One of Walt Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men, Ward Kimball was truly a one-of-a-kind talent. Our animation columnist Jim Korkis spoke with Kimball in 1996 about this career, his relationship with Walt himself, and being a mentor to a new generation of animators.
Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #11.
Ward Walrath Kimball was born on March 4, 1914, in Minneapolis, Minn. In 1934, he joined the Disney Studios staff as an inbetweener and quickly rose in the ranks to become a full-fledged animator, working on scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that were dropped before the film was released. In August 1936, he married Betty Lawyer, who was working in the ink and paint department. They had three children (John, Kelly and Chloe) and eventually five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Kimball passed away at the age of 88 on July 8, 2002, of natural causes. During those eight decades, he crammed in at least eight lifetimes of achievements.
Kimball designed and animated Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio, the crows in Dumbo, the title song from The Three Caballeros, Lucifer the cat from Cinderella and the mad tea party scene from Alice as well as the Cheshire Cat, among other animation credits too numerous to mention.
He directed the first Disney 3-D cartoon (Melody), won Oscars for directing the first cartoon in Cinemascope: Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) as well as It’s Tough to Be a Bird (1970), produced the classic Outer Space trilogy programs for the Disneyland television show (released on DVD last year) and produced and directed the syndicated television series The Mouse Factory.
Kimball also published a popular book of humorous art parodies titled Art Afterpieces, helped design and create The World of Motion attraction for EPCOT Center, formed the well-known and respected Dixieland jazz group (consisting of fellow Disney animators like Frank Thomas) called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, whose albums are currently available on CD, collected toys and miniature trains in addition to his full-size railroad, the Grizzly Flats Railroad, which began operation in the backyard of his San Gabriel home in 1938 with a 64,000-pound coal burning locomotive, a wooden passenger car and more than 900 feet of track. (In 1992, he donated part of his ever-growing railroad to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California.)
Walt and Ward, all aboard!
Walt Disney once described Ward as the only genius at the Disney Studios. Ever the iconoclast, Kimball doubted the sincerity of that remark and preferred to believe that Walt said it fully realizing the ribbing and guff Ward would have to endure as a result of the comment. “Walt was a hard guy to get close to,” Ward remarked in an earlier interview, “He was a workoholic. His career was his whole life. I think I was as good a friend as he ever had.”
Kimball visited Walt Disney World in April 1996 with Michael Broggie (author of Walt Disney’s Railroad Story) to make arrangements for the abandoned trains of the now-defunct Fort Wilderness Railroad to go to private collections where they could be restored.
Unknown to Kimball, the real reason for his arranged visit was the dedication of a Walt Disney World Railroad train to be named after him. On April 24, several select Disney cast members—including me—gathered at the roundhouse behind the Magic Kingdom. Kimball temporarily exchanged his Opening Crew EPCOT baseball cap for a railroad cap and climbed into the cab of the engine for some publicity photos. Then we boarded the train and Michael Broggie and Ward switched off as engineer for an inaugural run around the Magic Kingdom.
That night I had the opportunity to sit down with Kimball and ask him to share a few stories that, despite his many interviews, he had never revealed. Despite the years, he still resembled a prankish pixie and retained his mischievous attitude with no hesitation to speak his mind.
Jim Korkis:I suppose it’s always best to start at the beginning. How did you start at the Disney Studio?
Ward Kimball: I joined the studio in 1934. I drove up from Santa Barbara with my portfolio. See, I was a smart kid. I knew that if I attempted to join some art college or get an art job in New York, I would need a portfolio. So I filled up a big black portfolio with life drawings and various sketches. I took it to the Disney Studios and the secretary didn’t know what to do with it so she told me to come back in a couple of days. I said I could only afford the gas to drive up to the Los Angeles area this time, because we were in the Depression. The secretary sent the portfolio to the story department and they had never seen a portfolio before either, so they called in Walt himself.
Some Kimball train sketches.
Walt saw a sketch that I had done based on the Edgar Allan Poe story King Pest, where I had drawn a tall, thin man running and a short, fat man running. Walt liked it so I was hired. I wanted to be a background painter and I thought that was the job I was applying for. I was very disappointed when I showed up Monday morning and was ushered into a windowless room and told I was not going to be a background painter but was going to be an inbetweener.
Ben Sharpsteen was in charge and, when I walked in, Sharpsteen didn’t turn around for quite a while and then looked at me and said, “I thought you’d be older.” I eventually got to like the challenge of inbetweening. I was working with Ham Luske. Luske was picking up bonus money when he cleaned up and corrected his scenes. Luske would get the notes from the animation critique on his work and then hand them to me to clean up and correct his work. I remember one segment was the swaying flowers in Tortoise and Hare and a spinning sign from the same film. I did the work and Luske collected the bonus money for the work. The other guys told me I should squawk about it but I was having fun meeting the challenge of inbetweening between extremes and I was learning how to animate. Finally, at Christmas, Luske gave me a set of golf clubs. And I absolutely hate golf. I can’t stand the game.
