered around, with feature films, Disneyland and such that he could not devote full attention to Mickey.
MN…What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?
JK…. Oh, just writing it! I look at it now and think “How did I literally sit there for so many years and write this?” But the biggest challenge is letting people know the book exists. There are just so many books out there on the subject that you have to find a way to let people know the book exists and how it is different.
MN…In “Who’s the Leader of the Club, Walt Disney’s Leadership Lessons” is another take on Walt that has never been done before in this way. How did you decide on this unique approach to the subject? It is basically how Walt led the company.
JK… Yes that is essentially it. Some people have a tendency to put me in a little niche; he’s just a Disney Historian, he’s just a teacher, etc. I have a background in business; I ran my own businesses back in California. When I interviewed the Disney Cast Members that had worked with Walt, I didn’t just ask about the parks or animation, but how did Walt do things. When I moved to Florida, I spent time with people like Sully Sullivan who had been trained by Walt and worked with him in leadership positions. When I worked at the Disney Institute, I worked for the business program, designing and customizing programs for companies like Kodak, Toys “R” Us and Price Waterhouse. I wrote the book because there are a lot of books about how Disney does business today but none about how Walt and Roy did it.
MN…So the book is on not the results, but how Walt achieved the results?
JK… Yes, how he got the results and how you can use that same approach to get results in your business whatever it is. The Disney Company is ignoring some of these lessons; there are things in this book that Disney as a company has not taught in over 20 years. I know this because I worked at the Disney University. The book is rich in Walt’s quotes and stories. It gives a different perspective of Walt. Most think of him as a storyteller or artist. Many forget that he was a leader. The decisions he made and why they were made created a unique business model. Also the partnership between Walt and Roy and how they made things happen together is a much more involved story than people think. The book is divided into three sections…The difference between leaders and managers, seven lessons that Walt did as a leader, and the third section is about the bad decisions that Walt made. And all of these lessons can be applied to any business today. They are timeless lessons.
MN…Many people, even historians do not realize the immense contribution Roy Disney made behind the scenes. Do you think that Walt would have been successful as he was if Roy was not his business partner?
JK…No. The focus in the book is the balance between Walt and Roy and how their different skills and perspectives balanced out and helped each other. I think without the two of them together, Walt might have just ended up working for another animation studio as a story man, and Roy might have just stayed a bank manager. Both working together created magic and each had a different approach to handling things that made the business work.
MN…Walt was also known to be a hard man to work for, a micromanager. This caused much tension among many of his staff. Do you believe this was a major flaw in his character?
JK… It could go either way. When you are micromanaged, you feel you are not vested in the project and that you are being second guessed or forced to go a certain way, but on the other hand, having someone intimately involved, brings something extra to the table including the knowledge that the boss is completely committed to you being the best you can be. Much has to do with personalities, some were inspired by it, others felt that “don’t change the way I draw, that’s my style. You hired me for what I can do”. Walt would get excited and sometimes not even know he was micromanaging. Ben Sharpsteen, Walt’s second in command in the 1930’s when he retired had a little ranch and Walt came to visit and began making suggestions on how to improve his home. Ben said jokingly…”One of the nice things about retirement is I don’t have to listen to you anymore. I can do it my way.”
MN…Can you give some examples from the book why Walt was such an artistic genius?
JK… There is a chapter entitled…”Take a calculated risk” Walt did much research; he always knew where he was headed. When he researched “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, he even traveled to different countries, watching theaters running an hour compilation of his shorts, seeing that people would sit watching cartoons for that long so they would probably sit for a full length cartoon feature. He experimented with the Silly Symphonies, color, even what shades of color would work best. So his genius came from doing his homework, so to speak, and then taking a risk, a leap of faith. He wasn’t afraid of trying new things and he wasn’t upset when they failed. He just went on to the next thing with everything he had learned.
MN…So we have here are two new books that cover Walt and Mickey in a way never approached before. They are easy reading and should be on every Disney fans’ bookshelf. Where can these books be purchased?
JK… They are available at the Disney Family Museum, but the easiest place would be Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. They are offered in paperback, Kindle, digital and in 2015 they will be available on audio if we get things worked out. You can always go to the publisher’s website: www.themeparkpress.com to learn more and keep up to date.
MN…Jim, it looks like you have two major books available again for the Disney fans. I want to thank you for your time and am looking forward to future releases.
JK… You are more than welcome! It is always a joy being interviewed by you.