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Ward Kimball: Animation's Renaissance Man

Ward Kimball: Animation's Renaissance Man

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It was the early seventies at the Walt Disney studios in Burbank, California. A group of aspiring artists eager to begin their careers were gathered together for their orientation into Disney's Animation Department. As the young artists talked amongst themselves, they were caught off guard when Ward Kimball poked his head in the door's entrance and shouted to the fledgling animators, "Walt's dead and you missed it!"

I was in awe of Ward Kimball long before coming to the Disney studio. I was a fan who loved his drawings, animation, and the music of the Firehouse Five plus Two. I was familiar with Ward as an artist and musician because I grew up in Santa Barbara where the old timers were continually telling me stories about the kid who led the band at the Saturday afternoon matinees. By the time I was hoping for a career in animation, Ward Kimball had already become somewhat of a legend at the Disney studio.

During those wonderful fifties days, being an animator at the Walt Disney studio was fun. Ward Kimball certainly added to the wild and crazy pranks often played at the studio. Who can forget Ward coming to work in a gorilla suit, or the afternoon Kimball played music so loud it rattled the windows. Stuff like that would get us fired today. However, Walt Disney took it in stride. This was the cartoon business after all, and cartoonists were supposed to be "crazy."

Kimball's office was in D-Wing, on the first floor of the Animation Building. If you were not sure how to find the office of the famous animator, you need only listen for the music. I think Kimball was the only artist at Disney where a piano was considered a necessary piece of equipment. As you can imagine, The Firehouse Five plus Two rehearsed at lunchtime, and if you didn't care for Dixieland jazz, you had best eat your lunch outside. In time, Kimball moved upstairs to direct two wonderful cartoon shorts. The series was called "Adventures in Music," and the first film, "Melody," was a humorous depiction of a man's life, from birth to death. The film was a departure from the Disney "house style," utilizing bold graphic design and stylized animation. The second film, "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" won Walt Disney an Academy Award for best animated short of 1955.

Now it was 1958, and Kimball was producing and directing those wonderful science factual programs for the Disneyland television show. I remember a dubbing session where the film was "wrapped," and Ward leapt from his chair and danced a jig on the floor of the recording studio. Such was the man's enthusiasm for his work. Kimball's unit had already produced, "Man in Space," Man and the Moon," and "Man and Mars," Yet, Walt Disney was not always pleased with the work Kimball's unit was producing. I remember the aftermath of a late afternoon screening back in the fifties. Walt and Ward were in the lobby as we filed out of the theater. The Old Maestro was reading Ward the riot act because of the film he had just seen. As usual, Ward stood his ground. He even refused to use Donald Duck in a show even though Walt had requested it. Taking a dig at the boss, Ward even included the famous duck quacking through a scene in one of his space films. Some at the studio saw this irreverent behavior as a sign that Kimball was getting "too big for his breeches." The unit was gearing up to produce another film based on NASA's Vanguard rocket. This was the United States' hope to catch up with the Soviets who had already launched "Sputnik" into space. Our hopes were dashed when Vanguard blew up on the launch pad. When I arrived at Kimball's office that morning I noticed Ward had hung a huge black wreath on the "Vanguard" storyboards.

Undaunted, Ward went on to produce and direct another show entitled, "Magic Highway," but Ward's unit was beginning to fragment. One of his best artists, John Brandt died of heart problems, and conceptualist, Con Pederson left to work in London with Stanley Kubrick on his new film, "2001." In spite of these changes, the unit began gearing up for a major new project. Ward was going to produce and direct a live-action musical feature entitled, "Babes in Toyland." It was exciting to watch sets being designed, and Ward was shooting tests with the actors out on stage two. However, there was a misunderstanding with Walt, and suddenly, things turned for the worse. Ward Kimball was removed from "Babes in Toyland' and replaced by a new director, Jack Donahue.

Kimball's fall from grace came as a shock to all of us. Many thought that Ward had finally gone too far, and this was Walt's way of asserting that he, not Kimball was still the boss. The talented producer, writer, director was sent back to the drawing board as an animator. Who could have imagined that being sent to animate was a demotion, but in Ward's case I guess it was. For the younger animators like myself having Ward animating again was an opportunity because we could learn from him. I was lucky enough to work on some of Kimball's scenes, and I was amazed at how fast he worked. Even though Ward probably hated animating Ludwig Von Drake, he produced his animation with professional ease, knocking out prodigious amounts of footage. With Kimball, animating appeared to be a breeze. I think that's why he stopped animating. It was no longer a challenge for him. He wanted to move on to other things.

