Sixty years ago, a very different kind of Disney magic started with an unassuming business card from 1949 that simply stated: “The famous Firehouse Five. We play for dances, picnics, weddings, wakes. Hot Dixieland Jazz Band.” It also had a telephone number so that people could contact the band for bookings.
In the mid-1940s, a group of Walt Disney animators, artists, writers and musicians who loved jazz and collected records would gather around a phonograph at the studio during lunch breaks and play along with the records.
“We used to get together for record sessions, at which the guys would take out their horns and accompany the pros on wax,“ remembered Ward Kimball in the first article about the band written by Robert Greene that appeared in the Record Changer magazine of September 1949. “One day the phonograph broke down, and someone had the startling notion to play without it. To our surprise, it sounded better than when we played with the record! I know it sounds corny but it’s true. And from then on we went on playing in our own strictly ‘no style’ style.”
Originally with leader Ward Kimball on trombone, Clarke Mallery on clarinet, Frank Thomas on piano, Ed Penner on bass sax and Jim McDonald on drums, the group billed itself as the Hugageedy 8 and later as the San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers. Eventually they picked up Johnny Lucas on trumpet and Harper Goff on banjo.
For Disney fans, many of those names are legendary. Among several other accomplishments, Kimball at that time had created the character of Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio; MacDonald, who was well known for supplying sound effects for the animated films, was poised to take over officially doing the voice of Mickey Mouse for a couple of decades; Thomas was doing animation that would soon earn him recognition as one of Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men” and Goff would eventually design the Nautilus for the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and contribute to the design of Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. and Adventureland. Mallery was an animator at the Disney Studio and Penner a storyman.
They found Johnny Lucas at a Halloween party in 1945. Lucas was from Pasadena and did some writing and newspaper work but loved jazz. He was stricken with polio at the age of 16 and was crippled and couldn’t walk. He got around in a wheelchair and since he couldn’t bend his elbow, he devised a trumpet with a long neck.
“While he gets around in his own car, and plays a great many dates in town, you can imagine that it isn’t easy for him. He’s a great guy…charming, quick witted, with a dry sense of humor that is never at rest,” said Kimball at the time.
“Frank’s [Thomas] got a hell of a responsible job as an animation director here at Disney," Kimball added. "He’s the guy in charge of a unit working on specific characters of a sequence in a film. In 1945, Frank was what I call a ‘Ten Cent Store Pianist.’ Everything straight from the sheet music. Gave him the Barrelhouse Piano album, the Brunswick reissue, and that got him started. Frank and the album got together, and we had our piano player. Right now, he’s working out some wonderful rags, and sometimes during intermission, he, Harper and myself get together on piano, banjo and washboard and really go.”
Penner was the only one of the group to have any professional experience. In fact, he had a union card as a saxophone player from 20 years before he teamed up with Kimball’s band.
“When he joined originally, he wanted to play tenor, but the boys told him that tenor was out if he was going to play in their jazz band, and he’d have to be happy with the bass!” Kimball remembered.
The band didn’t have a name so when they were hired to play for a dance, they decided to call themselves the San Gabriel Blue Blowers.
“San Gabriel is a little town near Pasadena where I live," Kimball said with a laugh. "So if it didn’t turn out, the boys figured they’d let them come after me! But it went OK and pretty soon we began to feel like musicians. Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensberg, Ram Hall and Zutie Singleton used to come over to [my] house to play with us. They taught us a great deal…especially Nicholas. He gave us an awful lot of the dos and don’ts.”
Kimball met Harper Goff through their mutual interest in railroading. The two met on an excursion of railroad enthusiasts aboard an old train on the Denver & Rio Grande narrow gauge system in Colorado.
“We were singing old songs, “ Kimball told interviewer Greene, “and this chap, Goff, whom I’d never seen before just happened to have his guitar with him." (Kimball had brought along his harmonica and washboard and they began to play).
"Goff turned out to be a highly successful commercial artist and he was the guy who had to be the banjo for the Firehouse Five," Kimball added. He bought a beautiful long-necked Plectrum banjo which he plays by ear. It’s got a singing tone, much richer than the usual tenor banjo you hear.”
It was when Ward and his wife Betty discussed in 1948 the idea of taking the band along on a Horseless Carriage Club caravan from Los Angeles to San Diego that the band officially became the Firehouse Five. Kimball was a long-time member of the Horseless Carriage Collectors Association, an organization for vintage automobile fans, and, beginning in the 1950s, he contributed wonderfully clever and twisted cartoons to the Horseless Carriage Gazette under the title “Asinine Alley” (a clever twist on the familiar phrase: “Gasoline Alley”).
