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Ward Kimball

He played trombone with THE FIREHOUSE FIVE plus TWO, He animated for Walt Disney


When people think of Ward Kimball they instantly recall his brilliant work in just about every Disney animated feature from his first Snow White until he retired in 1972 to become a self proclaimed “world traveler.” But some of us smile when we think about a “little” side project of his that kept his weekends busy for over twenty years. He was the first among equals in The Firehouse Five plus Two, a traditional jazz band formed in 1949 that managed to have several top ten hits. When Ward Kimball died on July 8, 2002 of natural causes at the age of 88 he had much to be proud of: as an animator he brought to life such beloved characters as Jiminy Cricket, Captain Hook, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, among dozens of others. Later Walt made him a director and he was responsible for the Academy Award Winning UPA-inspired short, "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom", the world's first cinemascope cartoon. Just as notable, if not more so, he directed three television shows for The Wonderful World of Disney about our nascent space program. Not only did these shows help define the issue in the American public’s mind, it has a tremendous influence government policy. A one-shot 3-D cartoon, Melody, was also his work. In 1969 he received an Academy Award for the short animated cartoon “It's Tough to be a Bird." It's no wonder he became one of Walt's legendary "Nine Old Men."

Kimball was born in Minneapolis on March 4th, 1914 and spent his childhood in Kansas before his father moved the whole family to California in 1920. He began playing his horn in highschool and claims to have decided to become an artist in the sixth grade. In 1934 he joined the Walt Disney studios where he remained for the rest of his career. In January of 1992 he spoke to me from his home in San Gabriel, California. I asked him how he and some of his co-workers ended up forming the band.

Ward Kimball: It started during the Second World War when we were making training films at Disney. I found out that some of the us use to play instruments in school bands. So, we’d get together at the noon hour and poop around playing our instruments along to the phonograph. We were just playing for our own amusement, playing numbers that we liked, mostly the older tunes. I think we had some Bugsy Spanier records, some things on the OK label, some things by Jelly Roll Morton. You see some of us were collecting old jazz records. I know that I myself would sometimes go out during my lunch hour and stop at the old furniture stores around Hollywood and see what I could find.

One noon hour we had an electrical storm in Burbank and all the electricity in the studio went out. And we just kept on playing and found out that we didn’t need the phonograph. We were pretty good on our own!

And this led to some of the artist at Disney putting together a camp show where we would go out every Friday or Saturday night from the studio to entertain at one of the military camps. Sort of a music hall, vaudeville thing. And it sort of got famous. This led us to putting on a different type of show. Some of us would draw pictures while the band played. We got Can-Can dancers. It kept getting bigger and bigger. You name it, we had it — even a salvation army band and a one act play called “Curse You, Jack Dalton,” like the play they use to put on in Los Angles in the early days called “The Drunkard.”

>GEO: old melodrama. How did the Firehouse Five plus Two go from a hobby to almost a second career?

Ward Kimball: Well, I had an old Model T Ford and was a member of the Horseless Carriage Club. I was put in charge of one of our cross-country trip — meaning we would drive these old cars from Los Angles to San Diego. And each night I would have to take care of supplying the entertainment during the banquets at the rest stops for these old cars. We would have music. We would also stop and play for the firehouses on the way Between Los Angles and San Diego.

So, I decided to get an old fire truck and fix it up and get the guys from the studio together and we would play for them. We decided to dress up in red shirts and wear white fire hats (now, if you wear a white fire helmet in a fire department that means you’re a chief. So we had seven chiefs.)

>GEO: And that’s what inspired the name!

Ward Kimball: Yes, for that road trip to San Diego in our old cars. I gave us that name really just for that one trip but we soon noticed that everywhere we would go in that old fire truck people would take notice. When the Horseless Carriage Club cars finally made it to San Diego they roped off the street for us. On one side they had the old cars parked along the curb and we were on the other side and played for the crowd. Everybody was dancing in the street. They came from all over! From God knows where! That’s when things really took off for us. Every weekend we would be playing a high school dance or a college dance somewhere in Southern California. Everybody said, “we like the fire uniforms, the red shirts and white suspenders. Why don’t you keep them?” Now “Firehouse Five” is an euphonious thing to say but I added “plus Two” as a way to let everyone know that they were getting seven pieces if they hired us. And it just stuck. Les Koenig, the guy who would record us, liked the name and put it on the label. And it was a good choice. Before that when we first started playing a few concerts here and there we were called the San Gabriel Valley Blues Blowers. And even earlier when we did a few dances at the studio we were called the Huggajeedy Eight. That’s the sound my Model T makes when it’s idling: “huggajeedy, huggajeedy, huggajeedy...”

>GEO: How did Lester Koenig come to record you?

