A Day with Ward Kimball in 1957by Jim Korkis, staff writer
Ward Kimball is a Disney Legend.
He was one of Walt Disney’s fabled “Nine Old Men” who contributed memorable animation, from the creation of Jiminy Cricket to the inspired staging of The Three Caballeros title song. He won Oscars for his work on Disney cartoons.
He was an acclaimed jazz musician whose Dixieland band, Firehouse Five Plus Two, made more than a dozen albums in addition to playing venues like clubs and festivals.
He was a railroad buff with a full-sized operating steam train in his backyard and he helped spark Walt Disney’s love of locomotives as an entertainment option.
He was an antique toy collector who spoke knowledgeably and affectionately about these collectibles. He was also an enthusiast of antique cars. He wrote several books including the amusing “Art Afterpieces.”
Walt Disney called him the only genius at the Disney Studio. Kimball later confided to me that he wasn’t so sure that Walt actually believed that fact but said it so that the other people at the Disney Studios would give Kimball a hard time.
He was also one of the most eccentric, creative, outrageous, and unpredictable people in the world.
There is a Tumblr page devoted to Kimball, and a terrific biography that is still awaiting publication has been written by Amid Amidi, who had access to Kimball’s diaries, .
I met Kimball and interviewed him several times over the years. One time, at his home, he was kind enough to put his thumbprint onto a piece of paper and then quickly transform it into a caricature of himself. He preferred doing that to doing another drawing of a Disney character.
When I worked at the Disney Institute, I remember him complaining in 1996 about having to draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse in the guest book where other guests like Marc Davis had previously illustrated an image. The light was not bright enough. It was the wrong kind of pen, even though several different ones were provided. The table was at an awkward angle. Yet, the final result was a sketch full of personality and skill and assurance that it could have been drawn by a much younger man.
I also met other Disney animators who always had a wacky Ward Kimball story to share with me. There are a handful of Disney artists, like Roy “The Big Mooseketeer” Williams, who people not only have colorful stories about, but they all have different ones that are all amazingly true.
At the wedding of a fellow animator, Ward hired a woman carrying a baby to burst in to the ceremony at a crucial moment. At a party, he had a performer dress up as a policeman to come in and harass Walt Disney for all the alcohol and noise.
When Kimball dressed up as Santa for his kids at Christmas, he became annoyed when neighbors also began sending their children over to meet the jolly old elf who then cheerfully handed out condoms to the children from his sack.
One time he even dressed up in a gorilla suit and found himself stuck in it, rushing to a neighbors’ house as barking dogs followed him and the neighbors turned on the sprinklers.
He was never at a loss for words. Once while he was working at the studio and spending an inordinate amount of time staring out the window as the rain came down, he became aware that Walt Disney was standing behind him. Ward turned and remarked, “Just studying the effects, Walt.”
A day at the Kimball home was always filled with surprises. Depending upon his mood, he might want to talk about toys or pull out folders with amazing artwork or work on his train. However, he never mentioned a rather specific award he received in 1957.
With the success of “Playboy” magazine in the 1950s, the market was flooded with competitors who tried to mimic the same spirit and allure with their magazines.
One of the top magazines to do so was Escapade, that featured fiction by writers like Jack Kerouac (On the Road) who wrote a regular monthly column and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury amidst the topless photos of women.
There were articles on Hemingway and Salinger, as well, but an intriguing article in an early issue will be of particular interest to MousePlanet readers.
In its January 1957 issue, the magazine gave its first Escapader award to someone they felt demonstrated all those qualities of someone who read the magazine: Ward Kimball.
As the magazine itself explained the honor:
"From time to time, the Editors of Escapade have received letters from readers asking us to define the term 'Escapader.' We have tried to offer an acceptable definition on a few occasions and, of course, the contents of Escapade are selected with the objective of pleasing the men (and women) we conceive to be 'Escapaders'.....Life offers opportunities for all sorts of escapades (lower case): mental, emotional, physical.
“The 'Escapader' is the man who lives; who gets a lot out of life and contributes a lot in return. That's probably the best definition. We'll admit that Ward is an exceptional personality, but basically the motives which move him are those which move all 'Escapaders'....
“On the rare occasions when such remarkable specimens come to our attention, we intend to bestow upon them the accolade of 'Escapader Cum Laude' with a golden key denoting the honor. In the following article we take great pleasure in presenting our first 'Escapder Cum Laude'."
So in Ward's many awards that include some Academy Awards is the now forgotten "Escapader Cum Laude."
