Legacy Content

Ward Kimball Remembered
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by Rhett Wickham
July 8, 2002
LaughingPlace.com columnist Rhett Wickham remembers Ward Kimball.

(c) Disney

I’ve lost a hero.

Veteran personality animator and film pioneer Ward Kimball was the only animator on Walt’s staff who he openly referred to as "a genius." After a year long battle with failing health including pneumonia, Kimball passed away this morning at his home in Southern California. He was 88 years old.

According to sources, Kimball was joking even up to the very end. Ever the prankster and a passionate trombone playing founder of the legendary "Fire House Five - Plus Two", Ward Kimball leaves behind a legacy of extraordinary animated magic, mayhem and madness which includes the insanely predatory Lucifer the cat in "Cinderella", the enigmatic and ever-grinning Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland" and everybody’s crooning conscience - Jiminy Cricket.

Born March 4, 1914 in Minneapolis, Kimball was the fourth of the legendary "Nine Old Men" to join the Disney Studio, starting work in the spring of 1934. Author John Canemaker in his book "Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation" tells the story like this:

"Kimball’s Mother reluctantly agreed to drive him in their old Buick down the coastline to Los Angels and the Hyperion Avenue Studio ‘just this once.‘ At twelve cents a gallon, they go barely afford enough gas to go down and back.

His mother parked in front of the studio, which embarrassed Ward. Nervously , he dragged his portfolio in and announced to the receptionist, Mary Flanigan, that he was applying for a job and presented his samples....Word eventually came back that ‘they’ would like to keep his samples for a while and make a decision later.

Kimball began to wail, ‘No, I gotta know today! I can’t come back I don’t have enough money to buy gas to come back! Can’t they let me know today?’ Apparently, his portfolio was impressive; for after a lengthy phone conversation with Ms. Flanigan, ‘they’ hired Kimball on the spot. He would start the next week on April 2, reporting to Mr. Ben Shapsteen."

His ever-whirling imagination drew him to less rigid forms of personality animation that some termed "limited", but which Kimball himself preferred to call "stylized." The best examples of this are the "Adventures in Music: Melody" and "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom." His 1969 short film "It’s Tough To Be A Bird" won him an Academy Award for Best Animated Short and his terrifically witty "Mars and Beyond" is still looping on the screen at a Disney-MGM Studios Dine-In Theatre.

Kimball’s personal fascination with trains is said to have inspired Walt to build the Disneyland Railroad - making Kimball - along with Disney and fellow animator Ollie Johnston - the founder of a triumvirate that all ran full or nearly full scale railways through their back yards.

Kimball is survived by his son John, his daughter Kelly (herself a wonderful artist and historian working in the animation industry) and his wife of 66 years, Betty who was working in Disney ink and paint when they married in 1936. But he leaves behind countless "children" in the form of characters who took their cue from Kimball’s wildly inventive staging and free-spirited animation.

It’s odd to think that midway through his career Kimball found himself arguing at length with other colleagues who found it confusing to have Donald and Jose and Panchito enter and exiting from different sides - left, right, top and bottom - of the screen in "The Three Caballeros." The other animators were certain that Walt would go ballistic when he saw it. Instead Walt was delighted. Now that same madness is mother’s milk to the makers of films like "Aladdin" and "The Emperor’s New Groove." In fact, Kimball’s genius is arguably at the roots of many of the second and third generations’ wildest and funniest successes. That isn’t an argument to accuse the next generation of talent of being unoriginal - in fact quite the opposite. But it does point to the very simple fact that modern personality animators turn to the pioneers of the industry for their inspiration. They take their cues from the men and women who invented the craft, and then bring their own brilliance to the mix. I’d dare say that some of the genetic material with which Jumba Jookiba generated Stitch came from Kimball himself.

So, when you wish upon your next star, give a little whistle for Ward Kimball and say thanks for a lifetime of delight.

-- Rhett Wickham

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-- Posted July 8, 2002