I had an absolutely wonderful time at the Disney Family Museum in July, when I spoke on Walt’s fascination with Outer Space and how he influenced the United States space program. The Disney Family Museum gets my highest recommendation: The staff and volunteers are friendly and professional and the layout of the 10 galleries is exceptional, with lots of surprises in nooks and crannies and many, many treasures to discover.
I flew in on a Friday and my plane arrived at 10 a.m. I checked in at the Westin St. Francis in Union Square (famed for an infamous incident with silent screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle) just two blocks from John’s Grill where I later ate (famed for its inclusion in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon). Not even waiting to unpack, I got a taxi to the museum, where I spent from 10:40 a.m. to 6 p.m. just wandering the galleries without stopping to eat or going to the restroom for fear of missing something.
I would have stayed longer, but the museum closed. I spent some additional hours there Saturday morning before my presentation and still didn’t get to enjoy everything. You can literally go through those galleries 100 times and have 100 different great experiences.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t cover everything I wanted in my one-hour presentation, including information about the unmade fourth Disney space program in the 1950s that was going to be devoted to UFOs. As with everything, there is always more to the story and while researching my presentation for the museum, I uncovered more information about this unmade addition to the Disney trilogy of space shows.
"You must accept one of two basic premises: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone in the universe. And either way, the implications are staggering,” Dr. Werhner von Braun once told an enthralled audience.
In July 1947, a still controversial event took place in New Mexico near the town of Roswell. In addition to the claims of a crashed UFO, alien bodies were said to have been recovered from the site. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Federal Government have repeatedly, over the decades, denied that there was anything extraterrestrial about the event and that is was merely misidentified debris from then classified Air Force projects that caused the initial confusion.
Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists were based nearby at the White Sands Testing Range launching captured German V-2 rockets in an attempt to develop an American rocketry program. Reportedly, von Braun and his associates were taken to the crash site. During World War II, the Germans had developed flying craft that were saucer shaped and experimented with the concepts of anti-gravity. What von Braun claims he saw is a topic for a different website even though he shared that information with animation director Ward Kimball.
In the 1950s, the United States in particular was in the grip of flying saucer mania with multiple sightings, as well as a flood of movies from Hollywood. The Air Force began an official investigation that involved more than 10,000 UFO reports that lasted roughly 20 years and concluded that, with very few exceptions, the reports could all be attributed to explainable phenomena or other misinterpretations.
When Walt Disney needed segments for his weekly Disney television show in 1954 promoting his new theme park, Disneyland, he did not have material for the Tomorrowland section. Animation director Ward Kimball was in-between assignments at the time, but he was still receiving his high weekly salary, so he needed a new project to bill off his time. Walt also felt that Kimball was what he considered a “modern thinker” who was more in touch with some contemporary trends than others on the Disney staff.
“(One thing that) was my interest at the time was the UFO phenomeon. When Walt came to me asking what we should do with the Tomorrowland programs, he said, ‘You’re interested in UFOs and all that stuff…’ And I was. I had stacks of books and magazines all about UFO sightings and I knew someday I would do something on the subject. Even while I was the doing the first three television space shows, this was my idea for the fourth Tomorrowland program,” Kimball told E Ticket magazine in a 1996 interview.
Kimball was indeed always interested in flying saucers. In the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper dated December 10,1958, there was a short news article about an interesting meeting.
Thirty qualified experts (astronomy professors, engineers, photographers, a representative from Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab and more) met at the home of Disney artist Robert Karp in Encino. Also in attendance was Ward Kimball.
“Kimball told the group of the Navy’s concern over the asserted mystery disappearance of several of its jet planes and pilots off the coast of Florida in recent years. He said that a Navy officer at the Pentagon had told him of the Navy’s concern and the inference was that ‘saucers’ might have been responsible for the ‘no evidence’ disappearance of the aircraft,” stated the final paragraphs of the article.
Von Braun was one of the consultants brought in to work on the first Disney television shows. Kimball developed a strong bond with him that included extensive correspondence.
“Von Braun had an imagination and a sense of humor,” Kimball told me when I talked to him. “That was the secret of von Braun: tremendous imagination to see things that other people couldn’t visualize… he [also] knew when to ease the tension with a gag.”
