Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Few Questions With...Jim Korkis

by Keith Mahne

Today, we return to a VERY popular segment here on Disney Avenue called A Few Questions With... where I interview popular figures in the Disney stratosphere. Famous author, Disney historian and the "go to" guy on Walt and all things Disney for that matter, Mr. Jim Korkis joins us! I know you'll thoroughly enjoy Jim's responses and we want to extend a sincere thank you to Jim for his time. Without further ado, here now is A Few Questions With... Jim Korkis...

Jim Korkis with Dave Smith, founder and former chief archivist of the Walt Disney Archives

 DA: First, tell us a little about yourself prior to joining the Walt Disney Company.

JK:  That is a really long story, but let me hit a few highpoints.  I got my B.A. and M.A. from Occidental College (the same college President Obama attended).  I spent several years teaching Junior High English and Drama.  At the same time, I was pursuing an acting career both on stage and in television and movies.  People are most fascinated that I earned “scale” (minimum payment for an actor) by appearing on game shows like The Gong Show, The Dating Game, Family Feud and Camouflage.   In my spare time I operated a mail order company called Korkis and Cawley’s Cartoon and Comic Company selling animation art, animation videos, etc. with my friend John Cawley who at the time was the producer of the animated Garfield show.  We also wrote four books together about animation and individually wrote articles about animation.  For instance, I wrote a monthly column for Animation magazine called “Animation Anecdotes”.   The articles I wrote about Disney were mostly animation oriented at the time.
DA: What sparked your passion for Walt Disney and making sure his stories are preserved for future generations?
JK: Since I grew up in Glendale, California which is directly adjacent to Burbank where the Disney Studios are, I had the opportunity when I was a teenager to meet many of the Disney animators.  I even considered becoming an animator but I became a good enough artist to know how bad I really was.

About ten years ago, the realization hit me that not everyone had this same opportunity and some of these legends told me stories that didn’t appear anywhere else.  I felt the obligation to start sharing some of these tales for current fans and for future researchers. 

Even when I first interviewed them, I realized these people were really old.  Sometimes I was the last person they talked to before they passed away.  Royal Clark (the brother of Disney Legend Les Clark) had never been interviewed before and he died just two days after approving the final draft of the interview I and Didier Ghez had done with him.

I was the last opportunity for some of these people to share their perspective and memories of working for Disney.

DA: How did you get involved with the Walt Disney Company?

 JK: The big joke in California was I was the most Disney person people knew but I wasn’t working for the company.  In 1995, both my parents developed serious health issues and I decided I could always find another job but not another set of parents.  I sold my house at a loss, quit my job and moved out to Florida with no job prospects. 
I got hired part time doing magic and balloon animals for drunk college students at Pleasure Island.  Disney moved me up to being a “friend” of Merlin doing the Sword in the Stone ceremony during the week and Prospector Pat, an old gold miner, on the weekends in Frontierland.  Then I moved to the role of salaried animation instructor as part of the opening team of the Disney Institute.

Jim Korkis being "friends" with Merlin

DA: Did you always know you wanted to work for the WDC in some way?

JK: Absolutely. My third grade teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Glendale was Mrs. Margaret Disney, the second wife of Walt’s older mailman brother Herbert. I grabbed a sheet of butcher paper and drew Jiminy Cricket in the hopes she would take it immediately to the Disney Studio so they would hire me and I wouldn’t have to learn my multiplication tables. Apparently, portfolio review was backed up for decades. I still have difficulty with numbers. Yes, it was a dream to work for Disney some day and amazingly, my dream came true.

DA: Do you remember what your first day was like?

JK: Well, my first day working doing balloons and magic was tough because I wasn’t clear on Disney jargon and procedure offstage.  On stage, there really were drunk college students who twice threw up on me while I was making a balloon or doing a simple magic trick.  The thing I remember most about my first day is that I really felt a part of the “Disney family”, as if I truly had the keys to the kingdom.