Korkis:How does it feel to be one of the legendary Nine Old Men?
Kimball: Walt hated the idea of getting old. He was on the average about 12 years older than the rest of us and that’s probably the real reason he called us the Nine Old Men, because of the age thing. It brought us up to his level. On his sixtieth birthday, he stormed into his office and his secretary offered him congratulations. And he grumbled, “What for? The first S.O.B. who comes into my office to congratulate me, I’m going to fire on the spot!”
Shortly afterwards, Ollie Wallace, who did the music for Dumbo among other things and who was something of an extrovert, burst into Walt’s office and proclaimed, “Congratulations! You’re now a member of the club!”
Walt looked over his glasses and said very slowly, “I told my secretary that the first S.O.B. who comes in here to congratulate me, I was going to fire on the spot. But in your case, Ollie, I’m going to rescind that order because you’re so much older than me.”
You have to remember when I came to the studio in 1934, we were all in our early 20s. I was only 20 and Walt was in his early 30s. We had youthful exuberance and a lot of fun. We went out of our way to invent gags and new story ideas, even on projects we weren’t concerned with. I guess it’s about time that new young people take over. Time for a set of New Nine Old Men.
A Jiminy Cricket model sheet by Kimball.
Korkis:Many people remember you as the animator responsible for Disney’s version of Jiminy Cricket.
Kimball: I hated the cricket. What I learned from Pinocchio is you can never have a bug or an insect as a hero or the lead in an animated film. It was Walt who wanted Jiminy Cricket as the glue to hold the whole story of Pinocchio together. I got sick of drawing that oval head looking in every direction. His coat I borrowed from the man on the Johnny Walker scotch bottle. In the back it curves and splits in the middle so it resembles cricket wings.
Korkis:Who is one of your favorite classic Disney animators and why?
Kimball: Norm Ferguson. Especially for his work with Pluto and the fly-paper scene and for his animation of the Old Witch in Snow White. They gave him live-action reference to study. They brought in an old actor from the stage play The Drunkard. But he found that tracing those drawings made the whole thing seem sluggish, so he just tossed it away and drew it all in that wonderful loose style of his and it’s just amazing.
Korkis: You were the youngest full-fledged animator on staff during Snow White. At that time did you think it would be such a major success?
Kimball: Snow White is a good example of what I think was the real secret of Walt. He didn’t do the stuff with his tongue in cheek. When he did Flowers and Trees, which had a tragic ending, he was sincere. He believed in it. And when he did Snow White—here are these gross cartoon figures, nothing like you’d see in real life, all the animals acting like people—he was completely serious. And to this day, the picture makes people cry when Snow White dies. I was at the premiere in 1937 and the people were so moved at the end of the film that some people put on dark glasses as they left the theater so people couldn’t see they had been crying. Betty and I sat behind Clark Gable and Carol Lombard and he got upset when Snow White was poisoned. He started to sniffle and borrowed a handkerchief. That type of reaction is hard to get with a cartoon because, after all, you are exaggerating and caricaturing and the tendency is to do a put on. Not Walt! I think that was the key to his secret.
Korkis:Your wife, Betty, was in the ink and paint department at this time, right?
Kimball: Yes, but she also did some movement modeling for Snow White. Not many people remember that. Later she was promoted to where she picked the color for scenes and characters, and when we had our first kid she left the studio.
Korkis:You’ve told me that at the premiere there was a segment that got a reaction that really surprised you.
Kimball: This is an example of Walt’s genius in timing. In the scene where Sneezy blows Dopey up in the air when he is dancing, Walt insisted that instead of showing where Dopey went immediately, to cut back to a reaction shot of Snow White laughing and then the dwarves and finally Dopey up in the rafter wiggling his ears. On the night of the premiere, that scene got the biggest laugh.
Korkis:Didn’t you teach some of the training classes at Disney?
Kimball: I had a lot of fun teaching life drawing and action analysis. In those days, sometimes the only models I could get to pose nude were strippers. One time during a life drawing class I had this stripper go through her routine and then I’d blow a whistle. She would freeze stock still for the students to draw her. Then I’d blow the whistle again for her to continue and so on. Another time I had a stripper pose totally nude for key drawings to be done in seven minutes. Then I’d have her come back and do those same poses wearing nothing but a slip. Finally, I’d have her come back and repeat the poses dressed in a nun’s habit. All that training is important so you can understand the difference between how a bear walks [Kimball demonstrates with elbows out] and a butterfly moves [Kimball demonstrates with elbows close to his body and arms turned out]. I remember one day Walt modeling the walk of Baloo the bear in Jungle Book in an impromptu way in a hall at the studio for some animators, and the final version you see on the screen is exactly as Walt modeled it.