Von Braun would spend the entire day working with different government contractors in the Los Angeles area during the day in connection with the Redstone rocket program. Around 5 p.m., he would go to the Disney Studio to work with Kimball and his crew sometimes until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. the next day. Kimball would often drive von Braun back to the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, sometimes noticing that his car was being followed by an unmarked car all the way that von Braun intimated were the FBI keeping a close eye on him.
As Disney producer Harry Tytle remembered about his first responsibilities on the weekly Disneyland television show: “With Tomorrowland as our toughest subject, one of my first television responsibilities was to procure outside film for use on our shows devoted to outer space. Thanks largely to WWII, my contacts were numerous. The first contact was Major Mark Miranda with the Air Forces Information Services, which controlled seventy million feet of historical film! I also worked with and received film from Douglas Aircraft, the American Rocket Society, Lockheed, our English and French offices, Aerojet, the British government, and Germany to name a few.”
Miranda was the military liaison that prevented the development of a fourth Disney space show about UFOs.
As Kimball recalled in an interview with Disney Archivist Dave Smith, “I remember when Al Meyers and [Edward] Heinemann, two big shots in Douglas Aircraft, plus George Hoover, who was head of the office of Naval Research, all came to me and wanted Disney to do a UFO picture. Far-out thinkers, all of them, coming to me and wanting to do a UFO program. They all knew that UFOs were for real. They had proof; they had everything. And I said, ‘Sure.’ I’d been collecting material on UFOs for years anyway, and I had a cupboard full of stuff there. Every report and all the books, you name it. I was a student of Charles Ford, and that was my dream to end the series with No. 4.”
Kimball told the Janzen brothers in 1996 that “I had talked to Walt about the fourth show, and what I was thinking about and he said, ‘Great, but we’ve got to get convincing footage!’ We researched some of the incidents where people had taken actual films of flying saucers, and the trail led us to the Air Force establishment. We were told they had thousands of feet of so called ‘alien objects’ footage, but that the material was classified.”
Kimball elaborated further in his interview with Smith:
“Walt sort of went along with it. But we never had any payoff footage," he said. "You’ve got to end up that last 10 minutes with some real stuff. Our disappointment came when we talked to Colonel Miranda from the Wright-Patterson [Air Force Base]. Bill Bosche ([who is credited as the writer on the Disney space trilogy] never believed in UFOs. So we’re having lunch with this Colonel Miranda over in the commissary, and he had all the footage shot from fighter pilots, everything, and most of it classified. He told us what we could have for our picture and what we couldn’t have. And so Bosche thinks he’s kind of put me in my place. He gets a smile on his face and he says, ‘What about flying saucers? I don’t suppose you have anything on that?’ [Miranda got] serious, ‘Oh, hundreds of feet!’ Old Bosche looked like he’d faint."
"[Miranda] says, ‘We’ve got all sorts of film that we can’t show you, it’s secret, and it’s going to remain classified until we can take one apart and analyze it.’ And [Bosche] says, ‘Well how come?’ And that’s when he taught us our lesson, he says, ‘Look! Everyone would ask the Air Force, ‘What are these things?’ And if we couldn’t answer that question, we would be in trouble. We could have a war start. They would accuse the Russians of doing it; they’re ahead of us.’ He went through a whole line of reasons why this couldn’t be divulged.
“[Miranda] says, ‘We have shots taken from gun cameras; we have beautiful footage. We’ve got 'em all shapes and size, port holes, lights…We don’t know what they are yet. Until we can dissect it, and give a reasonable explanation without our society coming unglued, we can’t. It’s going to remain classified.’
“Getting back to Heinemann, and Meyers, and Hoover… The day they were sitting there, Heinz Haber walked in. He was done with Ham [Luske] working on the [Our Friend the Atom] show. He knew them, and they said, ‘We’re trying to get Ward here hooked on doing a show about UFOs.’ And, gee, that shocked Haber. He just thought that was ridiculous, science fiction…And so they listened to him, and Hoover said, ‘You know, we happen to know they’re out there. We have photographs, we have this, and we have that.’ By the time they were through, he [Heinz Haber] went out there talking to himself. But I still thought he didn’t believe anything they said. They said ‘there are a lot of theories we have now that are disproved already, that are still secret.’
“It would have been a wonderful show. And I had everything up to the last 10 minutes. I had the rendering, and we had these drawings that people have made, the spaceships that had passed for a good part of a day over the Egyptian army in Egypt in 2000 B.C. They described the stench and the fumes, the whole thing; it was even done in hieroglyphics. We wanted to bring that to life. Great thing, you know. Pictorially, it was a wonderful thing to do. But we didn’t have that last 10 minutes.”
