Disney Prankingby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have never been a fan of April Fools' Day. I personally feel that a prank is generally hurtful, humiliating and mean-spirited.
That's one of the reasons I have never written an April Fools' column for MousePlanet.
Because I am trusting and gullible, take things very seriously and would never pull a prank on someone else, I have been the victim of many pranks over the decades.
During the time I was actively performing in theater in Los Angeles, I found many acting peers who took great delight in hiding part of my costume or a major prop. Sometimes they would obtain the services of someone to portray an agent or a producer to try and tease me with the news that my performance had attracted their attention and I was on my way to bigger and better things.
However, the cruelest pranks I have endured were from Disney animators. They have tried to explain to me that it is all just part of the Disney animation tradition, a legitimate way to blow off steam that was personally approved by Walt Disney and, of course, that it was all just a sign of affection.
I learned quickly that being a victim of pranks can be quickly extinguished if you do not respond in anger, if you do not "laugh it off" as a good sport, and if you do not retaliate. It seems to deflate the perpetrators that they didn't get a reaction.
Of course, this tradition of April Fools' Day goes all the way back to the Festival of Fools celebration that was eventually condemned by the church.
Author Victor Hugo described the event in his 1831 novel Hunchback of Notre Dame where the hunchbacked Quasimodo was crowned as the King of Fools. It is appropriate that Disney animators brought that scene to life in the 1996 animated feature Hunchback of Notre Dame, because the Disney Studio was the home to some of the most persistent and creative pranksters in the world.
Right from the beginning, Walt encouraged a humorous climate at the Disney Studio to alleviate the constant stress.
"There was an element of boredom when you're animating. You're doing all these characters that move ever so slightly from one drawing to the next and it gets so repetitive that you think of excuses to take a break and blow off some steam," Disney Legend Ward Kimball told me in 1996.
In a 1940 Atlantic Monthly magazine article about the Disney Studio, writer Paul Hollister described the Disney Studio as "the only factory on earth where practical jokes are part of the production line".
"Walt didn't join in on the hijinks, but he was tolerant of them. As long as good work was being turned out, he would put up with almost anything," wrote writer Richard Greene in his book Man behind the Magic.
Greene recalled: "On one occasion, Walt Kelly—a Disney animator who went on to create the comic strip Pogo—targeted a fellow animator who took great pride in successfully throwing his coat across the room onto a coat rack. Kelly sawed the coat rack into dozens of small pieces and taped it back together so the breaks wouldn't show. When the victim came back from lunch, he tossed his coat, as usual, and nearly passed out when the whole rack came tumbling apart like a house of cards."
The victim of that prank was Disney Legend Fred Moore, who had just returned from a "drinking lunch," and his friends Kelly and Ward Kimball delighted in his shock and surprise.
Disney Legend Jack Kinney said that "the victims of these so-called jokes always had a standard comeback: 'Why don't you guys put them funny gags in the pictures?'"
Kimball was perhaps the "King of the Disney Pranksters."
During my 1996 interview with him while I was working at the Disney Institute in Florida, I prodded him to share some of his memorable pranks.
Jim Korkis: You have quite the reputation for pranks at the Disney Studio.
Ward Kimball: When we moved into the new Burbank studio, there were very few bathroom stalls that were operating. We had a main hallway in the building and these units teeing off from it and in each hallway was a man's 'can' as we called it but only two stalls. So I got this idea. There was always a traffic jam in the morning due to not enough restroom stalls. So, one day, I went down to a Salvation Army thrift store and bought 12 pair of shoes and some second-hand pants and took some wooden doweling to support the pants and shoes. I got to the studio very early one morning before anyone had come to work. I rigged up all of these in the stalls… even the women's stalls… with these shoes on the floor and the wood supporting these pants that I had pulled down and set on all these thrones and locked the stall doors. Then I went to sleep at my desk where an hour or two later I was awakened by people pounding on the stall doors and yelling. All hell broke loose. 'Give me a chance. What are you doing? What's taking so long?' Apparently, they looked under the stalls and saw the shoes and pants rumpled up but it never occurred to any of them to look over the top. They'd all look down under. Eventually the gag was discovered.
JK: Another version I heard involved the use of cels.
WK: That was another time. We took some cel material. Remember it was transparent. And we covered the top of the toilet bowl with it and then put down the lid. The women never suspected when they sat down to use the facilities until it was too late."
