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In July 2002, the entertainment community had the misfortune of losing animator Ward Kimball. Kimball was a Disney stalwart, a stable at the studio for nearly forty years, one of the fabled “Nine Old Men.” He was known far and wide for bringing a sense of humor and humanity to his creations of Jiminy Crickett, the Cheshire Cat, Pecos Bill and the Crows in 1941’s “Dumbo.” His work in 1945’s “The Three Caballeros” is often cited as a masterwork of animation. Yet if Kimball had never picked up a pencil during his time at Disney, he would still be heralded as a masterful employee, the guy everyone wanted to be around, he would still be in Walt’s own words, “a genius.”
Kimball took to drawing at an early age, participating in two separate correspondence courses in art. His family pushed him to build on this experience in college, but he chose instead to attend the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. There he had the opportunity to expand on his artistic interests by exploring sculpture and clay and other such items. Kimball enjoyed the learning and experience of the school to the fullest. The story goes that Kimball was never really interested in animation, he always set his artistic sights on more classic works. One thing that he was very interested in though was music, it was a passion that he explored as often as he could. He was able to turn this passion into money as he secured a job at a local movie theater as the “conductor” of the on-stage children’s band. This band played Saturday mornings as part of the weekly “Mickey Mouse Fan Club” activities. Well one week Kimball stayed after the performance and caught a “Silly Symphony.” He says that he never realized how powerful and artistic animation could be. He had always thought of animation in this sort of standard 1920’s vein and the possibilities that he saw in this short excited him.
So in 1934 he found himself, portfolio in hand, at the doors of Disney. It didn’t take long for him to be hired and sent with all of his enthusiasm and exuberance into the literal basement of the studios to do inbetween work. This was the place where new artists started, the first step if you will on the rung up the ladder. It was a ladder that he would climb quickly as in 1936 he was named to an animators position. Remember that the Disney Studio was nearly ten years old at this point, but still really finding its way. As the studio grew and groped, a group of animators really charged to the head of the pack in terms of talent, thought, leadership, style and overall ability. There were nine altogether who would go on to form the core of Disney animation for the next thirty plus years. Eric Larson, Les Clark, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, John Lounsberry, Wolfgang Reitherman and Ward Kimball make up what is known as Disney’s Nine Old Men. (The group was named by Disney in a reference to a Franklin D. Roosevelt remark about the Supreme Court.)
Take away all of the talents and interests and what you would have is a man who insisted on enjoying himself. Kimball was known far and wide through the studio as a prankster, a mischief maker, a man who loved life and enjoyed it constantly. His detractors would say that he was more interested in having fun than working while others were quick to point out that his work was fun, everyday he dealt with subjects that he loved and that gave off happiness. How could he not be happy? There is of course also the technical fact that Kimball was a prolific artist, capable of completing his daily workload in short time. This left him with large amounts of time to fill which he often did with practical jokes. One of his best was recounted by Michael Broggie: “One early morning he (Kimball) stocked all the restroom stalls in the Animation Building with pants filled with newspaper padding to make them appear occupied. It took several anxious hours for someone to figure out they’d been duped by Kimball.” (Ward was often aided in his fun by good friend and eventual Pogo creator Walt Kelley.)
Kimball was the Disney wildcard. He was the one with the loud personality, who would organize football games in the hallway and then wash off in the decorative office spittoon. He wore loud outfits and was prone to sarcastic jokes. By many accounts he was the kind of guy that you look forward to seeing at work because you knew he’d help you get through the dull spots of the day. This sort of overt happiness rubbed some of his co-workers the wrong way but most took it in good stride. This feeling of being in the middle was one that Kimball felt during much of his career.
The title song sequence of “The Three Caballeros” is often described as the Kimball-est of Ward Kimball’s work. In it, Donald Duck, Joe Carioca and Panchito sing and move wildly tacross the screen, Donald walks off the screen to the right and reemerges from the bottom, colors flash, characters change, objects appear, disappear and then appear in a completely new place. Its free expression and complete lack of reality was animation that had rarely been seen by a Disney artist. Many of his co-workers warned Ward that he had gone to far, that Walt would never go for such a thing. As we now know of course, Walt did in fact go for the sequence and in fact this style of animation now often plays a prominent role at Disney. The story of “The Three Caballeros” is a perfect example of Kimball’s style both on and off the drawing board. While he rarely stretched to such wild edges in his later work, he was always able to find a way to inject that twist, to throw a spark into the character to at the very least nudge them towards the line.
