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Wednesdays with Wade: Ward Kimball -- The First Escapader?

Wednesdays with Wade: Ward Kimball -- The First Escapader?

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What kind of man reads "Playboy"? Obviously a much different fellow than the one in the Fifties and Sixties where that was a catch phrase for Hugh Hefner's magazine. The answer, of course, was someone who lived the "Playboy Philosophy" as parodied in a fairly recent episode of "The Simpsons" where Bart and Milhouse discover Homer's old "Playboy" magazines with all the naked pictures cut out by Marge leaving only the "Playboy" lifestyle writings of Hefner.

With the success of "Playboy" other men's magazines tried and failed to capture that same spirit and allure that only the most sophisticated of gentlemen who appreciated fine wine and jazz would be worthy of looking at the topless photos of well-fed and overly made-up women in the magazine. One of those magazines was "Escapade" and in its January 1957 issue it gave it first "Escapader" award to someone they felt demonstrated all those qualities of someone who read the magazine: Disney animator Ward Kimball.

As the magazine itself explained:

"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 *** Laude' with a golden key denoting the honor. In the following article we take great pleasure in presenting our first 'Escapder *** Laude'."

So in Ward's collections of awards that include some Academy Awards is the now forgotten "Escapader *** 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:

An astronomer of some ability, Ward possesses a six-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 sixteen-year-old blonde who will be graduated from high school this year; Johnny, a clever and energetic fifteen, and Chloe, a dimimutive ten, 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 eighteen years. They met when the Disney Studio was located on Hyperion Street in Los Angeles and both were young animators.

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 a hundred 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. 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.

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 fifteen 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 nine 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 thirty-five bucks, 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; *** 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 *** 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.

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