As Kimball summarized it to the Janzen brothers, “We ran into a brick wall, dressed in khaki uniforms. I went to Walt with the fact that we couldn’t get ‘smoking gun’ footage of UFOs and we both agreed, that was the end of it.”
Walt was also probably well aware of the fact that while the first show had cost $250,000 to produce, by the time of the final show about Mars, the costs had risen to $450,000 because of the need of original animation to fill in the gaps for missing live action. The UFO show would have been even more expensive to generate new footage.
However, there is one final Kimball UFO story that he told to “underground comix” artist Robert Crumb, famed for creations like Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural.
Wilbur Wilkinson and Karl Hunrath disappeared November 11, 1953, after setting off from the Gardena Airport in Los Angeles County in a rented plane to make contact with a supposed grounded UFO in the Mojave Desert. They had roughly three hours of fuel but the men nor the plane were ever found again despite an extensive search.
Robert Crumb wrote in 1975:
“Bob Armstrong, Al Dodge and myself were visiting Ward Kimball. He told us an interesting story. Back in the 1950s, they were working on a series about rockets and outer space technology for the Disneyland TV show. I remember seeing those shows when I was a kid. There was a scientist named Wilkins who worked on the project. Wilkins started bringing around this guy called ‘Huunrath’, supposedly a colleague of his. Kimball said at first no one took much notice of the guy Huunrath. He was just unobtrusive. Later, people started asking ‘Well, just who is this Huunrath?’ He was kind of strange. He didn’t say much. He walked kind of stiffly and he wore a suit and tie that were ill-fitting. Then Wilkins and Huunrath disappeared and people tried to remember what they could about Huunrath."
“Ward recalled that once at a dinner party at his house oatmeal cookies were served for dessert. Huunrath picked up a cookie and was turning it over in his hands and studying it very closely. Then he bit off a little piece, chewed on it awhile and asked Ward’s wife what the cookie was made of. The last time anybody saw Wilkins, he said he and Huunrath were going ‘where there was no death or taxes.’ Then he laughed! Ward Kimball was very serious when he told us this story. He was amused, yet he thought it was strange.”
Of course, this is one of the reasons that “hearsay” is not allowed in a court of law, because when someone repeats something they were told especially after a period of years, things can get a bit muddled. Obviously, Crumb meant “Wilkinson” rather than “Wilkins” when recounting the story and misspelled Hunrath’s name.
In addition, Wilkinson couldn’t have been a consultant on the Disney space programs if he disappeared in November 1953, because Ward didn’t even propose a rough outline of the show to Walt until April 17, 1954, and the first official consultant, Willy Ley, came on board roughly two weeks later.
Knowing Ward Kimball, I would have examined any cookie he gave me at his house pretty closely as well and might be curious as to what was it in. While Wilkinson didn’t consult on the Disney space shows, Ward held parties to discuss flying saucers and invited a variety of enthusiasts to participate. Both Wilkinson and Hunrath were well enough known in those circles to receive an invitation and perhaps some of those discussions influenced Ward’s later approach to the possibilities of outer space.
All right. All right I know some readers just have to know what von Braun supposedly told Kimball about Roswell—even though it is not Disney-related. Just remember that I heard this from Kimball and he was quite a mischief-maker and known to sometimes enhance the facts to tell a good story. Also remember that this really is hearsay from a secondary source and not allowed in a court of law. Kimball said that von Braun got very quiet and was very hesitant to discuss the incident and made Kimball swear not to reveal any of this story publicly.
As Kimball remembered it, von Braun and some of his associates were taken to the supposed crash site after the majority of the military personnel had left the area. They did a quick tour and the craft debris seemed very thin, light and aluminum colored, like chewing gum wrapping, but the craft itself seemed almost biological in nature. Von Braun also claimed that there were small creatures but he described them as very frail, large eyes and more reptilian in nature with skin the texture of rattlesnakes von Braun had seen at White Sands.
At the presentation at the museum, during the question-and-answer session, someone asked whether Walt believed in extra-terrestials, and I answered that he never commented on it to my knowledge but, knowing Walt, he kept an open mind about all possibilities. Perhaps if the UFO show had been made, Walt might have mentioned his beliefs, but I am sure that if there are little green men from Mars, they probably enjoyed the Disney films and cartoons as much as we do.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis 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. Jim 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.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.