Accompanying the announcement was an article about a Sunday afternoon at Ward's house written by "the Editors" and in the interests of Disney animation history, here is an excerpt from that article covering some material about Ward that has never appeared in print anywhere else.
I am assuming that the majority of MousePlanet readers do not have a copy, nor will ever obtain a copy, but might be interested in what an afternoon with Ward Kimball was like:
“An astronomer of some ability, Ward possesses a 6-inch, motor-driven telescope through which he and his family peer at the stars and planets.
“Anyone associated with Walt Disney must be able to reach the minds of children and therefore must understand them. Here again, Ward is an eminently qualified man, being the father of three of the nicest, best-looking kids around: Kelly, a delightful 16-year-old blonde who will be graduated from high school this year; Johnny, a clever and energetic 15; and Chloe, a dimimutive 10, who is cute as a button and bright as they come.
“The fabulous Kimball home in peaceful San Gabriel, a Los Angeles suburb is generally jammed to the rafters with young people of all ages.
“The adjective "fabulous" is used here advisedly. Everything about the Kimball name draws appreciative exclamations from first-time guests, including the very gracious and lovely Mrs. Kimball, the former Betty Lawyer to whom Ward has been happily married for 18 years. They met when the Disney Studiod was located on Hyperion Street in Los Angeles and both were young animators. (Korkis note: Betty was actually an Ink and Paint girl.)
“Sharing attention with Mrs. Kimball, the children and Ward is the home itself. In California style, it is all on one level, separated from the semi-rural street by a wide lawn dotted with trees. The living room, together with the dining area, is huge. It has to be--it's usually as crowded as an ant colony with teenagers and younger people, who are much less orderly than ants.
“When sitting room on divans and chairs runs out, they sprawl on the floor; they make themselves familiarly at home around the icebox and watch their favorite TV shows without interference from the elder Kimballs. It's a happy atmosphere.
“Wings of the home embrace a large swimming pool, heated for comfortable use all year round; there's a ping-pong table in the patio, and the big scope also draws much attention.
“The Kimball grounds occupy more than two acres, and it's all in use. A full-sized narrow-gauge railroad track runs from a barn like roundhouse at the rear of the property more than 100 yards to the rear of the house, and three beautifully restored Baldwin steam locomotives, bright with brass and paint, haul an old-fashioned coach, a caboose and a flat car the length of the roadbed.
“Midway between the roundhouse and the end of the track there is one of those small, yellow, gingerbready stations familiar to travelers in the western United States; it was brought piece-by-piece from a little town in Colorado. (Korkis note: It was the station used in the film, So Dear To My Heart 1948 and was a gift from Walt on the completion of the film. However, it was just a set piece so when Ward re-assembled it and put the roof carefully on top, the entire thing collapsed and Ward had to re-build it from scratch.)
“Two of the engines are of the type used on Hawaiian sugar plantations; the other larger one once ran between a couple of mining towns on the Nevada Central. (Korkis note: Ward’s backyard Grizzly Flats Railroad was the first full-sized backyard railroad in the United States. The Kimball family operated their railroad from 1942-2006. The larger engine was named the Emma Nevada and the smaller one, Chloe.)
“In a low garage, Ward parks his Thunderbird, an MG and a family station wagon, all new and gleaming alongside a large fire engine, a small hose car, a Maxwell "fire chief's" car and a Model T touring car, all of early vintage and all in sparkling running order. They are familiar sights in Southern California parades, generally loaded down with wildly blowing Firehouse Five musicians who all share Ward's enthusiasm for offbeat kicks.
“When Ward isn't occupied with his demanding chores at Disney's, he's playing a show or dance date with the Firehouse Five, or building a model solar system with Johnny, or helping Kelly with her high school homework, or trying to beat Chloe at Ping Pong, or swimming in the pool, or entertaining guests, or being entertained by one of his multitudinous friends, or taking a trip, or visiting a nightclub, or firing up one of his team engines, or engaging in serious painting, or listening to the hi-fi, or looking at television, or previewing one of his movies, or watching the stars through his telescope, or adding to his extensive collection of model trains and children's toys dating from the early Nineteenth Century, or constructing a mobile, or—but you get the idea.
“Ward's a busy and happy man.
Whether or not a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at the Kimball home was typical remains a question, but it was illuminating. There were writers and photographers on hand, representing two national magazines; there were about 15 teenagers watching a professional football game on television; there was a large crowd of adults, some of whom apparently were strangers to the Kimballs and came without invitation, and a swarm of kids. Among these was the pixie-like Chloe, wearing a bathing suit and clambering, for some reason, on the roof of the house with a "special" girl friend, similarly clad.