According to the rules of the Horseless Carriage Club, vehicles could not be newer than 1914.
“As luck would have it,” Kimball stated, “we managed to find a 1914 American La France [fire engine], which we could buy from the City of Venice, California for $225. She was in awful shape.”
Kimball spent six months taking it apart and putting it back together so that “now it look exactly as it did the day it left the factory and naturally, if we were going to ride on it we would have to dress as firemen.”
Ordinary modern fire helmets wouldn’t do for Kimball and he finally found some authentic antique ones by running ads in the firemen’s magazines, stating that the Grizzly Flats Fire Department needed them.
The Grizzly Flats railroad was Kimball’s life-size backyard railroad and it certainly needed a fire department. It included a 1881 Baldwin No. 2 Locomotive running along 650 feet of track.
“I thought an old Railway car would make a good bar. And then when I got that, Betty said, ‘Why not do it up right? You’ve got the coach—now just add a locomotive and you’ll have a complete train!’ Once we started with that we had to restore ‘em! You might as well do it right. Crazy, isn’t it?” Kimball told Greene.
“[The helmets] are real leather and date back 50 or 60 years and we restored them and repainted them,” claimed Kimball in 1949.
He also had the band members polish the brass on the engine and got them trained in using the equipment (all of which was in perfectly usable shape) so that, Kimball claimed, “if we had to, the boys could really put out a fire!”
Why the name Firehouse Five Plus Two? Well, as Kimball coyly told comedian Groucho Marx on the television show, You Bet Your Life (March 18, 1954) when he was a contestant: “Because there are seven of us.”
The fire engine was ready in time for the Horseless Carriage Club caravan down to the San Diego auto show and back as part of the General Petroleum caravan of old vehicles. It was a 250-mile round trip. While aboard the fire engine, the band played in the streets, serenaded firehouses along the way, stopped at schools and disrupted classrooms when children ran out to listen to them, and generally caused all sorts of snarled traffic challenges.
In Laguna, the fire engine veered out of the caravan when it encountered a fire station and briefly blocked the doorway while the band played “Wait Till the Fire Glows, Nellie!”
Ward’s wife, Betty, was also along for the adventure. She wore a straw hat, red and white striped shirt and blue skirt that she made herself. She even put a bouquet of flowers in the fire wagon’s cuspidor.
Also riding along on the engine and playing was Danny Alguire, a New Orleans cornet player, who would become a part of the constantly revolving membership of the band. (For instance, when Harper Goff briefly left to work on the Harvester Calendar he did each year, Nappy La Mare substituted for him.)
One of the things that made the band unique was having a fire siren and alarm bell in their music like Firehouse Stomp, the band’s theme song adapted from the popular march Under the Double Eagle. Kimball insisted it was “not for corn but for fun and for what it adds to the music.”
There were firebell introductions to songs, the fire siren used on the out choruses, washboard, tambourine, castanets, bird whistle, duck call, train whistle and more including playing on salad spoons and dog howls. The performances were always high energy.
However, the sound effects, colorful uniforms and typical Kimball humor and frequent personnel changes never altered the band’s basic sound or its approach to jazz. Certainly, the band played songs that it knew the audience wanted to hear including Tiger Rag, Muskrat Ramble, St. Louis Blues, Bill Bailey, Sweet Georgia Brown and the popular When the Saints Go Marching In. However, the Firehouse Five repertoire also included many of the best traditional jazz compositions from the early years of jazz that were unfamiliar to even some of the genre's enthusiasts.
The band played at various dances, jazz band balls, some college and high school affairs and even a chiropractors’ convention. Kimball even turned down some high-paying jobs in favor of minimum scale jobs that seemed like they would be more fun.
Eventually, years later when Disneyland opened, the band played there, as well. First at the now forgotten Oak’s Tavern in Frontierland and then later at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon and finally in New Orleans Square. The band was also there on Opening Day on July 17, 1955, appropriately at the firehouse on Main Street.
Their “home base” for performing originally was playing Monday nights at the Beverly Cavern in Los Angeles where Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band played during the rest of the week. .
At a New Year’s Eve Party in December 1948, the band performed in a large rehearsal room above Roy Hart’s Drum City, a percussion store on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vine Street in Hollywood, California.
After the performance, the group was approached by Lester Koenig, who had been an assistant producer at Paramount Pictures, as well as a screenwriter. Koenig had recently been blacklisted as a result of The House Un-American Activities Committee and was looking to start a new business. He had written a jazz column for his school paper at Darmouth so he was considering becoming a record producer.