Ward Kimball: One night Lester Koenig, who had just given up being an associate producer at Paramount to start his on record company called Good Time Jazz, happened to go to a dance at the Beverley Hills High School with a friend of his. This friend was just there to pick up his niece but for a half hour or so Lou heard us play. After the dance he came up to me and said, “Would you like to record records?” I thought he was kidding. I didn’t know who he was or that he was the person who had recorded the famous Lu Watters jazz band back in San Francisco. So I just shrugged him off. Fortunately he called me later at the studio and that led to us making our first four sides in August of 1949. Then all of a sudden people started buying our records, first here in southern California and then later all over the country. In 1950 people would tell me that while driving across the United States they would find at least one Firehouse Five record on every juke box in every diner they would stop at — from New York to Los Angles. I guess that’s is some demonstration of success, when you’re played on every truck stop on Highway 66. But anyway, that let us to play a dive in Los Angles called the Beverley Cavern which was just a smoked filled beer joint. Word got around and people would come down and soon you couldn’t get into the place. We only did it one night a week. Red Nichols came down one night with somebody from MCA and this led to our opening at the famed Hollywood nightclub on sunset blvd called The Macambo. That’s where all the Hollywood movie stars would go to have dinner and let their hair down. We started playing there every Monday night which they soon began calling The Charleston Night. We started filling up the Marcambo. It became the thing to do to come down and see these guys who were dressed up in fire hats and red suspenders playing old time jazz. They hadn’t heard bands that had stuck to the old tuba and banjo combination for a few years — since the 1920. They also did a live television broadcast from there. We started playing there in the summer.

>GEO: Over the years you’ve managed to put out quite a lot of albums.

Ward Kimball: Over a period of twenty-two years we managed to make twelve albums. I guess we could have made more but we were lazy. We just did it when we felt like it. We played for the navy and army camps in the Nineteen Fifties. And Sixties. We played for the opening of Disneyland in 1955. And then we began playing there every Friday and Saturday night.

>GEO: That’s a grueling schedule considering you had a full time job at the Disney studios.

Ward Kimball: Well, we only did it on the weekend. When we were signed with MCA it use to drive them up the wall because we turned down so many jobs they would get us in Los Vegas and other places. It was hard for them to get it through their head that this was just a hobby for us. Our real jobs was to be animators and artists for the Disney studios. Who was going to give that up just to play music?

>GEO: The name Firehouse Five plus Two has been the source of many obscure jokes over the years. There’s an allusion to that in a Rock and Bullwinkle serial

Ward Kimball: Oh, yes. Walt Kelly in his Pogo comics once did a whole Sunday strip on the band. Other times he would write “Firehouse Five plus Two” on their rowboat or something.

>GEO: Of all the tracks you’ve recorded which do you think you played best on?

Ward Kimball: I thought the album The Firehouse Five Goes to Sea was the best. I really like that one. For that cover photo we actually marched into the ocean. I remember that day they shot the photograph: seven firemen in red shirts playing instrument marching into the ocean down at Malibu! We’d be hit by a wave and it didn’t look right. So we had to keep doing it over and over for the photographer until finally that wave hit us just at the way he wanted it. We always wanted our albums to have a dramatic cover. In all of our covers we tried to make it tell a story. For example “The Firehouse Five plus Two Plays for Lovers” you see all these hearts and valentines flying around. For “the Firehouse plus Two Goes to a Party” we had the band marching through a wall and smashing the bricks down and surprising a couple of lovers on a couch. We did “Dixieland Favorites” with my 1911 Maxwell Fire Chief’s car.

>GEO: You’ve owned several antique cars over the years.

Ward Kimball: Yes. I did have a 1914 Model T, now I have a 1911 Maxwell Fire Chief’s car and a 1914 fire truck.

>GEO: Did your hobby inspire comic book artist Carl Barks in some of his Donald Duck comic books?

Ward Kimball: I don’t think so. I knew Carl when he was at the studio, mostly when he was working as a story man before he started doing the comic books.

>GEO: The reason I ask is he did several stories about antique car auto races.

Ward Kimball: Like any good story man Carl would pick up any good idea where ever he found it, in the newspaper or just anywhere. That’s part of the charm of his stories. He did some of the best comic book stories that were ever written.

>GEO: They remind me so much of Mark Twain.

Ward Kimball: Yes. The comic books never identified who wrote the stories, so for years he was largely unknown. A lot of today’s artist who came up through the ranks reading his Donald Duck books referred to him as “the good artist.” He was a little better that the others who were drawing some of the Disney comic books.

>GEO: I could always pick his work out when I was young. At the time I didn’t know why I like some stories better than the others, but later I found out that they were all done by Carl Barks.

WARD KIMBALL: They have a flare, an imagination. They’re bizarre, they’re very unusual. And when they came out they seemed to be so much better than the general run of comic book ideas.

>GEO: Did you have any musical projects that went unfinished?

Ward Kimball: I guess the greatest disappointment I had in all those years was the fact that we never got around to making an album of all railroad songs. We did songs of the sea and songs for lovers a party album but I wish we had done on railroads. That was my other hobby, besides collecting old cars.

>GEO: Railroads?

