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Toon Thursday: When Dad's a Disney Legend, that's a tough act to follow

Toon Thursday: When Dad's a Disney Legend, that's a tough act to follow

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The sign on their office door at the Walt Disney Studio read “KKK.”

Now before you get your knickers in a knot, let me first explain the meaning behind this silly sign. You see, back in the 1960s, there were very few young people joining Disney’s animation department. Unlike today, animation was still considered an odd little business and attracted very few young artists. The truth is, few even knew about the cartoon business or how to get into it. However, should your parents work in the business, this was pretty much an automatic way in.

Now let’s get back to that silly sign on an A-Wing office door at the Disney Studios. For some reason, the Disney management decided to put Dale King, John Kimball and Pete Kahl all in the same office. King, Kimball and Kahl. Get it? That explains the wacky sign on the office door, and the talented young men inside. Actually, some of these guys were still in school, and this summer job was simply a way for them to get a taste of the cartoon business. A business that their talented fathers had achieved no small measure of success in.

I have to admit that it was fun having some “young blood” in Disney’s aging Animation department. By the 1960s, most of Disney’s veteran staffers were approaching retirement age, and the crusty old-timers were doing everything except shouting “You darn kids get off my lawn!” All of us younger guys were delighted to have these three kids on hand to shake things up a bit. Plus they had an immunity of sorts. After all, their Dads were three of Disney’s top animators, and nobody wanted to rankle these famous fathers because of their “misbehaving kids.”

I never got to know Dale King all that well, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. Apparently Dale didn’t share his dad’s passion for animation, and this summer job helped him make up his mind about his future. The young man would be an artist, but he would follow a different path. One the summer gig ended, Dale King chose not to return to Disney’s animation department. I’m sorry I can’t tell you a good deal about his career outside Disney, but a number of colleagues have informed me that he eventually became a very successful illustrator.

Peter Kahl tried animation to be like his famous father Milt Kahl
Peter Kahl decided on another career as well. And I can't say that I blame him.
Who would want to compete with Milt Kahl?

Pete Kahl was tall, blonde and muscular. A good-looking kid, he was more athlete than animator. Pete had a habit of walking on his toes, and I would often draw cartoons of him walking down the Disney hallway. “What’s wrong with the way I walk?” Pete would often ask. He was nice kid, and didn’t have his Dad’s irascible temperament. I can only assume he was more like his mom. Milt’s first wife was Laura Kahl.

This summer job was also the last for Pete Kahl. Rather than live in the shadow of his famous father, Pete decided to pursue other interests. After all, Milt Kahl was considered a Disney Master whose draftsmanship had profoundly influenced Disney animation for decades. Pete Kahl knew no matter how much he grew as an artist, he would always be compared to his dad. I think Pete saw this as a no-win situation, and his Disney career ended that summer.

The third member of Disney's “KKK” was Ward Kimball’s son, John. Unlike his two pals, Dale and Pete, John Kimball decided to stay in the business. Of course, this was no easy decision when you consider that even Walt Disney referred to Kimball as a genius. And as far as we know, Ward was the only Disney artist to ever be accorded such a compliment.

Perhaps John Kimball was gifted with the quirky sensibilities of an animation artist. Unlike his colleague’s preppy demeanor, Kimball sported a bushy red beard, which contrasted, oddly with his full head of blonde hair. John was more representative of the cultural shifts in the 1960s, and he certainly unnerved many of the stodgy, conservative old-timers at the studio. Of course, his Dad, Ward could hardly be considered a conservative, and often bragged that he voted for Upton Sinclair for governor of California. However, unlike the others, John seemed less intimidated by his Dad.

I even spoke with John about having to fill such huge shoes. After all, Ward Kimball was an accomplished animator, writer, producer, and director. He also fronted his own band, “The Firehouse Five Plus Two,” plus contributed his considerable talents to theme park design. Of course, there were Kimball’s hobbies such his amazing train collection and that full-sized locomotive in his back yard. Kimball had also appeared in movies and television shows. Calling Kimball a renaissance man was putting it mildly.

John Kimball decided to follow in his father (Ward Kimball)'s footsteps
John Kimball decided to follow in his father's footsteps.
He then became a successful animator & director

Undaunted, John Kimball decided to make his own way in the animation business. Rather than imitate his famous father, Kimball found his own style, and made it work for him. The two of us became fast friends while at the Studios, and we both experimented with making our own films. One of our projects was building our own animation camera stand. Which we did with the generous aid of the Walt Disney Studios machine shop.

In time, John Kimball moved on to other studios where he found success as an animator on television commercials. He worked as a director on a number of television show before returning to Disney’s television department where he eventually ended his career as an animation director.

I’ve often wondered about the other guys who occupied that special office in A-Wing. Apparently, Dale King appears to be doing well, However, Andreas Deja informed me that Pete Kahl had recently passed away. It’s difficult to think about the boys as being old guys, because for some strange reason I continue to think of them as young men.

Back in the 1960s, Dale King, Pete Kahl, and John Kimball moved into a small office in Disney’s Animation Building and began to shake things up. In one sense they were vanguards of a new era. Other “young mavericks” would soon upset the old guard, and move animation in a bold new direction. Guys like Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Lasseter would have an uphill climb at first, but in time, they would eventually emerge as the new leaders of animation.

However, these new leaders were free from one kind of pressure. Their Dads were not working at the same studio, and they didn’t have to contend with living up to their Father's reputations. Each went his own way, and gained his own measure of success.

After all, being the son of a Disney Legend can never be called easy. And I think Milt, Hal and Ward would probably agree.

Dale King tried being a Disney animator but ended up an illustrator
Dale King ultimately decided to put that animation pencil down and choose his own path.
Which is how he eventually became a successful illustrator

Did you enjoy today's Toon Thursday column? If so, Floyd Norman currently has three books on the market that also look back on his fascinating career in the animation industry.

These volumes include Floyd's 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 cataroo) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

And this week, there's even more Floyd Norman goodness to be found on the Web. If you head on over to the recently relaunched & redesigned Animated Views website, you'll find Jeremie Noyer's great new interview with this Disney Legend. Where Floyd looks back on what it was like to be on the Disney lot while Disney's "Zorro" television series was actually being shot.

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  • Thanks for today's article Mr. Norman. I don't think it would be easy growing up under the shadow of a famous father. I am a bit jealous of John Kimball though. It was because reading about his parents that I wanted a full size steam train in my own back yard. I just couldn't understand why my parents didn't think it was such a good idea. I've also wondered if Walt and Lillian's daughters felt it a bit daunting to be under their Dad's shadow. As such I was hopeing that the Walt Disney Family Museum would show a bit more of their accomplishments. Especially their own children and what their kids are doing now. (but that's not what the museum is about is it.) By the way, I loved the museum and want to thank you for your contributions to it. My Dad had been barracked in that building when he was in the military so he was doubly pleased to see how it looks now. It's certainly better looking than when it had nothing but rows of bunks with mattresses that were as thin as a pancake.

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: http://dismarks.com/GeneralDisney/Floyd_Norman_When_Dads_a_Disney_Legend_thats_a_tough_act_to_follow

  • This post was mentioned on Twitter by t_animation: Animation #Animation: Toon Thursday: When Dad's a Disney Legend, that's a tough act to follow... http://bit.ly/4aT3To

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