“Through all of this confusion and hi-de-ho, Ward and Betty moved calmly and with gracious poise. There was nothing in their attitude that would indicate they felt that this was in any way unusual.
“There is a working windmill on the Kimball property with old-fashioned wooden blades. Ward spotted it one night while he was driving to keep a dance date with two other members of the Firehouse five, in the yard of a small ranch.
“Recognizing it as a genuine antique, Ward decided he must have it. Over the protests of his two passengers, who pointed out they were already late for their engagement, Ward pulled up in front of the small ranchhouse and went to the door. A woman answered.
"I asked her if the windmill was for sale," Ward relates, "She replied that it probably was, as she and her husband had recently installed a gasoline-engined water pump. We were making progress toward a deal, when suddenly her attitude changed and she started closing the door in my face, slowly.
"I was puzzled, and then I heard a slight sound behind me. I looked over my shoulder and there were two members of the Firehouse Five, wearing a couple of the porter's caps we use in a novelty number.
" 'Come along, fella', one of them said in a soothing, coaxing voice. 'Come along now. We'll get you a windmill.'
"Come to think of it, who but an escaped lunatic would go shopping for old windmills at 9 p.m.? The lady obviously thought I was just that, and these two guys were my keepers. I tried to talk my way out of it, but you can imagine how impossible that was. I finally had to leave without the windmill. It took me two weeks of correspondence, involving character (and I use the word advisedly) references, before I could close the deal.
"The windmill had been brought out here from Oklahoma in the 1880s, a real relic. I got it, with the tower, for $35, overhauled it and set it up. It would work if we needed it."
In Ward's railroad station, there are a number of train models, including some early ones; an authentic old railroad clock, some old toys, a railroader's telegraph key and other items that seem in place.
But there is also a full-grown stuffed African lion, named Stanley, which can scare hell out of the unsuspecting visitor.
The Firehouse Five Plus Two (earlier, it had been the Firehouse Five, and then the Firehouse Five Plus One) is a thoroughly competent and professional group devoted to free-swinging Dixieland jazz.
A little-known fact about the band is that all of its members are Disney employees: Ward plays a white-painted trombone decorated with red curlicues; Danny Alguire, cornet, and George Probert, clarinet, are assistant directors; Frank Thomas, piano, is a supervising animator; Jim McDonald, drummer, is head of the sound effects department; Ed Penner, tuba, is a writer and story director; Dick Roberts, banjo, is a studio musician, and George Bruns, who plays trombone, piano or clarinet, as the occasion demands, is a member of the studio's music department. He is perhaps best known as the composer of the ballad, Davy Crockett, perennial delight of small fry and bane of their parent's existence.
From the ceiling of the Kimball living room hangs a large mobile made of thin red sticks and white balls. It was put up one Christmas several years ago as a Yule decoration, and has never been taken down, because Ward likes its structural design.
"I like the feeling of enclosed space," he maintains.
On a wall of the dining area hangs another of Ward's creations: a three-dimensional painting in which certain elements move when a cord is pulled. A man's hand tickles a lady's cheek, and her eyeballs roll flirtatiously. Others of Ward's paintings, more serious in approach, occupy other wall space, as do some works by Kelly, who shows signs of inheriting her parents' artistic talents and plans to attend art school.
When all of Ward's activities are added up, they make an impressive list. We doubt that many men enjoy life to the extent that he does, or contribute more to the happiness of their fellows. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that whatever he does, he does amazingly well; Ward's a jack-of-all-trades and master of them, too.
He's an amateur at nothing; his art and music are of high professional quality; he flies well enough to take on a job as an airline pilot, should the occasion arise; he swims, Betty assures us, like a fish and can handle a boat with the assurance of a sea captain. The restoration work he has done on his trains and fire engines displays exceptional craftsmanship.
But, most important of all, Ward has mastered the art of living. And it is to Ward Kimball as a master of this most demanding of all arts that "Escapade" awards its first "Escapder cum laude" gold key. There will be other such presentations from time to time, but we feel that Ward Kimball is worthy of being the first.”
As a historian, you never know where you are going to uncover material and I stumbled across this magazine by accident through a friend who knew I was interested in Disney.
This discovery also sparked my questions about whether Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Walt Disney ever met. Both shaped the culture of America in the 1950s and were influential in many other areas from jazz to charities.
Surely, Mr. Hefner must have gone to Disneyland at least once.
I hope someone interviews Hefner about any connections to Disney or any impressions just to see if there is anything of interest there.