Korkis:So you feel live-action reference is vitally important?
Kimball: But not to the extent of making it . . . well, earthbound, for lack of a better word. The great thing about animation is that you can make the characters do anything you want. They’ll do anything you can draw. But in life, you are limited by what a person can do. Whereas if you draw a person, you can put him anywhere. You can make him do somersaults, dig clear through the earth. One of the last pictures I worked on was Bedknobs and Broomsticks, where we mixed animal soccer players with real people in what I thought was a very convincing way. But because of the use of real people that was limited . . . if only by the laws of gravity.
Korkis:I think a good example of that type of exaggeration is that song from The Three Caballeros you worked on with Donald and Panchito and Jose singing the title song.
Kimball: It’s one of my favorite sequences. The song was put in at the last minute because Walt felt there needed to be a song. I was given no direction so I came up with the staging myself, making them do literally whatever they were singing. I went to one of the sound guys and had him extend the last note by 15–20 seconds so I could do the bit where they try to dampen that last note. It gave the whole thing a real touch.
Korkis:Any fond memories of Fantasia?
A Bacchus model sheet by Kimball.
Kimball: My favorite scene in Fantasia is the “Dance of the Hours” with the hippos and alligators. I wish I had worked on that. Instead I got stuck working on the “Pastoral Symphony” with Bacchus chasing the centaurettes. I hated those candy box colors in the scene. Oh, I just remembered. I also like the “Night on Bald Mountain.” Artistically, it was probably our greatest effort. And at the same time it came out it was a bomb. Walt felt pretty bad about it. He thought he was going to bring a little culture to the American people and the world. It did get rediscovered later. Kids ask me if we were on some drugs when we made the picture and I say, “No, we were just trained that way. We thought that way. The strongest drug we had was an occasional martini.”
Korkis:I don’t think many people know you briefly experimented with drugs.
Kimball: In the ’60s, I experimented with mescaline and peyote and was involved with a study being run by UCLA at that time on the effects of those drugs. One time I had this very bad trip where I thought I was falling and couldn’t grab hold of anything. All I really remember about it is that I think I was close to dying and I kept telling my wife not to call a doctor.
Korkis:It seems to me that the biggest problem for animators was not drug abuse but alcohol abuse, like Fred Moore among others.
Kimball: He’d start drinking around noon, and by two o’clock he was fairly drunk and would swagger into a room asking, “Who would like a punch in the nose?” He also had the habit of taking off his coat and tossing it onto a coat rack. One day, I stole a saw and sawed the coat rack in three places and put it back together with transparent tape. The next time he tossed his coat, the entire pole fell apart. Somebody complained that he was getting so drunk he couldn’t finish his animation on The Reluctant Dragon, so I’d come back in the evenings and finish up some scenes for him.
Korkis:But in those days, it was quite common for men to drink a lot of alcohol. Even Walt drank.
Some of Kimball’s developmental material from It’s Tough to Be a Bird.
Kimball: On that trip I took with Walt to the Chicago Railroad show, on the train every evening about four or five, Walt would pull out a flask of whiskey and offer me a drink. I didn’t care for the taste of whiskey but you couldn’t say “no” to Walt. So I took it and nursed the shot and as soon as I finished, Walt would fill it up again and I started looking around desperately for some place to dump it.
Korkis:Didn’t one of Walt’s brothers have a little drinking problem?
Kimball: You’re probably thinking of Ray. He drank fairly heavily but I bought insurance from him. He was an insurance salesman. Ray would visit the studio and the story department wouldn’t let him come in with his big cigar. So he would leave it on the sill of a window. While he was inside, one of the story guys would snip the cigar in half or down to a little stub. Ray would come out and be puzzled about what happened to his cigar. This happened all the time and he never seem to catch wise.
One day, I went over to get a copy of my insurance policy and he wouldn’t let me into his apartment. I had to plead that I had an appointment and just wanted a copy of my policy. He finally opened the door and it was pitch black inside. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that all around the place were those horseshoe flower wreaths that people put on graves. Apparently, he thought they were pretty and was going up to Forest Lawn and stealing them to use as decorations. On one wall was a bulletin board with yellowed newspaper clippings saying, “Walt Disney does this . . .” and “Walt Disney announces that . . .” etc. But I got the feeling they were there not because he was proud of his brother but jealous of Walt.
Korkis:Animators often put themselves in their work. Which character that you worked on do you feel most resembles you?