JK: Another version I heard involved the use of cels. Let's just say that your practical jokes were legendary, Ward, like at Ben Sharpsteen's wedding and the wrap party for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
WK: Not everyone cared for Ben Sharpsteen. A lot of the guys felt he was Walt's 'hatchet man' and he could be pretty hard, you know. So I knew they'd get a laugh at him getting back a little of his own if you know what I mean. So for Sharpsteen's wedding, I hired a life drawing model to walk down the aisle completely naked except for a wedding veil and holding a baby to disrupt the ceremony. At one of the wrap parties for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I hired a guy to dress up as a policeman and come in to the party and harass Walt that the party was too noisy and he would have to take them all in to jail. Well, by the time the guy finally showed up, Walt was so drunk himself that he kept arguing with the policeman and telling him he was going to have his badge."
Another prank animators used to play on Sharpsteen that he never knew about was when the animators were "dipping their pen in company ink," the term used for having sexual relations with the ink and paint girls, they would sign Sharpsteen's name in the motel registers rather than a standard "John Smih."
In 1997, I asked Disney Legend Bill Justice, famous for his work on Chip'n'Dale to share a few of his memories about pranks at the Disney Studio.
Jim Korkis: I know that Disney animators would break up the tedium doing a lot of pranks. Were you involved in any of those?
Bill Justice: Pranks? Some of it was pretty standard. We'd balance a cup of water over a door to drench someone when they opened the door. One time someone put up a roll of animation paper up there. That must have hurt when it fell and hit the guy. One of the gags was taking the animation discs off and putting a kneaded eraser or a piece of limburger cheese on the incandescent bulb so that it would burn and stink under the disc when an animator was drawing. They didn't know where that terrible smell was coming from because it was so gradual. In the old Hyperion studio, there was a little garden area with some benches and people would go on break. Walt would go there. There was a little turtle that would eat the vegetation. So the guys got the idea to bring in a different turtle. They kept bringing in a larger and larger turtle every two or three days so it looked like the turtle was growing at a fantastic rate. Then to top the gag, they reversed it and brought in smaller turtles every two or three days. Walt even started talking about it at meetings. I am sure he caught on to the gag but in the beginning I think they 'got' him going.
When I talked with Disney Legend Ken Anderson in 1985, he told me a legendary prank on artist and storyman Roy Williams at the original Hyperion location of the Disney Studio. Williams, because of his size (320 pounds and former All-American high school football player) and nature (a tremendous temper and the mouth of a sailor when it came to swearing), was often the victim of gags at the Disney Studio.
Storyman Dick Kinney would have a squirt gun under a table and shoot Williams in the crotch while they were talking over a story for an animated short.
Since Williams had a huge stomach, when he stood up, he couldn't see the area beneath his belly and would walk around while others would secretly laugh as he went by that he had peed in his pants again.
Jim Korkis: Everyone I talk to has a different Roy Williams story and they are all terrific. Do you have one?
Ken Anderson: He was a naïve child in this great body who could throw people around. An enormous gag man. He just churned out these cartoons like you wouldn't believe. Walt decided that Roy should be a little more dignified so we helped Walt out. When Roy was made a gag captain at the old Hyperion studio we made it an important thing. He had to wear a suit, tie, and a vest….and socks. Everything. Then he came over to this new building. They were really just a couple of apartments we had gutted and made into rooms for the storymen. We had Roy all dressed up. I got Ethel, who was his wife, to make sure Roy wore the suit and everything. It didn't really fit. Nothing buttoned. Nothing really worked. As gag captain, one of his jobs was to go around and 'pass' on the gags that everyone had done. He came into the room. We took this little guy, Joe Sable, who was a new guy who was maybe 5 foot 2 and weighed all of 80 pounds. We took (storyman) T. Hee's pants. T. Hee was a big man in those days. He lost over 300 pounds. We took his pants and wrapped them around and around Sable and tied it up with a belt. So Joe is saying, "Mr. Williams, is this gag acceptable?"
And Roy is going crazy. "Are those your pants? For crying out loud, are those your pants? Have you been on a diet?" Joe says, "Yes, sir but what's good for one person isn't necessarily good for another." Roy is getting desperate. "Never mind that. What have you been on?" Joe says, "I hate to tell you but it was sauerkraut juice. You should probably check with your doctor. Now about this gag…" Roy bolts away and calls his doctor. At least he had that much sense. He got the nurse and asked her if sauerkraut juice is good for diets and she says "yes, but…" and Roy hangs up before she finishes and runs across the street and got a gallon of sauerkraut juice and drank this whole can. The meeting with Walt on gags is due to come up in less than 10 minutes. This whole business began to work on poor Roy's insides and there was a lot of Roy to work on.
