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Ruminations: The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes Digital

Ruminations: The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes Digital

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If you have ever watched "Dateline Disneyland" (ABC's Opening Day live television broadcast), you may have seen a group of musicians nattily attired as firemen. They were first seen at the Fire House when Main Street's Town Square was first shown; proudly tending to the department's spiffy new chemical wagon.

Moments after the dedication of Disneyland, they appeared in the first Disneyland parade, marching down Main Street to the hub, behind Bob Cummings.

Finally, they showed off their Dixieland jazz talents as part of a rousing song and dance number at the "Plantation House" restaurant in Frontierland.


Image captures from "Dateline Disneyland"

So, just who were these guys? Would it surprise you to learn they all worked at the Disney Studio in Burbank? Turns out that the group got its start enjoying classic jazz records in Ward Kimball's office during lunchtimes. That led to playing along with the phonograph. When it broke down one day, they just kept on playing. And they sounded pretty good, too. So much so, that the group started getting invitations to parties and other gatherings to provide entertainment.

Among all of the other interests this group shared was a passion for antique automobiles. For one gathering, Ward Kimball found a 1914 American LaFrance fire truck in Venice, California. It took about six months, but he restored it to bright and shiny operation with all of the appropriate apparatus. With the boys outfitted in red fire shirts, white suspenders and leather fire helmets, they made their debut as the "Firehouse Five" in 1949. The addition of two more musicians made for the "Firehouse Five Plus Two."

While Dixieland jazz wasn't dead, it certainly was not familiar to many people outside of New Orleans back in the days that the FH5+2 started appearing around Southern California. There was something infectious about the energy that it generated that seemed to appeal to folks - musicians and audiences, alike! So while you can't give exclusive credit to the band for reviving Dixieland jazz, they get their share of it for doing what they did.

And today, the genre is alive and well, as seen at events all around the world - especially this coming weekend at one of the largest events of it's kind -- the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. Bands from Poland, England, France and Guatemala (as well as from all around the U.S.A.) will be performing all around town, including the Old Sacramento area along the Sacramento River. The appeal of this music is still growing today, almost 60 years after groups like the FH5+2 brought it back to the public's attention.

Now after Opening Day, the Firehouse Five Plus Two played many times at Disneyland, and even appeared on an episode of the "Mickey Mouse Club". One of their appearances is immortalized on an album, "Firehouse Five Plus Two at Disneyland." Highlights from the evenings of July 27th and 28th of 1962 from the Golden Horseshoe truly provide a great look at a live performance by the band.

That's only one of many recordings the band produced; everything from appearances on various compilation records to long playing 33-rpm albums of their own! Thanks to the folks at Fantasy Records here in Berkeley, the Good Time Jazz label lives on, and the FH5+2 is a great part of their collection.

The albums all were themed, with music to match the concept (much like the attractions at Disneyland). Here's the list of Compact Discs (all available on Amazon) and some samples of the covers (in roughly the chronological order they were recorded):

"The Firehouse Five Plus Two Story"
(Previously released as three albums, Parts 1, 2 and 3)

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes South!"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Plays For Lovers"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes To Sea"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Around The World!"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Crashes A Party!"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two At Disneyland"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes To A Fire!"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Twenty Years Later"

"Firehouse Five Plus Two Dixieland Favorites"

The last album features a few songs you'll still hear today on a visit to Disneyland. The next time you take a voyage down the Rivers of America from the Frontier Landing aboard the paddle wheel steamer, "Mark Twain," listen up! You may hear "Fidgety Feet,""Come Back, Sweet Poppa" and "Muskrat Ramble" as well as other favorites recorded by the FH5+2.

The band was (and is) a great salute to the talented Disney folks who shared so much with us all during their careers. While Ward Kimball (as the leader of the group, played trombone and siren) generally is remembered, there were many others who played on the records and at the live appearances. Here's a list (likely incomplete) in no particular order of appearance:

Danny Alguire (Trumpet and Coronet)
Ralph Ball (Tuba)
George Bruns (Tuba)
K.O. Eckland (Piano)
Eddie Forrest (Drums)
Harper Goff (Banjo)
Jerry Hamm (Drums)
Don Kinch (Tuba)
John Lucas (Trumpet)
Jimmy MacDonald (Drums)
Clarke Mallery (Clarinet)
Monte Mountjoy (Drums)
Bill Newman (Banjo)
Ed Penner (Tuba)
George Probert (Soprano Sax, Clarinet and Ocarina)
*** Roberts (Banjo)
Tom Sharpsteen (Clarinet)
John Smith (Soprano Sax)
Frank Thomas (Piano and Celeste)

Now that is one impressive list of Disney alumni!

From what I've been able to find, the group's last performance was in Anaheim on November 17, 1971 at a car show at the Anaheim Convention Center (directly across Katella Avenue from Disneyland; where they had played so many times). From an account of that event, they brought the house down with a rousing rendition of the "Tiger Rag" as their grand finale.

Thanks to those tracks used in Disneyland as well as the Compact Discs, the sounds of the Firehouse Five Plus Two will live on for a long time to come. And earlier this month during the Disneyland Press Event, there was a salute to the group. As their appearance was recreated by another group of musicians, appropriately attired, playing some of the same Dixieland jazz classics before and after the ceremonies to open the new "Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years" exhibit being presented in the Main Street Opera House.

 

And in a final interesting twist... The second half of Ward Kimball's vast toy collection is being auctioned off today and tomorrow in Philadelphia by Noel Barrett Auctions. Among the many fantastic items for sale, and expected to be very popular with bidders - a white Firehouse Five Plus Two leather firemans helmet. It was worn in an appearance by the band on their own float in the 1951 Tournament of Roses Parade. The pre-auction estimates run between $2,000 and $3,000. Should make for spirited bidding...


Hope you enjoyed this musical interlude from Disneyland's past! Check back next week for another tale from Anaheim...

And if you want to add any of these discs to your own collection, why not take advantage the links below and support our efforts through your Amazon purchase. It won't cost you any less, but it's a great way to show your appreciation for both the Firehouse Five Plus Two and the folks here at JimHillMedia!

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  • Great story. I can't help but notice in the fist picture you posted of opening day, that you can see two people peering out the window of Walts apartment above the firehouse. I can only imagine who that could be...

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