Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #26: The Revised Vault of Walt by Jim Korkis

If there's one thing we've learned from the Internet, it's that there's a cult of everything: there's no media property or kitschy idea or historical era or company so obscure or unpleasant that there aren't at least a dozen people who really love it. And the Internet let those dozen people who really love early Hapsburg Vienna or Gertie the Dinosaur or Soviet medals get together and share their love.

Many of those communities existed before the 'net, of course -- they were big enough to find each other through cruder, less laser-targeted media. And those larger, older communities have grown and flourished in the new era, drawing in people perhaps less fanatic or less connected to begin with. But those communities have also seen schisms and feuds -- particularly the ones that were shepherded and molded and guided by the thing they loved, as the 'net and other modern peer-to-peer channels let individuals speak nearly as loudly, and at least as clearly, as the big media conglomerate they idolized.

The Disney empire is the purest expression of that change that I know: the cult of the Disney company, and the intertwined cult of Walt Disney himself, were built wholesale by first Walt directly, in his press releases and TV appearances and carefully stage-managed interactions with the public, and then by the media conglomerate that kept growing after his death. In the early days, the communication was all one-way: the audience came out for Disney products, from Steamboat Willie to The Three Little Pigs to Snow White to Mickey Mouse Club to World of Color to Disneyland and the other movies and parks and merchandise. And what we knew about Walt Disney and his company were what that company told us, all doled out carefully to make us want to buy the latest Disney thing.

But the cult of Disney, and the interest in both Walt and the company he founded, has been large enough to drive secondary sources for generations now -- the earliest book I can find in a quick search is Robert Feild's The Art of Walt Disney from 1942, and there were likely ones before that -- and there have been several small presses over the years partially or entirely devoted to publishing stories about Disneyiana. There are also dozens of websites about Disney as well -- and tumblrs and blogs and podcasts and Facebook pages, too, not to mention half-dead listservs and BBSes and less likely media. Most of that massive effort is purely and unabashed appreciation; most people don't want to criticize something they love, but to talk entirely about the aspects they do love. But those schisms and feuds turn up as well -- any run through the comments on a Disney book will show an undertone of worry about "haters," people who are seldom seen and always worried about, those folks who do not love The Mouse with all their heart and soul and who deign to cast aspersions on the most perfect kind of happiness mankind has ever invented. (I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly: there really is a coterie of people who love Disney so much they can't stand to think that someone, somewhere, might be criticizing any of it.)

So the majority of books about Disney affect a tone of wonder and joy, striving to ape Disney's own polished corporate communications, though usually ending up rougher than their model. That's fine for most of the target audience, of course, but I am cranky and perfectionist and much more interested in failure than most people. So I'm often disappointed by the hagiographic tone in the standard Disney book, which takes as gospel that nothing Walt or his company ever did could be bad.

Jim Korkis's book The Revised Vault of Walt is solidly in that grand tradition, despite the scandalous-sounding subtitle "Includes FIVE NEW Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told": Korkis is a former longtime Disney employee, for many years researching and presenting Disney history to various internal and external audiences, so he's exceptionally well-placed to tell unique Disney stories. I get the sense that the "former" part may not be entirely his choosing, but he's clearly still a huge Disney booster, and has known and interviewed scores of important and lesser-known people from Disney history. This particular book is a remixed version of the original 2010 Vault of Walt, with some material taken out (to be the core of an eventual second volume) and some new material added. But all of the pieces here were originally published separately as columns in various places, though there's no notice to say where and when. (And I can't blame Theme Park Press for that; a detailed list of original publication dates is very rare in any book these days. I've complained about it repeatedly here, in my Canute-like way.)

The origin of the chapters as individual articles is often glaringly obvious -- Korkis gives the same details multiple times throughout the book, such as the origin of a model-sized Granny's cabin from So Dear to My Heart, because they originally were needed for the separate pieces and he didn't undertake the really deep editing and re-writing that would be required to turn this into a single unified narrative. (Again, I'm not really complaining: my favorite living mystery writer, Lawrence Block, had exactly the same issue with his last "novel," Hit Me. This is very common; the world and its inhabitants disappoint me at every turn.)

Korkis clearly loves Disney, and loves digging out interesting facts -- in the great writing struggle between pellucid prose and information, he comes down solidly on the side of information, shoving in facts and very long quotes wherever he can. Those quotes, though, are often from his own research, so they're primary research material, making Revised Vault even more useful as a reference source for other Disney writers.

Vault's chapters -- again, it makes more sense to think of them as columns or blog posts, each a separate piece of writing here collected together, but not otherwise made into a single thing -- are loosely organized into a few sections, on Walt Disney's life, movies, the parks, and "other worlds" (which mostly could have fit into the other sections with some shoving, had Korkis wanted to). Within each section, there's no clear organizing principle, either -- but you don't expect that in a collection of columns. For example, the section on Walt moves from his love of miniatures to his polo-playing days, then jumps back to his favorite elementary-school teacher, onward to his relationship with religion, back again to his schoolboy days for a look at his newspaper-delivery work, up to his 30th wedding anniversary party just before the opening of Disneyland, and then ends with a look at his favorite food. All of those topics have some interest to the serious Disney fan, I suppose, but anyone would be hard-pressed to explain why they were placed in that order.

But if you dip into Vault rather than reading it straight through, that won't be an issue. And a book of parts like this is designed to be dipped into. I could wish that it was a bit more buttoned-up: the repetition of details edited out, a few typos eliminated, perhaps a tighter editorial hand to organize it all and tame some of the run-on enthusiasms of Korkis's prose. But the core audience will love this book, and will be eagerly waiting for more behind-the-scenes stories from Korkis, who seems to have plenty of them to deliver. So I'm left in a position I'm very familiar with: recognizing that something is exactly what the market wants, but wishing that the market was more demanding.

If you'd like to know what Chuck Jones did in his four-month stint at Disney, or more details on Walt's aborted collaboration with Salvador Dali on Destino, or the exploits of Zorro and Tom Sawyer in Disneyland, or the day Khrushchev didn't visit, or the connection of the FBI to the Mickey Mouse Club, The Revised Vault of Walt will be deeply fascinating. If you have less of an editor's ear for prose than I do -- and the vast majority of people do -- I can recommend it highly.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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