Have you ever heard elephants trumpet? That was the sound coming out of him. Roy would come in to the boards and these sounds are starting. Rumble. Rumble. Boom. "He runs down the hall to where we had a lavatory and we hear 'Bang! Bang! Bang!' We had the doors all locked. Then we had the next building fixed the same way. Wherever he went there was no chance for him to get any relief. Walt comes in and sits down on a camp chair and he is already drumming his fingers and saying, "All right. All right. What have you boys got here?" Roy tries to start telling Walt the gags and he just can't take it any more. Roy bolts out of the door and knocks over everyone in his way and makes it across the street to the main building finally.
The most classic prank story at the Disney Studio has been told to me by several different Golden Age Disney artists, with a few variations.
Here is how artist Floyd Gottfredson told this prankish tale:
"The whole thing happened in the comic strip department and the principal characters were [writer/artist] Ted Thwaites and [artist] Al Taliaferro [who did the Donald Duck comic strip for decades].
"We all worked in the back room of the annex at Hyperion [Studio]. Ted carried his lunch in a brown bag and every day brought in a small can of fruit cocktail and he loved it so much and he smacked his lips over it and he'd tell Al, 'I just couldn't eat a lunch without this'.
"So this started Al's brain to working and one day he brought in a can the same size, a can of mixed vegetables. When Ted went out of the room, he would always tell Al where he was going. So, the minute he got out of sight, Al would jump up and take the label off, and put rubber cement on the thing and wait until it almost dries—and just switch the labels from the mixed vegetable can to the fruit cocktail.
"So Ted came back the first time and he opened this thing and he actually took a spoonful of the stuff before he noticed it was not his fruit cocktail. Al, of course, was watching him.
"Ted stopped—then he took another spoonful of the stuff and he looked at it and he says, 'I can't believe this!' He was very British and very gullible. He says, 'Something's wrong here.'
"So he shows it to Al and Al peers at it and says, 'What's wrong? What is that---vegetables?'
"Ted says, 'Yeah! Look at the label—this is supposed to be fruit cocktail.'
"Al says, 'That's strange'.
"So between the two of them they decided that some of the labels had gotten mixed up at the canning factory. There wasn't anymore said about it except Ted went around and told everyday in the department. He couldn't get over it.
"So, Al let it go for three or four days and then switched labels again. Ted said, 'The only way I can explain this is that they must have mixed up a whole lot shipment. Just imagine! These things are on the shelves of markets all over the country.'
"Al did it just far enough apart to keep Ted intrigued. He'd have peas or carrots and even hominy one time—and Ted had never seen hominy before. To put a little variety in the act, Al reversed the procedure and put a vegetable label on the fruit cocktail can.
" 'That's crazy!' Ted says, "I know I bought fruit cocktail this morning. Al, look at this!'
"Al says, 'What's wrong with it?'
"Ted says, 'That's mixed vegetables!'
"Al says, 'That's funny. You must have picked it up by mistake.' So, Ted opens the can and it has fruit cocktail in it.
"Finally, it was Ted himself who said, 'Well, I really think this is an item for Robert Ripley's Believe It Or Not. I think I should write it in to him and maybe I'll get some money out of it."
"So, we all agreed and by this time, everybody knew about it. Ted actually wrote Ripley. After he had written to Ripley, we knew we had to do something to pay this whole thing off. We wondered for two or three days what we could do. We figured it would take eight days before he would expect an answer.
"The plan called for this last can to be mailed to Thwaites, with appropriate King Features labels (the newspaper syndicate that distributed the Disney comic strips but also Ripley's Believe It Or Not comic panel) made up by the comic strip men and was to contain a rather potent message from Mr. Ripley inside the can along the lines of 'I don't believe it! (signed) Robert Ripley'.
"But Al couldn't leave it alone. He had to switch one more can and Ted came back too soon and Al had to rush it.
"When Ted came in and ate his lunch right after that and he picked up this can and the label slipped off the can and here was this wet rubber cement. He stopped and looked at it for a minute, then he says in his British accent, 'You so and so's. Suddenly everything is clear to me. I know what's been going on here!'"
In some variations, Ted did open the can and discover the note. In other variations it was canned peaches. Whatever the actual story, it became the classic story of a Disney Studio prank.
If you were a victim of an April Fool's Day prank this year, you have my sympathy. I guess you should just comfort yourself that it was part of the long tradition of Disney animators.