Disney’s “It’s a Small World” was written for the 1964 World’s Fair and John Atkins was there to get a 45-rpm copy of the song.
Atkins was 7 years old when he visited the fair with his grandmother, mother and brother, and that little record started him on the collection he’s been working on since.
About 50 pieces of Atkins’ collection are on display in the People’s Gallery at the Fredericksburg Area Museum, where Atkins will be at 7 p.m. today to talk about the exhibit.
The record, which Atkins eventually got signed by Richard Sherman—half of the Sherman Brothers, who wrote “It’s a Small World”—was just one of the things he picked up at the fair.
Atkins rounded out his fledgling collection that day with mementos from the Ford Motor Company, the state of Illinois, Pepsi-Cola and UNICEF, which all had pavilions at the fair.
“I have things in the exhibit from each of those pavilions at the World’s Fair—production art, souvenirs—that I kept as a kid.” Atkins said. “I showcase some of those along with other memorabilia from parks and/or films that were part of the Disney company—things that people wouldn’t normally see.”
Atkins said the point of his collection is to tell the stories of the people behind Disney, like the one about Mary Blair who worked on Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Song of the South” and “Cinderella.”
Atkins has a piece by Blair that she did while she was on a South American tour with Disney.
“I have a pastel that she did while she was in South America with Walt at the direction of Franklin Roosevelt,” Atkins said. “The Nazis were invading and getting comfortable in South America. This was in the mid-40s and Walt took a bunch of artists down there on a goodwill tour.”
Atkins said getting the Blair piece was “one of my major finds” and he’ll bring it to the exhibit, along with more of his collection. Other works by Blair are also included in the exhibit.
“One of them is on display at the museum now, and I will bring some others with me. A lot of her style was developed during the trip,” Atkins said.
People who attend the free event will get to see other bonus pieces, as well, Atkins said.
“I’m going to bring pieces that are not on display for this special evening, so that people can see some of the other work,” Atkins said. “I think people will be interested in the backstory behind those pieces, which I can certainly give them because I’ve met most of the artists.”
“A Magical Collection” also includes figurines, or maquettes, of Pinocchio, Geppetto and Stromboli from the 1940 animated film “Pinocchio.”
Atkins said the Disney animators, who drew everything by hand, used the maquettes to make their drawings.
“The sculptures give them the 3D vision of what the character would look like,” said Atkins, the owner of Lewis Insurance Associates in Stafford. “They could turn it around and look at it and so forth while they were drawing.”
Another piece, perhaps Atkins’ favorite in the exhibit, is the electric chair from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” by director Tim Burton, a one-time Disney animator.
The exhibit also includes a rare, complete, “Haunted Mansion” butler’s costume, circa 1971, original concept art from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and a set of mouse ears from the Mouseketeers’ 50th anniversary, which are signed by many of the original Mouseketeers who were still alive in 2005.
Atkins said it’s hard to value one piece over another, but one good find was a pumpkin prop from “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” He found it online and got it for a fraction of its value.
“Believe it or not, it was on eBay. It was a pumpkin from Curlicue Hill. It was a prop and I just saw it on eBay years ago, and I bought it,” Atkins said. “I was contacted by several collectors later questioning how much I paid for it. I really did get a really good deal on it. Those things can bring thousands of dollars at auction.”
Atkins said he isn’t much interested in selling any of his collection even though some of it could be worth quite a bit.
“Right now, I have no plans to sell anything. My long-term plan, when I retire, is to donate these pieces to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco,” Atkins said of his collection of roughly 500 pieces. “It’s a nonprofit and these things should be curated properly and used and studied in a museum setting.”
Atkins said his collection, some of which was amassed at conventions across the country, is all part of a narrative about the behind-the-scenes, Disney story.
“I’m filling in gaps in the story that I’m telling. You’re putting together a collection from a certain perspective to tell a story,” Atkins said. “It’s about the artists, the people involved. I couldn’t care less about a big corporation. That doesn’t excite me at all. Anything I buy fills in those gaps and expands the story that I’m telling.
“A lot of people, when they think of Disney, they think of the animation cells. By the time it gets to that point, those things are really paint by the numbers, because of the form was done,” Atkins said.
Atkins wants to show the hard work it takes to bring a Disney product to the public.
“I want people to be aware of the creativity that goes into projects before they go to a film or to a theme park. A lot of work goes into it, and I want people to realize that these are real people behind these magical things that you see. That’s the kind of thing I think is fun.”