DA: What are some of the positions you have held?

JK: Balloon and magic specialty performer for Pleasure Island, Merlin and Prospector Pat for the Magic Kingdom, Animation instructor for the Disney Institute, Spokesperson for the WDW Travel Company product launch (where I spoke to groups of 200 or more travel agents in 30 different cities in a ten week block), Epcot Guest Relations Host, Coordinator of College and International Programs, Coordinator of Disney Learning Center, Off camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom, facilitator for the Disney Crew (a Disney anti-drug puppet show for local elementary schools), Coordinator with Disney Adult Discoveries (the behind the scenes tours for guests and convention groups) and lots more.

DA: What was the best thing about working for WDC?

JK: I tell people that you can love the Disney Brand while still having concerns about the Disney Business.  Feeling that I was a part of Walt’s organization and making a contribution.  Making people happy.  Having access to some of Walt’s “original cast”.  Learning so much more about WDW because I had grown up a “Disneyland Kid”. 

DA: Michael Eisner and Frank Wells really took the company, as well as the parks and resorts, to a whole new level while in charge. Did you have any experiences working with them directly?

JK: I never met Frank Wells and I am sorry I didn’t because he was well loved and respected.  I met Michael Eisner three times in person when I worked at the Disney Institute.  Each time he seemed distracted by other things and wanted me to get to the point quickly.  He had no time for friendly idle chatter.  I saw this same type of interaction with others.  Eisner did not grow up as a “Disney Kid” and didn’t seem to care about understanding the Disney culture.  However, I believe that in the beginning, he opened up a lot of different doors for the Disney company which helped make it the successful entertainment empire it is today.

DA: Out of all the popular figures that have worked for either Walt or the company, whom do you most admire?

JK: Walt, of course.  No one else even comes close.  Next would be his older brother Roy, who I think is sadly underrated for his many contributions to Disney.  Then, it would be a huge swirling mix of names like Kay Kamen, Dick Nunis, Dick Irvine, Joe Fowler, John Hench...  Gosh, Keith, I would have a list filled with animators and Imagineers, and more.  But Walt is always number one.  No matter how many people left the company over the years, Disney still maintained a standard of quality and integrity thanks to Walt.

DA: Is there anyone in particular that you give credit for taking you under their wing and helping you along your wonderful career?

JK: There were a lot of “angels on Earth” who helped me but one that I constantly bring up is Kaye Bundey who was the manager of Disney Adult Discoveries.  She was firm but fair and always encouraging.  I got the opportunity to design, train and facilitate so many programs under her mentorship.


DA: What was your favorite project?

JK: Writing the original script for UnDiscovered Future World for Epcot.   I was working at the Disney Institute and Epcot Guest Relations called me over to write one fifth of a walking tour for Future World.  I never cared for Epcot but as I started to research and interview people, I finally “got” what Epcot was supposed to be.  I turned in my section weeks early.  It turned out that none of the other four people in Guest Relations was interested in actually researching and writing so I was given another fifth, and then another and finally, I had written the whole thing.  Later I worked with Brad Anderson of Guest Relations to continue to update and expand it as it continued.  The success of that script got me invited to be part of Epcot Guest Relations and that led to roles with College and International Programs and the Disney Learning Center.

DA: What is your fondest memory while working for the company?

JK: Picking the fondest moment is like picking your favorite child.  You love them all for different reasons.  If you asked me on another day, I might pick something else but something that has been on my mind is meeting Walt’s oldest daughter at a Disneyana convention.  I was instructing some programs for the participants and I got taken back stage to meet Diane officially.  She had always been shy and wanted out of the spotlight so while I had met her briefly in California, it was no more than a “nice to meet you”.  Even at this Disneyana convention it had not been announced she would be attending.  She shared with me that she felt she would be boring to the audience or that they might swarm the stage and poke at her like a Disney collectible.  That meeting opened the door slightly so that I felt comfortable asking some questions.  It later evolved into a nice friendship.   She was always so supportive. 