Ward Kimball: Yes. I have a full size railroad. I bought two Baldwin steam locomotives, a passenger car, a freight car.

>GEO: Did I hear you right? Did you say “full size”?

Ward Kimball: Yes!

>GEO: In your back yard?

Ward Kimball: Yes! I have about nine hundred feet of track and we have an engine house with three tracks and we have a fifty-five foot passenger car with red plush seats and oil lamps. The coal burner was painted yellow and the smaller locomotive we got from Hawaii. It was a sugar plantation locomotive and it burns wood. The coal burner makes the blackest smoke so we sort of eased off using it as much, ever since suburbia has been marching out in this direction. When we bought this place it was just farm country. Now we get a little self conscious about making too much black smoke, which is what the coal burner seems to do.

>GEO: You’re very lucky to have such understanding neighbors.

War Kimball: Well, the last time we fired up the coal burner (this was before air conditioning) one woman called up and complained that we were getting her drapes dirty. She had just moved into the neighborhood and had built a house. Another person once saw the smoke pouring out of the engine house and thought that the place was on fire and called the fire department. But mainly we’ve had good neighbors. We only steam up about three or four times a year anymore and we always let their kids ride on the train so that softens the blow a little bit.

>GEO: When did you start your career at Disney?

Ward Kimball: I came to work in 1934. About a year and a half later I was animating. I was just out of art school and learned how to do in-between and be an animator’s assistant. There was a great opportunity at the time because Walt really needed animators. He was even running ads in the magazines. The place was growing up. Disney’s first studio was down in Hollywood on Hyperion Avenue. When I arrive there was only a hundred and eighty people; that included the janitors and the soundmen and everybody else. Of course we got pretty busy very quickly when Walt started working on the features. I worked on Snow White and then I was put in charge of Jiminy Cricket on Pinocchio.

>GEO: That’s around the time you were made an animation supervisor. What is that exactly?

Ward Kimball: An animation supervisor meant that you went on a picture early and fooled around and tried to arrive at a character or a model and then you would do a few scenes of animation so that by the time that the rest of the crew can on board you had a model sheet, something that Walt had oked and liked as a character.

>GEO: Pinocchio was the first feature to use the multi-plane camera. I never understood how the multi-plane camera work.

Ward Kimball: It was a way of giving a feeling of depth. The multi-plane camera had five different planes, or “cell levels,” as we called them. It was still flat artwork and they could only move right and left and back and forward. We could move the foreground trees, say, right and left as the camera moved in, created a sort of a depth look, but nothing compared to what you can get now a days with the computer. With a computer you can roll under an object go over the top of it and see it change in perspective. That’s how they did that ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast.

>GEO: How did you keep the nearest planes in focus?

Ward Kimball: That was the problem with the multi-plane camera: you had to pump in a lot of light — especially onto the bottom cell. The temperature was so hot it caused problems because it would make the cells expand unevenly wherever there was art work painted on. It came as close to achieving a visual reality and perspective as we could get back then. When I see the wonderful stuff I see now with the computers! It’s flawless, absolutely convincing. I think about the old days: boy, could we have used a computer back then!

>GEO: The opening shot of Pinocchio really shows off what the multi plane camera was capable of doing.

Ward Kimball: It’s an very good illusion. It’s a combination of multi-plane and distorted artwork. What we did was as we pan right on the artwork, we painted that down angle into the background art work itself.

>GEO: You did some great character animation in Disney’s next feature, Dumbo.

Ward Kimball: I did the crows in Dumbo that taught him how to fly when he woke up one morning after over indulgence in champagne. They couldn’t figure out how Dumb and Timothy Mouse got up in that tree. They tell them, “Maybe you all flew up!” But Dumb didn’t believe that, so the crows had to give him confidence that he could fly in the form of a magical feather. The big climax to the picture was when Dumb unfolds his giant ears and takes off like a bird.

>GEO: Any other favorites?

Ward Kimball: I worked on the mice and Lucifer the Cat on Cinderella. And the mad tea party and the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.

>GEO: Which feature works best do you think?

Ward Kimball: I have a favorite. My favorite picture still is Snow White because it had such a perfect story, it’s just beautiful the way it was put together. Everything clicked! I think the most fun I had on a film was Dumb. It was the first and only picture that we were able to do for under a million dollars. But it was so perfect, the plot, everything! It’s the only time that things weren’t overworked; we didn’t do things over and over. And it turned out to be one of my favorites.

>GEO: In the early1990s many of your albums returned to print: now on cd

Ward Kimball: Yes, Fantasy Records out in Berkeley, California. now owns the Good Time Jazz records And they have put two of the albums out on cd: “The Firehouse Five plays Dixieland Favorites and “The Firehouse Five Goes South.” They say they’re going to do them all eventually. Not all the record stores carry them; everything is rock and roll and rap now. But if you know what you want you can always get them to order it for you. We seem to be getting a mini-revival; people are once again discovering us. I always thought that just might happen someday…

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