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A Visit With Ward Kimball - Part I
by Bob Welbaum with Fr. Ron Aubry
Disney legend Ward Kimball was, like Walt Disney himself, an American original. The only man Walt called a genius, Ward was an animator, musician, train enthusiast, toy collector, and probably a few other things which escape me at the moment. He was also famous (notorious?) for an offbeat sense of humor with a penchant for practical jokes.
Years ago, when Ward was still alive and active, I'd had friends who had visited his home, and I was jealous. Fortunately, one of my best friends is Father Ron Aubry, a fellow NFFC member who at that time was editor of the club's journal Fantasyline. Could the two of us finagle an interview with Ward for Fantasyline? It was worth a try.
So during that year's NFFC convention I called Ward, using the phone number I had badgered out of one of my aforementioned friends.
Sure enough, Ward answered. Could the two of us come by to see him?
He immediately began running through his schedule. "Well, tomorrow I have ____ group coming over at 10, then....â€? We agreed on a time for Monday morning, July 20, 1992, and made sure we were there on the dot.
Ward had quickly made it clear there would be no interview. If we had come to marvel at his greatness, forget it! He was not into hero worship. At least twice he grumbled "Just don't ask me for an autograph.â€? (Of course, he did get our signatures in his guest book!)
But if we had come as friends to discuss subjects of mutual interest, let's go!
Ward graciously showed us what must have been his entire collection - full-size trains, miniature trains, toys... We ended up in his living room sitting on the sofa and talking -- a gathering of friends reminiscing about the past and discussing collecting. In the process, we met his wife and saw some of his personal artwork.
All too soon, Ward let us know this was all the time he could spare. We expressed our heartfelt gratitude at his generosity (after all, we had invited ourselves) and made our exit.
The rest of the day was spent driving around LA, visiting other sites with a Disney interest, all the while frantically, almost desperately, dictating every word and action we could remember into the tape recorder we'd brought for the interview that didn't happen. The resulting transcript was sixteen pages long!
Recently my copy of that transcript resurfaced, so I would like to share the highlights and our impressions of Ward Kimball:
We drove our rental car up a looped driveway with two gates; one could enter the first gate, go up to the front door, then on around and exit through the second gate. From the front of the house we could see the end of the track of his full-size railroad and one of the train cars.
Ward and his wife Betty lived in a very open, spacious house with high, almost cathedral ceilings with painted rafters. Our first impression from the front was that the house seemed surprisingly humble for someone of Ward's stature. In fact, at the time of our visit some elements were due for repainting. But when you consider his spacious backyard, we figured this must be pretty nice as LA real estate goes.
Just inside the front door was a large carved wood black & white statue of a man with his hand extended; he resembled Abraham Lincoln without a beard.
We introduced ourselves to Ward. He was wearing a red & white striped shirt, ordinary slacks, and of course those thick glasses with the round black frames. After a bit of small talk, he put on a white hat resembling a pith helmet and began the tour.
We walked through patio doors, then through a gate into the back yard past an El Camino Royal bell (which marked the missionary routes of old California and sounded like a clay pot when rung). The yard contained various railroad paraphernalia, like a sign that said "Watch Outâ€? and distance markers throughout the back, and a pile of railroad ties. Several tracks converged to form one: Ward's layout was linear, not a loop. And there was a partially dismantled windmill (more on that later).
First stop was the wooden train station which had come from the set of the movie So Dear To My Heart. Ward said it was amazing Disney went to so much trouble to build it for just a few scenes. But originally it was a simple movie set with tall, narrow windows, dirt floors, and a canvas back. (Apparently they had also used it as a classroom for child star Bobby Driscoll.) It had arrived by truck in sections; Ward had put in a foundation, then built studs, rafters and the back. The result was a great station, with a big potbelly stove in the middle and all kinds of railroad memorabilia all around. What caught our attention was a map of the US around 1867 from about Missouri east showing the railroad telegraph lines. Other decorations included a wall telephone, and a very large photo of the train steaming past the station. Most unusual was a picture of Ward with a very old man seated next to him with a caption "The Last Of The Great Train Robbers.â€? It was hung next to a newspaper article about a train robbery.
We also remember about six models from the US Patent Office he had purchased for $10 a pound when the Patent Office was housecleaning.
The sign on the outside said "Grizzly Flats Train Station, Population 5.â€? (Ward had named his set-up the Grizzly Flats Railroad.) Ron asked about the name, and Ward simply said it was the name of the model railroad he had begun to build.
Next we walked to a barn where two full-size steam locomotives rested -- a wood burner and an oil burner. Ward told us he only ran the oil burner at that time because of neighborhood complaints about the wood smoke. He also mentioned a bit indignantly that he had thirteen neighbors and they all had charcoal grills, which collectively put out as much smoke as that engine! (We did notice a funnel built into the ceiling above the locomotives so they could be fired up indoors.)
Behind one locomotive was an elegant-looking passenger car similar to the one at Disneyland. In between the two locomotives was a full-size passenger car which he said he bought in the 1930s for $50. Each of the engines he'd bought in the '30s for $400-500. He said passenger cars were so plentiful then they were being burned in the desert. Locomotives were being scrapped for the iron, which ironically was being shipped to the Japanese (remember, this was just before World War II).
Also in this barn was a huge monster statue which appeared to be made of iron. Touch revealed it was actually made of Styrofoam. It came apart in three places and we were told one person could lift it, but we didn't try. Its other feature was illuminated eyes; Ward obligingly turned off the lights to show us. We noticed what appeared to be a steam whistle in its mouth and asked what it was for, but Ward said it didn't do anything.
We also got to stand in a locomotive cab, although it was too dark to make out any detail.