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Directing the Walt Disney Archives, she’s practically perfect in every way
Becky Cline watches over the company’s vast trove of artifacts
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The script from Steamboat Willie, the cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse. A model of Cinderella Castle from Walt Disney World. An original vehicle from Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds. The snow globe from Mary Poppins. These and tens of millions of other artifacts are carefully documented and tucked away at the Walt Disney Archives.
Presiding over this repository of some of the world’s most recognizable and beloved items is Becky Cline, who has been with the Walt Disney Company for 34 years. I sat down with Cline to learn more about the Archives and to trace her journey as the chief keeper of the Disney flame.
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“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing–that it was all started by a mouse,” Walt Disney famously said. Apparently, he took his own words to heart. Always focused on what was coming next, Walt wasn’t especially sentimental about what he and his company had already created. However, he kept the original Steamboat Willie script close at hand in his office desk throughout his life.
The late Dave Smith, who founded the Walt Disney Archives, discovered it when he catalogued Walt’s office in 1970. It was his first official project as the company’s archivist. Cline, who succeeded Smith as director of the Archives, cites the script as one of the most consequential holdings in the vast library of items she and her team oversee. Beyond its obvious significance to the Disney legacy, Cline says it is of historic importance to the larger film industry because it is the first known instance of storyboarding, a concept that has subsequently been used in the preproduction process for virtually every movie.
So, how did Cline end up taking the helm from Smith to safeguard items such as the Steamboat Willie script and pilot the Archives?
“We were a Disney family,” the Southern California native says, describing her childhood. Cline recalls making her first of many trips to Disneyland when she was about four years old, not long after the Enchanted Tiki Room opened. “We watched Walt every Sunday night on TV. Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever saw,” Cline adds, noting that it remains one of her favorites. Her adoration of the company continued as she got older. “I was never not a fan of Disney.”
It didn’t occur to her, however, that she might one day work for the company. Nor did Cline intend to be a librarian or an archivist. Instead, she pursued another one of her passions and was a theater major in college, studying both technical theater and acting. When theater work couldn’t fully pay her bills after graduation, it was another one of her interests, reading, that led Cline to a job at a rare books library.
“I fell in love with library work,” the accidental librarian says, adding that she continued to produce, direct, and perform at community theater in her spare time. It was a friend that worked at Disneyland and knew Cline loved all things Disney who told her about a job opening at the Archives.
“I wasn’t even aware that the company had an archives,” Cline says. Upon learning about it, however, she thought it perfectly weaved together her multi-faceted interests in Disney, library sciences, and entertainment. “It was the best of all worlds.”
Alas, by the time she contacted Smith, he had already filled the position. But he invited Cline to meet with him and encouraged her to apply for other jobs within the company. She ended up working for the Disney Home Video division at the studio, but kept in touch with Smith and his small staff of five employees.
Cline’s persistence paid off, and she eventually landed a job at the Archives in 1993. Working hard and learning everything she could, she took on more responsibility and advanced in the ranks. Her theatrical training came in handy as she used her staging skills and familiarity with costumes and props to start a dimensional collections department at the Archives.
When both Smith and Robert Tieman, Archives manager, retired in 2010, Cline became director. The Archives have grown considerably under her watch. With the expansion of the theme parks and Disney Cruise Line along with the addition of the Muppets, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Entertainment, 21st Century Fox, ABC, and ESPN to the Disney fold, there’s way, way more stuff to archive. For example, the Disney studio alone accounts for about 5 million photos and publicity materials in the Archives. With the other studios, the photo library has swelled to about 25 million. The Archives’ main office is at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, but it stores items in warehouses throughout the area.
Smith was the sole employee when he started the Archives. Today, Cline oversees a team of 42. The staff members bring a variety of disciplines to their jobs. Beyond those with library skills, there are photographers, writers, a digitization team, and folks with backgrounds in fields such as fashion and museums.
For aspiring Becky Clines who might want to work at the Archives and help preserve items such as Cinderella’s ball gown, Audio-Animatronics figures, and a 20-foot-long model of the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the director recommends that people follow their passions and learn as much as possible about Disney. But, she warns, despite a growing staff, there might not be many openings.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” Cline says. “People love it here, and they stay.”
The Walt Disney Archives is more than just a collection of photos and artifacts. From a very young age, the company touches people’s lives in often deep and profound ways.
“We are taking care of [fans’] friends and their childhood memories,” says Cline, reflecting on the work she and her team perform. “We feel that very keenly.”
What item(s) would you most want to check out in the Walt Disney Archives? Would you want to work at the Archives?