Koenig wrote in the liner notes for the first Good Time Jazz LP: “While the firemen were packing their leather helmets, firebells and sirens, I was introduced to Ward Kimball. ‘Will you record for me?’ I asked politely. ‘What company are you with?’ asked Kimball. ‘None,” I told him. “But if you record for me. I’ll have one!’ A few weeks later (on May 13, 1949) at Radio Engineers’ famous Studio B, in Hollywood, with engineer Lowell Frank at the controls, the first Firehouse Five session began with their theme, Firehouse Stomp.”
Besides Firehouse Stomp and Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me, the band also recorded Fireman’s Lament and San.
Koenig rented a small vacant store near Paramount Studios, and placed a sign in the window that read “Good Time Jazz Record Company”. He and an assistant packed and shipped the two new 10-inch vinyl 78 RPM records at a retail price of 79 cents. Four months later, the Record Changer magazine had a color caricature of the Firehouse Five on the front cover and a five page illustrated feature article about the band written by Robert S. Greene. In the magazine it stated that “Ward Kimball is the daring young man on the sliding trombone.”
Soon after the first recording session, bass saxophonist Ed Penner switched over to tuba. Scheduling conflicts caused Lucas and McDonald to bow out of the band. Their replacements were cornetist Danny Alguire and drummer Monte Mountjoy. Kimball remained the only constant in the band during its more than 30 years of performing, although reportedly Disney musician George Bruns would occasionally substitute for Kimball at performances. Sometimes Kimball would wear a tin badge that said “Fire Chief.” During the next 20 years, the Firehouse Five Plus Two would participate in 30 recording sessions and recorded 150 tunes for a dozen albums that fortunately are currently available on CD. (Interestingly, those first recordings of four songs for Good Time Jazz have never been reissued on LP or CD.)
The band played at celebrity hangouts like the Mocambo nightclub and appeared several times on Bing Crosby’s Chesterfield radio program, on television with Ed Wynn, Milton Berle and the very first Walt Disney Christmas television special in 1950, among countless other appearances, including one on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show. In addition, the band was seen in the movies Grounds For Marriage and Hit Parade of 1951 and was the first jazz band to play the Rose Parade in Pasadena.
The band appealed to the general public, but they were also a huge hit with jazz fans, playing to large crowds at the Frank Bull-Gene Norman “Dixieland Jubilees” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, they made several journeys north to play at Hambone Kelly’s, Club Hangover and at the old Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada. Often jazz greats joined the performances as featured guests.
In later years, Ward Kimball described the major influences which shaped the Firehouse style: “Jelly Roll Morton for his imagination and humor; Lu Watters for his simplicity and beat and Guy Lombardo for his brother!” according to the article “Llabmik Draw Interviews Ward Kimball,” from Southern California Hot Jazz Society Fanfare, January-February, 1969.
The band continued to play great jazz and to maintain their own sound, even with several personnel changes over the decades. Except for a brief hiatus from the spring of 1952 to the fall of 1953, the Firehouse Five Plus Two probably became the most popular and high-profile jazz band of the West Coast Traditional Jazz Revival.
In 1971, the Firehouse Five Plus Two officially played its last gig, a car show at the Anaheim Convention Center on November 17. The members of the band had changed significantly over the years. Danny Alguire had been sidelined by a stroke, but Don Kinch was flown in from Portland, joining Ward Kimball, George Probert, K.O. Eckland (who had replaced Frank Thomas on piano), Billy Newman, George Bruns and Eddie Forrest for the last time. There wasn’t a dry eye surrounding the stage when the band roared into “Tiger Rag” for the grand finale.
This year will mark 60 years since the band’s recorded debut and almost 40 years since it played its final performance on stage.
In a letter dated August 5, 1988, Kimball wrote: “The band never, repeat, never rehearsed! We never played any of our repertoire twice the same way. I insisted on a simple beat—tuba and bass drum on 1st and 3rd—snare, banjo and piano left hand accenting 2nd and 4th beats. Most of our work was for big dances playing jazz, waltzes, rumbas—you name it! Crazy textures, slide whistle, soprano sax duets, ‘duck call’ choruses, and harmonica solos. For concerts we upped the tempos. I guess you could call it all SIMPLICITY! Let ‘em hear the tune.”
“Don’t get the idea from all this that this is a one man affair. You’ve been getting the story from me, but the band exists as a unit, and no man is any more important than any other one,” said Kimball in 1949 in all earnestness and without even an ounce of his pixieness love of sarcasm
For Disney fans who can’t quite justify buying a jazz album for their Disney collection but would like a sample of this Disney related group, I would suggest maybe picking up The Firehouse Five Plus Two At Disneyland.
(Send an email to Wade Sampson)
Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.