DA: What is your hope for the future of the company?

JK: My hope for the company is that it once again becomes a leader in both animation and theme parks.  I believe this can happen by them going back to how Walt did things.  Yes, there is new technology, new competition, more aggressive stockholders today but I think going back to Walt’s concepts….that the park attractions should be accessible by families, that leadership needs to be done with common sense and cast member involvement, that things shouldn’t be “nickled and dimed”, etc…would once again establish the company as the leader. 

DA: Would you like to see more attractions developed from original storylines in the US parks?

JK: I would love to see attractions built that the entire family can enjoy together, regardless of weight or height or medical restrictions. Walt was not fond of thrill rides because they separated families.  I think people still love Disney characters.  Look at the wait to meet Anna and Elsa from Frozen.  Imagine how many guests would love to sail pass scenes from that film.  I would love to see an attraction themed around the Fab Five.  But, as Walt said, a good story is a good story so original storylines could work.  After all, Pirates and Haunted Mansion were original stories.  However, I think what makes a Disney theme park different is the Disney characters….not Muppets or Star Wars or Marvel.  People want to see those but I think their first priority is the Disney storylines.

DA: Which park is your favorite?

JK: Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, Disneyland was always my favorite, even when I moved to Florida.  However, I do have a real fondness for Disney Hollywood Studios because I love old movies, I love Disney and I love that the original design for the park was very much like Disneyland.  Both Disneyland and DHS are “intimate” experiences.  They are comforting and healing.  The other parks just seem too big and chaotic.  They are spectacular but they don’t inspire me and touch me like the smaller parks.  

DA: What changes, if any, would you like to see take place in the parks?


JK: I would love to see more frequent maintenance on the classic attractions, perhaps with some updating.  I feel the introduction of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates does not ruin the original story experience but that for newer Disney fans, it truly enhances the experience.  I would love to see more benches and shaded seating areas for people to sit and enjoy the parks.  I would love to see more live entertainment in the parks.  My favorite park show will always be Hunchback of Notre Dame at DHS.  When I was younger, I loved seeing the Kids of the Kingdom perform with the Disney characters.  I would love to see the Golden Horseshoe Revue and Merlin return.  

I do not want to see more merchandise areas.  I think the biggest mistake ever made at WDW was the removal of Center Street at the Magic Kingdom to put an extension of the Emporium that sold the exact same things that were available all over WDW.    I feel the gutting of the cinema for another merchandise location is another mistake.  Walt knew that not every square inch had to be profit generating.  Sometimes the space could just make you feel good…so you then went and bought something because you are happy.  If WDW has to have more merchandise stores, I would love them to be exclusive and specific to the parks and with a wider variety (for instance, a book store that sold current books and vintage books).

DA: What changes, if any, would you like to see take place within the WDC?

JK: In my fifteen years as a cast member, I saw a shift that if you could manage an Old Navy store or a Burger King, then you could manage something on Disney property.  That was never true.  Everyone talks about the Disney Difference but today we see executives trying to run things the way Universal does or McDonalds does or whatever.  Instead of leadership adapting to the Disney Culture, they twisted the Disney business to operate just like any other business.  I would also like to see more emphasis on the guests rather than on things designed to take more of their money.  When did pins stop being a magical inexpensive physical memory of a Disney trip and become this overwhelming cold commodity where Disney is not satisfied that you buy a pin but that you have to buy multiple sets.  Even pin trading by cast members has shifted from being a fun interaction with a guest to a “push” to sell more pins.

DA: Can you tell us what happened towards the end of your tenure with Disney?