The sixties brought a new Kimball to the Disney studio. John Kimball and I met and became the best of friends. John, like his famous dad was an artist and musician as well. Because John and I both shared a love of animation, we decided to make our own cartoons. We invested in camera equipment, and began building our own animation stands. In a generous gesture that would be unheard of today, Disney's machine shop offered their assistance. John and I began having screenings of cartoons on Saturday nights at his sister, Kelly's home in Highland Park. On occasion, Ward and Betty Kimball would join us for the movie. The movie was only the "pre show" as far as I was concern. After the film, Kimball would regale us with tales of the early Disney studio and other affairs of the day. Why he voted for Upton Sinclair in the thirties Governor's race, and the reasons he crossed the picket lines in the famous Disney strike. Ward spent a fair amount of time with the boss, and he told us what it was like working for Walt Disney. Finally, my favorite story of all was the "wild weekend party" after the completion of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." For all the kids today who think their parents and grandparents were sexually repressed, think again. Then there were the social occasions that included playing in Ward's Dixieland band. On one particular session I was playing pretty bad because the keys on my saxophone began to stick. Ward began shouting at me, "Play whole notes! Play whole notes!"

Walt Disney's passing in 1966 was a major setback, and it took some time for the studio to recover. Yet, after a time, Ward Kimball established another unit, this time in 2-A wing on the second floor of the Animation Building. Once again, Ward Kimball was back in fine form producing clever, entertaining films for both theatrical release and television. His "Tough to be a Bird" even garnered Ward an Academy Award for best-animated short, and he picked up the statuette himself at the award ceremony. In the seventies, Kimball launched an odd half hour television show called, "The Mouse Factory." The quirky show was a mix of vintage Disney cartoons along with appearances by guest stars such as Phyllis Diller, Joanne Worley, and even Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. Some Disney old timers continued to criticize Ward for his irreverence. Kimball, as always had a way of "breaking the rules," whatever those rules happen to be. I think secretly they resented Kimball's boundless creativity, and decided to reign in the master animator. Kimball was having none of this, and instead of bending to the new "rule makers," he decided to call it quits. Ward Kimball leaving Disney? We could hardly believe the news that came from the second floor of the Animation Building that Thursday afternoon. Yet, Kimball confirmed the rumor to be true. He had decided to leave Disney because in his own words, "the job simply wasn't fun anymore."

Yet, lucky for all of us, Kimball didn't go far. Soon, he began work for Disney Imagineering bringing his own special blend of humor and imagination to a number of attractions for Walt Disney World. It was now the eighties, and Disney was under new management. Occasionally Ward would come to the Disney commissary for lunch. Of course, we had to get the scoop from Ward. What project would he tackle next, or was he looking to finally retire. As always, Ward said he would take on any job as long as it was fun. Kimball kept his word, and continued with the company until Imagineering, like so much of the Disney Company in recent times, simply wasn't fun anymore.

In the new decade, Ward Kimball seemed to settle back and accept his title of "Disney Legend." He made appearances at art shows, and lectured to a new generation of Disney animators. At one such affair, I spoke with Ward about the small aircraft that found itself in trouble over the San Gabriel Valley. Almost in cartoon fashion, the aircraft came crashing to earth in of all places, Ward Kimball's front yard. This was a bizarre accident to be sure, yet somehow, typical of a normal day in Kimball's life. In one of his last public appearances, Ward joined Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston onstage at Walt Disney's 100th Birthday party. Host, Leonard Maltin spoke of the wonderful, wild, wacky sequence that Kimball animated in, "The Three Caballeros." Ward jumped to his feet and shouted, "I broke all the rules! I broke all the rules!" That pretty much sums up the life and career of Kimball.

Ward Kimball was a guy who represented the best of Disney in its Golden Age. He was always curious, clever and unpredictable. If you were lucky enough to be called to Kimball's unit back in the sixties, jealous colleagues often grumbled, "Oh, you're going to go work for the genius." We ignored their sarcasm because like it or not, that's exactly what Ward Kimball was.

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today? well, if so, please be aware that there are already two great collections of Norman's writings & cartoons on the market: his original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as the follow-up to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper." Which you can purchase by clicking on that the image on to the right, which will take you straight over to Afrokids.com.

If you're an animation fan and don't already own either of these two great books, NOW would be a really good time to get them!

Go to the Afro-Kids Store

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