Ward Kimball’s Final Farewell
Kimball: Lucifer the cat from Cinderella.
Korkis: You think you’re like an evil cat?
Kimball: You know, Walt Disney hated cats because they wouldn’t do what he told them. Walt needed to dominate. Maybe that’s why he always put up a wall between himself and others. Walt never really liked cats—anything in the cat family. Dogs you could train and tell ’em exactly what to do. Walt didn’t like cats because you could never control them. Somebody once said that all the despots of history—Napoleon, Henry VIII, Disney—never liked cats because they wouldn’t conform to their wishes. He really didn’t like interviews for the same reason. I suppose he was a little afraid or something that he might say the wrong thing. Walt wanted to be in control of the situation.
Korkis: So like a cat, you wouldn’t always do what Walt wanted?
Kimball: Walt was stubborn. Once he got something in his head, that was it. I remember one time when he got really mad at me. I was working on the script for Babes in Toyland because if the picture was not put into production soon, the studio would lose the rights to do the story. So while Walt was over in Europe, somebody in the publicity department—to guarantee that the other studios knew Disney was doing the film—put a full-page ad in the trades that read, “Congratulations to Ward Kimball as he starts direction on Disney’s Babes in Toyland.” Well, Walt had wanted me to direct, but when he got back from Europe and saw the notice he thought I was pushing myself. So he removed me from the picture. I went in and pointed out that it was the publicity department that had done it, and I even named the names of the guys involved. But Walt was stubborn and that was it.
Korkis: It seems to me you weren’t always the innocent party. I think you probably stirred up Walt occasionally on purpose.
Kimball: Walt would often call me up in the middle of the night with an idea or something to discuss and he’d always say, “Ward, this is Walt.” And I would always respond, “Walt WHO?” Then he’d get upset and yell, “Walt DISNEY for Chrissake!” I told him, “Well, I know a lot of Walts.”
Korkis: You did have a reputation as a prankster at the studio.
Kimball: When we moved into the new Burbank studio, there were very few bathroom stalls that were operating. So one day I went down to a thrift store and bought 12 pairs of shoes and some pants and took some wooden doweling to support the pants and shoes and got to the studio very early one morning. I rigged up all of these in the stalls—even the women’s stalls—and locked the stall doors. Then I went to sleep at my desk where an hour or two later I was awakened by people pounding on the stall doors and yelling. Apparently, they looked under the stalls and saw the shoes and pants but it never occurred to any of them to look from above. Eventually the gag was discovered.
Korkis: The version I heard involved the use of cels.
Kimball: That was another time. We took some cel material. Remember, it was transparent. And we covered the top of the toilet bowl with it and then put down the lid. The women never suspected when they sat down to use the facilities until it was too late.
Korkis: And these type of pranks continued even at home, right?
Kimball: You mean the one about our neighbors across the street, who were very strict Southern Baptists? One day, they got all dressed up in their finery to come over and visit. They were even bringing over a cake. I spotted them and told my whole family to strip. So when I opened the door, the entire Ward family is standing there stark naked.
Korkis: Wasn’t there an incident involving a gorilla suit at Christmas?
Kimball: I used to dress up as Santa for my kids at Christmas. We made quite a ceremony out of it, where someone on the roof would pound on the roof and yell, “Now Dancer, now Prancer . . .” and all the kids would storm into the living room just in time to see me at the chimney with my back turned toward them. I would then turn around dressed as Santa and hand out presents.
This got to be such a big deal that other neighborhood moms started coming by and pretty soon there was a whole gang of kids and parents. So one way I put a stop to this was by giving out condoms to the men one Christmas as presents.
Years later when my daughter Chloe was old enough, Betty complained that it was a shame that Chloe had missed out on all this. So under duress I agreed to do it one more time. But I always liked twists so this time, instead of a Santa costume, I rented a gorilla outfit and drove home wearing it.