One of the things that makes Kimball such a special figure was the way that he transcended one talent and pursued and refined others. He did this not in a vacuum but as he did everything, loudly in the open, attracting attention to himself and enabling others to get involved with life.
Kimball never lost his love for music; in fact it only grew. At Disney in 1948 he organized a Dixieland jazz band The Firehouse Five Plus Two. Originally an after-hours jam band, they soon found themselves playing for lunchtime dances on the studio lot. These dances grew in popularity with both the attendees and the musicians, so much so in fact that the boys decided to take their act on the road. They began playing in local clubs and concert halls and even on television programs like Disney’s Sunday night show. Walt in fact was a huge supporter of the group as he felt they were great goodwill ambassadors. The popularity around the group continued to grow as records were made and the concerts increased. It got to the point though to where it, as Ward says, “Stopped being fun and started to be to much like a job.” So the group for all purposes disbanded. Ward though had plenty to keep him occupied.
His popularity and influence in animation was met and if not exceeded by the excitement that he brought to the railroads. Ward was a railroad fanatic, he had one of the largest and most important (for its rare items) model train collections in the world. He even had full scale train cars that ran along track set up in his backyard. He founded railroading clubs, wrote and drew cartoons for rail focused magazines and worked hard for the restoration and preservation of rail cars. He used his status as a Disney animator to really bring support and prominence to the hobby. In his passion he found Walt Disney. Disney was an avid train buff himself who discovered in Kimball a sort of “soul mate of the rails.” In fact, the only vacation that Walt took with an employee was with Ward when the two traveled to Chicago for a train show. Disney always had a fascination with trains but it was perhaps Ward’s near obsession that helped Walt focus on their history and importance and how that could be translated to Disneyland.
On the topic of Disneyland, in its initial stages Walt sent out a call for ideas. He had conceived of including a place called Tomorrowland but he was unsure of exactly what should go there. It was Kimball who approached Disney with an idea as to how that space might work. He had just finished reading a series of articles in Collier’s magazine which were written by Werner von Braun and dealt with America’s entry into space. Disney immediately took to the articles and decided that von Braun might be the one to help him fill in Tomorrowland and so a meeting was set up. During this meeting a number of things were discussed, including von Braun’s interest in doing a space centered television program. Disney saw this as a great chance to get some important material into his weekly show while promoting his park in a roundabout way.
Kimball, who was dabbling in some live action directing at the time, jumped at the opportunity to work on these programs alongside men like von Braun whom he admired. There were three programs created: 1955’s “Man in Space” and “Man and the Moon” and 1957’s “Mars and Beyond.”
All of the episodes were widely popular, it’s even reported that President Eisenhower requested copies of the programs for governmental use. These programs are an amazing mix of live action and animation. They are scientific without being heavy-handed, forceful in their opinions but still fun. They have been cited by many as being their first foray into these topics and they also, it can be argued, went a long way towards preparing America for the space program.
It is impressive enough for a person to have an influence over any one area in their life but when you consider that Kimball influenced animation, music, railroads and the space program, all in his own fun-loving renaissance way, it just makes the man seem that much more remarkable.
During the span of his career, Kimball won numerous awards including the 1953 Oscar for “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom” which is a masterpiece of limited animation as well as holding the distinction as the first cartoon produced in CinemaScope. In 1969 he received a second Oscar for directing “It’s Tough to Be a Bird.” In 1989 he was named a Disney Legend and in 2000 he won a Sparky Award. There were other awards and citations over the years but Kimball’s greatest reward may have been a coin toss between his influence over the publics perception of space or his interest and influence in the spirit of railroading. Or maybe it would be the joy he brought music lovers or the laughs he gave to his co-workers and friends. It’s a true testament to the man, that there are so many choices. If you believe that the car is the modern day horse, then the tram might be considered the modern day train. So it is somehow appropriate that when you are heading into a Disney park you generally take a tram, it just seems right, to ride Ward Kimball into Disney.
“Develop an all consuming curiosity for things both exotic and ordinary. Read, observe, analyze, become involved…study, practice, delve, probe, investigate and above all, be flexible.”
Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife and daughter.
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