Sunday, March 1, 2015

WARD KIMBALL, Genius!

Ward Kimball holding court at his
"Grizzly Flats" next to Chloe
March 4, 1914 gave us one of the most talented, one of the biggest cutups and one of the most beloved artists in the Walt Disney Studio stable- Ward Kimball. Ward was so many things it’s hard to put a label on him- jazz trombonist, fine artist, toy collector, imagineer, train buff, animator… well let’s just use the moniker that Walt Disney himself bestowed on Ward- GENIUS! 

One of Ward's endless model sheet spoofs
As with many of the Disney “old timers” (Now that my dark hair has for some reason gone gray, I'm not sure I like that phrase). I first met Ward at Cal Arts back when I was enrolled in the Disney Animation program back in the mid 1970s.  He made quite an impression on me and others in the brief time he was there but what I noticed was that he really stood out from the other fellows, not just because of his owlish oversized spectacles but his big grin and voice to match it. Ken O'Connor, who was our Basic Drawing and Perspective teacher was a close friend of Ward's and had worked in the Kimball Unit on many of his popular projects at Walt Disney Studio and was able to help set up the visits.

For those who might be unfamiliar with Ward's work he brought to life with his magic pencil many famous delightful Disney characters including Jimminy Cricket, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat and oodles more. He was an inspiring director and was responsible for the Academy Award winning short, "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" and a series of shows about outer space working with other Dsiney legends like Ken O'Connor that helped Americans understand our "race into space."

I was quite the practical joker at Disney and probably spent too much time planning out gags to play on my co-workers (The soap bubbles incident, re-arranging rest room labels, setting a For Lease sign in front of the studio, etc.) when I suddenly found myself loaned out  to WED. (they did that frequently, I should have developed an inferiority complex). On one of those “loan outs” I was assigned to work on EPCOT with Ward on “World of Motion” with GM as the sponsor. If they thought it would quiet me down management was mistaken because it was more akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. 
Walt and Ward

Ward was patient as I was trying to get my head around the job and he made the time fly by giving some of the “suits” the business, one fellow in particular was an ongoing target for Ward’s humor. The ride was a send up of the history of transportation and with Ward in charge it was a funny one to be sure. I did a few gag sketches on Leonardo Da Vinci attempting flight and quite a few doodles and a pastel for the turn of the century traffic jam. Ward was turning out stunning train sketches that were not only amazing, but the guy wasn't using any reference!

We had a song, "It's Fun to Be Free" written by X Atencio with music by Buddy Baker. Ward would half hum and half sing, "It's Fun to be Me..." while doodling madly at his desk. Unfortunately I can't print his memorable version of the lyrics here. Within our sketches and even the models, Mickey would wind up pounded by a caveman, flattened as a traffic jam victim or tied to a train track with a steam loco on its way. Moments before a presentation there would be a hilarious sign or two added amidst the "official" traffic signs and let me tell ya they wasn’t there to clear up any traffic jam sister!  While adding his hijinks to the process, we still turned out a ton of work, maybe even because of it. Ward just made it a joy rather than a job.

Ward at his desk in the animation
building long before we met
They would usually limit my time on these WED excursions to two to three weeks per project and sure enough one day when I came in Ward told me I had been reassigned to the American Adventure pavilion. I was a bit upset about it but Ward tried to cheer me up and presented me with a cut out cardboard folder rendered like a traveling suitcase covered with his ridiculous made up stickers he had applied including with names including World of Notion, World of Potion, World of Lotion, well you get the idea. 

After a while you realized there
was no one on the other end
I opened that case to find a cel of a funky looking red bird from one of Ward’s Academy Award winning projects,”It’s Tough to Be a Bird”. He dedicated it,” From one bird brain to another! best wishes Mike, Ward Kimball”. I treasure that creepy little "boyd".

I really wish I could have worked with Ward at the animation studio on a feature but at this stage in his career he had moved on and spent most of his time for the company hanging out at at WED although he had just recently produced a show called “The Mouse Factory” in the early 1970s. Sadly that although I would run into Ward a couple of times later on (when they would get the Disney veterans together for photo shoots or publicity interviews at Grizzly Flats ) that brief team up at WED was to be the only time I would have the chance to work with that lovable legendary loonytoon. On a sour note I was ticked off that because of the animation strike I wasn't able to attend the wrap party for the ride. Ward, Dave Michener, Ed Hansen and Dick Lucas did sent me materials like booklets, pins and other souvenirs but it's not the same as being there. Then again I really didn't contribute much to the WOM ride when all is said and done outside of a few charcoal gag drawings and some pastels. It was Ward's baby from start to finish, and what he came up with was entertaining even if the mechanical side of the attraction had a nasty habit of breaking down.

Walt named him a genius so
who am I to argue?
Ward also founded the legendary Dixieland band, “Firehouse Five Plus Two” where he played one outspoken trombone. The reach he had with that elongated instrument among his fellow musicians like Disney animator Frank Thomas and Art Director/Imagineer Harper Goff was hilarious. Fire helmets would accidentally get knocked sideways at times as he would swing around. I want to be clear on something, as silly as he would act up there, he could really play that trombone as good as anyone and they performed a couple of lunchtime concerts for us at the old studio which were unforgettable. That band of his released no fewer than 13 LP records and toured clubs and jazz festivals with Walt's OK, as long as it didn't interfere with the animation production. Being a Naw'lins native and lover of Dixieland jazz, I have two of those records and scratch them up on my record player regularly.

One of Ward's "Art Afterpieces"
He also illustrated a famous series of paintings poking fun at famous masterpieces called “Art Afterpieces” which have been copied by some cheesy artists over recent years who pretended they came up with the idea (ironic ain’t it, copying a copy?). Those copies however never equaled Ward’s brilliance. 

In addition a lot of people don’t realize what a fine artist Ward was which evidenced in his life drawings, stills and paintings. He just rather enjoyed doing more comically inclined cartoon designs over realism. He married his best gal Betty and raised 3 talented kids, Kelly, Johnny and Chloe. I worked with John Kimball over in TVA while doing DuckTales and other series for the mouse. Betty by the way worked in Ink and  Paint in the 1930s and among her contributions to the Disney Studio was to develop the "dry brush" technique used on cels for a soft feathered rendered look used to great effect in "Fantasia". They married in 1936 and Betty left three years later to raise a family and manage the full size backyard train set of Ward's called "Grizzly Flats" which had to be seen to be believed and even then it was unbelievable!

One of the important lessons I learned from Ward was to be a chameleon and don't get pegged with one style. Another important thing he taught me was when I was working on a time machine design for a project. I was hitting a dead end creatively and happened by for a visit. He told me to collect every time machine photo and drawing I could find, pin them all up, ... then do something different! I did just that, and based mine on an Aztec Calendar of stone which when parts were rotated, stone segments rose to seat the time traveller. The other machines that had been designed for films were almost entirely of Victorian design and what we might call Steampunk these days so I opted for something much more ancient. The project was eventually shelved but the time machine design I came up with really impressed everyone at the meeting with its originality. I owe you for that one Ward, thank you!

Happy Birthday to a crazy and wonderful genius, Ward Kimball!