Ward Walrath Kimball was born on March 14, 1914 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1934, he joined the Disney Studios staff as an in-betweener and quickly rose in the ranks to become a full-fledged animator.
Kimball passed away at the age of 88 on July 8, 2002 of natural causes. During those eight decades, he crammed in at least eight lifetimes of achievements.
Walt Disney once described Ward as the only genius at the Disney Studios. Ever the iconoclast, Kimball doubted the sincerity of that remark and preferred to believe that Walt said it fully realizing the “ribbing and guff” Ward would have to endure from his peers as a result of the comment.
I got the opportunity to do a lengthy interview with Kimball in April 1996 while working at the Disney Institute. At 82 years old, he still flirted with the Disney Institute Animation Team twenty-two year old female intern. He had firmly said he would not draw anything although he might sign a few autographs in our books. She really had no idea who he was other than someone we all idolized so with a flirty giggle, she soon got him to draw a Mickey Mouse in her book much to the chagrin of the rest of us listening to Ward’s stories.
Here are a few excerpts from that evening.
KORKIS: I don’t think many people know you briefly experimented with drugs.
KIMBALL: In the Sixties, I experimented with mescaline and peyote and was involved with a study being run by UCLA at that time on the effects of those drugs. I started to get sick when I was taking them so I also took sea sickness medicine to combat those effects. One time, I had this very bad trip where I thought I was falling and couldn’t grab hold of anything. All I really remember about it is that I think I was close to dying and I kept telling my wife NOT to call a doctor.
KORKIS: It seems to me that the biggest problem for the early Disney animators was not drug abuse but alcohol abuse like Fred Moore.
KIMBALL: He’d start drinking around noon and by two o’clock he was fairly drunk and would swagger into a room asking, “Who would like a punch in the nose?” He also had the habit of taking off his coat and tossing it onto a coat rack. One day, I stole a saw and sawed the coat rack in three places and put it back together with transparent tape. The next time he tossed his coat, the entire pole fell apart.
Somebody complained that he was getting so drunk he couldn’t finish his animation on “The Reluctant Dragon” so I’d come back in the evenings and finish up some scenes for him.
KORKIS: Didn’t one of Walt’s brothers have a little drinking problem?KIMBALL: You’re probably thinking of Ray. He drank fairly heavily but I still bought insurance from him. He was an insurance salesman. Ray would visit the studio and the story department wouldn’t let him come in with his big cigar. So he would leave it on the sill of a window. While he was inside, one of the story guys would snip the cigar in half or down to a little stub. Ray would come out and be puzzled about what happened to his cigar. This happened all the time and he never seem to catch wise.
One day, I went over to get a copy of my insurance policy and he wouldn’t let me into his apartment. I had to plead that I had an appointment and just wanted a copy of my policy. He finally opened the door and it was pitch black inside. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that all around the place were those horseshoe flower wreaths that people put on graves. Apparently, he thought they were pretty and was going up to Forest Lawn and stealing them to use as decorations. On one wall was a bulletin board with yellowed newspaper clippings saying: “Walt Disney does this….” and “Walt Disney announces that…” etc. But I got the feeling they were there not because he was proud of his brother but jealous of Walt.
KORKIS: Didn’t you instruct some of the training classes at Disney?
KIMBALL: I had a lot of fun teaching life drawing and action analysis. In those days, sometimes the only models I could get to pose nude were strippers. One time during a life drawing class I had this stripper go through her routine and then I’d blow a whistle. She would freeze stock still for the students to draw her. Then I’d blow the whistle again for her to continue and so on. Another time I had a stripper pose totally nude for key drawings to be done in seven minutes. Then I’d have her come back and do those same poses wearing nothing but a slip. Finally, I’d have her come back and repeat the poses dressed in a nun’s habit.
KORKIS: Walt, of course, was highly conservative in his later years in regards to politics.
KIMBALL: One time Walt and I got into a big fight over politics. Walt wanted the staff to donate money to Nixon’s campaign and I vehemently refused. Walt didn’t like that and in fact, did not call me back to his bedside when he was dying where he supposedly gave directions to his underlings about how he wanted things to go after his death. I was in Paris and was getting ready to leave the next morning when I got a phone call telling me Walt was dead. Even though I expected it would happen, I was so stunned that I lay awake in my bed, stiff as a board with my mind racing about what would happen at the Disney Studio.
KORKIS: Weren’t you the one to start the rumor that Walt was frozen?
KIMBALL: (pause) My answer always was, especially a few years ago when the buzz was going about Disney being frozen so he could emerge later and carry on, I always tell people that if anyone was going to be cryogenically frozen, doesn’t it seem like something Walt would be interested in?
Knowing Walt, he was always interested in experiments, always interested in science. He was always interested in the “new” thing. He was that type of personality. Nobody really knew what Walt was thinking. That was the problem after he passed away. Nobody could really truthfully pass judgment on whether it was Disney because when Walt was alive he was always disputing their decisions and telling them they were wrong. So how can they be right after he’s gone?
Was he frozen? I wouldn’t put it past him and that’s my answer. I like to keep it floating out there.