Bill Peet, the storyman, told the other animators that he was going to phone the police and tell them he was a local animal handler and that a gorilla had escaped and was in the vicinity of my home. But Peet on the way home apparently got roaring drunk and forgot all about it, and when he did get home, his wife turned on the sprinklers to try and sober him up before he came into the house.
Well, at the Kimball home, there was the sound of reindeer on the roof. The kids rushed in and I turned around in the gorilla costume with arms raised and growling. It scared Chloe and even today she doesn’t like me to tell the story. The dog got upset at me, too, and chased me out of the house and there I am panting and sweating in a neighbor’s house where I peel off the costume.
Korkis: I assume Walt didn’t fully appreciate this independent spirit.
Kimball: One time he really hurt my feelings. He called me into his office and said, “Ward, you are not a team player.” That comment really stung because, even though I was an independent spirit, I had worked so hard to try and work within the system. When new kids like Glen Keane came into Disney, they’d come over to my house a couple of times to complain about the work at Disney. I told them that in my day we complained about the very same things and the same treatment. But I also said you can’t accomplish anything by grumbling, that you had to do your work and eventually you could find ways of getting what you wanted. In the early days, they had sort of a bonus system where you were either given money or a nod from Walt or a smile as a reward. It was vital to the studio at the time. That enthusiasm at the studio was lacking when I retired. You hardly saw another person working in the building, in that big corporate structure.
Korkis: How did you handle the stress you were obviously under?
Kimball: If I got really angry or frustrated, I’d go over to Griffith Park and lie on the grass near the merry-go-round. I’d put a newspaper over my face and just listen to the music.
Korkis: On a happier note, you truly seemed to enjoy working on that outer-space trilogy for the Disneyland TV show.
Kimball: I thought it looked bad to have the credits read “Produced, Directed and Written by Ward Kimball,” so I tossed over the writing credit to the guy who had done some dry research for the pieces. What a mistake! Walt believed that this guy had actually written everything and dragged him along to other projects.
Werner Von Braun, who collaborated with us on the pictures, made sure we had everything as right as we could get it. When we landed on the moon, he called me long distance and said, “Well, Ward, they’re following our script!” Actually, all his calculations were right on the button.
A crazy thing I just remembered. We used that piece of film by George Méliès [director of A Trip to the Moon] where the chorus girls in their white tights are pushing this big rocket into the cannon to be fired to the moon. Well, right after this was shown on TV in the middle ’50s, I got a telephone call from Méliès’ granddaughter, who was then an elderly woman living in Alhambra, just three miles away from my house. She congratulated me on the show and told me that she was one of the chorus girls who pushed the shell into the cannon.
Korkis: Did you enjoy doing The Mouse Factory?
Kimball: I loved it. But many folks at the studio felt I was desecrating Disney. Including Wilfred Jackson, whom I truly respect. But, yeah, I had a lot of fun doing The Mouse Factory and directing it.
Korkis: You had to get your Director’s Guild card to do all this.
Kimball: I do have a Director’s Guild card, but I have never voted in any of the Academy Awards even though I’m eligible. In fact, when it comes to political elections, I haven’t voted since Upton Sinclair ran. I feel it is useless to vote when I see all the corruption from whomever got in.
And when I was at the studio, you never got the Oscar while Walt was still alive. The Oscar went to his collection. That’s why he had dozens of them. But after he died, if you won an Oscar you’d get to keep it. The year Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom won in 1953, there were six Disney nominations. Since there was a chance we’d win multiple Oscars, they said it would look good if Walt himself marched up more than once. It would make a good show. And it did. Four times.
Second time I had a cartoon win an Oscar was for It’s Tough to Be a Bird in 1970. Part cartoon and part live action. In my acceptance speech, I acknowledged all the help of the people at the studio and I also extended my condolences to the unfortunate sea gulls in Santa Barbara caught at that time in the oil spill. A lot of people at the studio were put out because I’d said that. Because, after all, one of the sponsors of our weekly television show was Gulf Oil.
Korkis: Walt, of course, was highly conservative in his later years in regards to politics.
