By Cory Gross
Each of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men" contributed something of such merit to American animation that there is no sense in trying to decide which amongst them was the greatest. Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Ward Kimball had worked with Disney since the late 1920's and early 1930's, their work defining the company's Golden Age. Their collective legacy includes such characters as Maleficent, Shere Kahn, Bambi, Cruella De Vil, Br'ers Rabbit, Fox and Bear, Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, Monstro the Whale, the Queen of Hearts and the occupants of both the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
My personal favorite, however, is Ward Kimball. A man after my own heart, his first reported drawing was of a steam train. After seeing Disney's Three Little Pigs, this Santa Barbara School of Art student approached Walt and started working for him in 1934. His name can be seen on the credits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for which he animated several dwarf scenes and after which he moved on to creating one of the company's most enduring personalities, Jiminy Cricket. The Walt Disney Family Album episode featuring Kimball iterates the challenge of making a ghastly-looking insect into the lovable cartoon character that acted as a veritable mascot for the company for decades. His effervescent style is also notable in Dumbo's crows, Ichabod Crane, Lucifer the Cat and the mice from Cinderella, Professor Ludwig Von Drake, Pecos Bill and Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, and the Walrus and the Carpenter.
The madness of Ward Kimball is best demonstrated by his animation for the title song from The Three Caballeros. One of the films to come out of Disney's goodwill trip to Latin America during World War II, this sequence has Donald Duck and José Carioca meeting Panchito for the first time in an explosion of light, colour, sound and slapstick. Critics that limited themselves to the products of the modern Disney company might be excused for thinking that they always play it safe, taking few creative risks and allowing the market to dominate the artistic process. It is easy to take for granted just how innovative Walt and his animators were 70 years ago. As they gyrate from films like Dumbo to Fantasia, from Pinocchio to Song of the South, from Bambi to The Three Caballeros, it often seemed like their dominant theory was throwing everything against the screen and seeing what stuck. Kimball's effort breaks open a pinata of utter insanity.
When not behind the drawing table, Kimball could be playing the trombone with the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland Jazz troupe composed entirely of Disney animators. They are largely credited with the revival of Dixieland in Southern California in the 1950's - invigorating retro-style when record companies buried "old fashioned" music like Jazz. They performed eleven albums and had appearances in several feature films. Walt was patient with this side project, showcasing them on the One Hour in Disneyland special, the Disneyland opening day broadcast, several episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club, recording one album live at Disneyland and overseeing their animated incarnations in the Goofy cartoon How to Dance. Nevertheless, Walt informed them that he could only indulge their hobby so long as it didn't interfere with their work for him.
Walt and Ward's relationship was shaky. He was the only one of the Nine Old Men that Walt publicly declared to be a genius, yet he was rarely given the same directorial stage as others, perhaps because his style was so far beyond the pale. One can imagine the difference in political opinion between the two, evidenced by Kimball's Escalation. Privately produced two years after Walt's death, it protests the escalating war in Vietnam by likening President Lyndon B. Johnson's policy to a throbbing johnson. In an interview with Michael Barrier, Kimball recalled when Walt threw his support behind the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon and applied pressure to his staff to do the same. Ward replied that even if he was a Republican, it would look bad for Walt to do this. It wasn't until other conservative staff-members objected that Walt let the issue fade.
In happier times, Kimball was largely to be credited with rekindling Walt's love of steam trains. No one did a hobby quite like Ward, and when a scrappy old passenger coach and 1881 Baldwin steam locomotive became available in 1938, he purchased them. Further narrow-gauge track was laid and additional rolling stock restored, so by 1942 Kimball's backyard Grizzly Flats Railroad was ready to go. This ambitious fantasy world inspired Walt to build his own miniature backyard railway at his home in Holmby Hills. It also added to the stack of inspirations for an old time studio park beside the Disney plant in Burbank. That project evolved into Disneyland in Anaheim, around which runs the Disneyland Railroad to this day.
As thanks for sharing this passion, Walt gifted Ward with the railway station from the 1948 mixed live-action and animated film So Dear to My Heart. The Victorian gingerbread-style station was merely a false front, which Ward worked on tirelessly to turn into a real building for the GFRR. Unfortunately, when Walt was looking to cut costs for the construction of Disneyland, he asked Ward for it back. Ward refused, and the current New Orleans Square/Frontierland station is a replica of that from the film. The actual station currently resides in the possession of John Lasseter and the rolling stock sits in the collection of the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. Some of Kimball's collection of railway ephemera and a Firehouse Five Plus Two fireman hat can be seen at Walt's Barn in Griffith Park, preserved by the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society. In honor of his contributions, the #5 engine of the Disneyland Railroad is named for Ward Kimball.
Ward's greatest legacy, however, is in the fantastic cast of characters he created as well as the few times that Walt did put him in the director's chair. He won two Oscars: one for It's Tough to be a Bird and a second for the stop-motion Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. He was also given charge over the Man in Space trilogy for the Disneyland television show, exemplifying both his interest in the world around him and his imaginative style. Kimball, in his own gonzo way, was one of Disney's greatest Renaissance men.