I am deeply saddened to learn the news of my friend and fellow Disney fanatic, Jim Korkis at the age of 72. How to sum of the life and prolific work of this popular and much-loved Disney historian?
I made an attempt in 2013 in contributing this commendation for the back cover of his then latest book, The Vault of Walt Volume 2: Other Unofficial Disney Stories Never Told. I wrote:
In Disney’s world of mice and ducks, the indefatigable Jim Korkis is a veritable terrier: tracking down juicy stories, sniffing out intriguing incidents and digging up forgotten facts! His encyclopaedic knowledge and dedication to research are matched by an incomparable narrative skill that effortlessly educates and enlightens in the most enthusiastic, engaging and entertaining way.
Of course it would have been better if I'd started by saying: "In Disney’s world of mice ducks and dogs..." but it's too late now.
Jim and I had a long-running correspondence that touched on many matters Disneyesque: specific films and characters obviously, but also Jim's former career within the Company and his, often feisty, commentaries of the changing face of 'Disney Inc.'; mostly however, we corresponded about our shared passion for 'Classic Disney', by which we meant the life and work of the Man Himself.
As I wrote today on the 'Disney History Institute's' Facebook page:
...Jim was a wonderful human being and an indomitable enthusiast; he poured his humanity and enthusiasm into everything he did and wrote. I have read, used and contributed to his many volumes and I have enjoyed them for their diligent research, clarity of storytelling and, most of all, their HUGE sense of fun and delight. Jim had a passionate love of all things Disney and he never wearied of passing on his passion and knowledge with the rest of us who shared that love. Thank you for your work, Jim, and your friendship. I will miss you and whatever your next few books would have been...
Remembering Jim prompts me to share the Foreword I wrote to his 2017 book, The Vault of Walt: Volume 6: Other Unofficial Disney Stories Never Told...
I have something to get off my chest: despite having spent a disproportionate part of my life collecting and writing about all things Disney, my earliest encounter with the Mousetro’s work proved deeply traumatic for me and acutely embarrassing for my parents.
What ended as a nightmare had begun as a treat for my fourth birthday: a visit to a now-long-gone British institution, the News Theatre on London’s Waterloo Station. Open daily, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., the News Theatre screened a continuous program of newsreels, comedy one-reelers and cartoons. On this particular day, the bill featured the vintage 1938 Disney short, Brave Little Tailor, in which Mickey Mouse, in the title role, tackles an enormous Giant in order to win the hand of the Princess Minnie. At a crucial point in this drama, Mickey hides in a cart laden with pumpkins and, when the giant grabs a handful as a snack, Mickey finds himself being hurled into the Giant’s mouth. Dodging the pumpkins as they hurtle by him like bowling balls, he only avoids being swallowed by hanging onto the Giant’s uvular. These antics were, naturally, greeted with hilarity by every other youngster in the cinema – but not, unfortunately, by me! Terrified at the mouse-threatening scenario unfolding before me in the dark, I screamed and screamed until my humiliated parents bundled me out of the theatre and rushed me off to the nearest café to pacify me with tea and buns.
I make this confession as it may help to explain the fixation with Disney that has obsessed me virtually ever since that harrowing day! Without that shock to my young system, that jolt to my nascent psyche, would I have co-authored several books on Disney topics (from Mickey Mouse and Snow White to Mary Poppins) or made several dozen hours of radio programmes for the BBC about Uncle Walt, his company and movies? Probably not.
One of the by-products of this career (of which I’ve only provided the sketchiest of detail since I’m taking up space in somebody else’s book on Disney) is the occasional invitation to write a foreword such as the one I’m just about to get down to writing here.
Within the annals of cinema history there is a small but growing coterie of dedicated scribes who are dubbed Disney Historians. There is an urgent imperative to chronicle the life and times of Walt Disney and the achievements of his studio because it is the story of many people, most of whose contributions have only begun to be recorded in the past 50 years since the death of the man whose internationally recognised signature came to represent the combined talents of an army of artists, writers, musicians and technicians.
Some of us of a certain age can still recall when there were scarcely more than a handful books about the art and industry of Disney. Today there are shelf-loads of such books – representing a wide range of approaches from the academic and authoritative via the critical to the anodyne and scurrilous. Nevertheless, there are still first-hand recollections needing to be recorded and new chapters of the story waiting to be written – not to mention the tedious task of correcting inaccuracies and remedying misconceptions.
One of the most prolific of these Disney historians is the indefatigable Jim Korkis (“At last!” you say, “This Foreword is finally getting to the point!”) whose Disney Vault you are about to enter.
I first met the Vault Keeper sixteen years ago, on 5 December (Walt's birthday) 2001. We were in the VIP lounge of the Norway pavilion in EPCOT and, whilst I no longer recall the reason for that choice of venue, I mention it since the fact that EPCOT has a Norway VIP lounge will be, for some, an irresistible piece of Disney park trivia eagerly learned.
After signing a book of mine for Jim (despite my protestations that the only valuable copies are the unsigned ones) he gave me a cracking interview for one of my radio shows as a result of which I immediately had the measure of Jim’s talent: he was, like Shakespeare’s clown Autolycus, "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", by which I mean that he collected a wealth of information that others had overlooked or disregarded and stored it away in his vast memory-bank – or, you could say, vault!
Korkis books are always filled with these discoveries, fashioned together so as to create a series of diverse narratives of varying – but satisfyingly appropriate – length where the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
Jim is a born teller of tales, able to engage, excite, intrigue and amuse us with stories that reveal not just his talent for research but also his gift of infectious enthusiasm. If something fascinates Korkis he will make sure we share his fascination. This is not surprising since he has met and talked with dozens of Disney animators and those theme park wizards known as ‘Imagineers’ and has been writing about them and their genius boss for three-and-a-half decades.
Looking through the table of contents I can’t quite decide where I’ll start: maybe with the stories about Walt’s enthralment with Abe Lincoln and Charlie Chaplin; or, perhaps, with the appreciation of Disney Park Dinosaurs; or, possibly, with the articles on the Oscar-winning documentary, Seal Island, and the zany comedy that introduced the world to car 53 – Herbie, the Love Bug. Wherever I start, I can guarantee to be riveted and end up knowing immeasurably more than when I started.
In view of the distressing recollection with which I began this Foreword, I was wondering if an essay on Disney Giants might be on offer; but it really doesn’t matter because Jim can always add it to the possible contents list for his next foray into the Disney Vault; meanwhile (since I’ve detained you far too long already), you can start enjoying this one. Right, then! Off you go…
Well, what are you waiting for? Off you go to your bookseller-of-choice and get your hands on one of Jim's many books on Disney, maybe this one, published last year when he knew he was battling the disease that has finally taken him from us to that enchanted Neverland that created by the Dream-merchant whose work he loved and ceaselessly celebrated.