Kimball: One time Walt and I got into a big fight over politics. Walt wanted the staff to donate money to Nixon’s campaign and I vehemently refused. Walt didn’t like that and in fact did not call me back to his bedside when he was dying where he supposedly gave directions to his underlings about how he wanted things to go after his death. I was in Paris and was getting ready to leave the next morning when I got a phone call telling me Walt was dead. Even though I expected it would happen, I was so stunned that I lay awake in my bed, stiff as a board with my mind racing about what would happen at the Disney Studio.
Korkis: Weren’t you the one to start the rumor that Walt was frozen?
Kimball: [Pause] I always tell people that if anyone was going to be cryogenically frozen, doesn’t it seem like something Walt would be interested in? He was always interested in the “new” thing. He was that type of personality. Nobody really knew what Walt was thinking. That was the problem after he passed away. Nobody could really truthfully pass judgment on whether it was Disney, because when Walt was alive he was always disputing their decisions and telling them they were wrong. So how can they be right after he’s gone?
Korkis: Didn’t you teach Walt how to drive a full-size train on the Grizzly Flats?
Kimball: I told him, “Just pull this and open the throttle,” but I made sure I stood very close to the air brakes. Once I finally convinced him to do it, the look of joy on his face was like a young boy’s at Christmas.
Korkis: Of course, he had that miniature railroad around his house.
Kimball: When Roger Broggie couldn’t come over to run Walt’s train for parties, Walt called me. One time I was running it when Salvador Dali was there. I remember him sitting very regally on the train with a translucent cane while I drove him around the property.
At parties, Walt would tell his guests to check their watches because every day at 7 p.m., they would be able to hear the coyotes come down and howl. And sure enough, every time at 7, the guests would hear howls. Walt had a speaker system set up where he played some of the dog sounds from Lady and the Tramp.
Walt also had a huge soda fountain and full-service bar in his backyard. He loved getting behind it and making huge, rich concoctions. He had tons of different flavors and never made the same creation twice. He never asked people what they wanted. He just went ahead and made them something. I’ve been told Walt had an ulterior motive for the train and soda fountain. When his daughters started dating, he hoped it would lure the young men to the house rather than having them take the girls away somewhere where he couldn’t keep his eyes on them.
Korkis: I know Walt was a fan of Chaplin. Was Chaplin also a favorite of yours?
Kimball: My favorite comedian was Buster Keaton. Through a friend I got his phone number and talked with him. I really admired Keaton’s timing. I don’t know if he was thrilled to talk to me but I was thrilled to talk to him.
Walt had a tremendous amount of respect for Chaplin. Walt in private was just as fine an actor as Chaplin. In fact, in my opinion, I think he was a better actor than Chaplin. When Walt was acting out a scene or showing how a character might react, like in those Snow White story meetings we had where he’d get up and take all the parts of the dwarves, he was really great. He’d have us laughing so hard. Not just because he was the boss but because he was genuinely funny. I keep remembering him doing the dwarves. He was completely unself-conscious when he was showing us how to do something. But, of course, he’d never do it in public. If you asked him, he’d be very embarrassed. Both he and Chaplin understood the basic humor of any situation. Walt had that great sixth sense of timing of what might be funny and what might not.
Korkis: How come your name isn’t on a Main Street window at Disneyland?
Kimball: You know, the studio borrowed my books on architecture. I used to go to used book stores and pick up tons of books on all sorts of subjects for my personal library. Anyway, they used all my books for reference for Disneyland but they never put my name on a window.
Korkis: What do you think of the new animated films?
Kimball: The new animated films are phenomenal. But even the ones from Disney have problems with story. The motivations of the characters. The tightness of the story. It’s just not there. I wish we had had computers to play with when we were working on some of our films. It would have solved some problems. Not what you expected me to say, was it?
Jim Korkis is an internationally recognized animation historian who has written several books and many articles on the subject. Currently, he teaches animation at the Disney Institute in Florida. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Disney Company.
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