JK: I came to work early and was setting things up, making sure computers and printers worked in the Epcot Learning Center.  One of the executives came to the open door and asked if she could talk with me briefly.  That was not unusual.  They often came to me for a Walt quote or story to use in their weekly newsletter.  I went outside and she was down the hall.  I figured she didn’t want to talk in front of the door in case cast members started to come in.  She turned a corner and I was in a small room with a little man wearing glasses behind a desk saying, “We would like to thank you for all your contributions but your role has been eliminated.  Please turn in your I.D. and this security guard will walk you to your car.”   I had won the Partners in Excellence award that was given to about the top five percent of the cast who worked at WDW.  I had a folder bulging with letters of praise from guests, vice presidents and more.  At the time, I was doing close to two hundred and fifty different presentations to different Disney departments across property.  The week before I had finished a last minute “rush job” for Imagineering in my spare time on the history of the Golden Oak Ranch.  I had a zero absentee record and often filled in at the last moment for others in my department who phoned in sick.   That same week, WDW eliminated another three thousand cast members and never told anyone who was eliminated.  People who called the Learning Center were told for two weeks, “Jim isn’t working today” not that I had been let go.  Some people think I still work there when they see me on property.

Check out Jim's new book:

DA: Are you working on anything presently?

JK: There is a brand new book coming out June 1st.  It is called Who’s the Leader of the Club?  Walt Disney’s Leadership Lessons.  One of my roles at WDW was being called in by the Professional Business programs to research, design and facilitate customized classes for clients like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Feld Entertainment, Toys “R” Us, Kodak and so many more to make connections between their companies and Disney and also how Walt ran the company.   In addition, when I was interviewing Walt’s original cast in California and Florida, I wasn’t just asking about animation, Imagineering, and such but about Walt himself and how he ran the business.  There is a Walt quote (sometimes several) and stories on every page so it will appeal to a Disney fan but there are also strong leadership lessons….including a chapter devoted to everything that Walt did wrong as a leader.  Last week, the Disneyland Resort COMPASS diversity group flew me out to Disneyland to give a presentation on Asian-Pacific heritage and Disney history.  Coming out this Fall will be Vault of Walt Volume 3.  I continue to write weekly columns for MousePlanet and articles and blogs for AllEars.  In addition, I write a weekly column for CartoonResearch on animation history in general. 

DA: How do you go about your research which has made you the “go to” person on all things Disney?

JK: I have a massive collection of books, vintage magazines and newspapers.  I have many friends who are also Disney Historians (a term I coined in the 1980s to explain what I do).  I have a collection of interviews I have done with Disney cast members as well as access to friends who also have massive interview collections.  Unlike other Disney historians, I have a wide range of Disney interests from animation to comic books to the parks to Walt himself.  Most Disney historians tend to specialize like Disney during World War II or just Disneyland when Walt was alive or just Carl Barks and his version of Donald Duck.  I love them all.  

I always try to find three independent sources before I list something.  If the story is just too good not to share but I can find the verification, then I write “reportedly” or “supposedly”.   Just because I can’t locate the verification, if it is out there, maybe someone else can.   I try my best to be careful because there is a lot of false or misleading information out there.

DA: What is one thing you could tell us about Walt Disney that many people may not know?

JK: Walt Disney loved the sport of lawn bowling and was quite the champion of the sport at his Smoke Tree Ranch vacation home in Palm Springs.   He kept nuts and crackers in his pockets so he could have a quick snack.  In his apartment over the Disneyland firehouse, he slept on a pull out sofa bed under a framed photo of his mother.  He liked to make grilled cheese sandwiches in that apartment.

DA: Finally, what do you think is the number one thing that has made Walt Disney so special to all of us today?

JK: He loved us all regardless of race, creed, color, weight, education, experience or whatever.  Everything he did was not to make money but to make people happy.  There has never ever been anyone else like him.   Some have come close like Jim Henson but no one ever made it.



There you have it, good stuff huh? Once again, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to Jim Korkis for answering our questions. If you want to learn more in depth history on Walt and his company be sure to check out Jim's books below. Oh, and don't forget to like us on Facebook.



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