“There was an element of boredom when you’re animating. You’re doing all these characters that move ever so slightly from one drawing to the next and it gets so repetitive that you think of excuses to take a break and blow off some steam,” Disney Legend Ward Kimball told me in 1996.
“Walt (Disney) didn’t join in on the hijinks, but he was tolerant of them. As long as good work was being turned out, he would put up with almost anything,” wrote Richard Greene in his book Man behind the Magic.
As you read these following stories, please keep in mind that Kimball was well-known as a storyteller and sometimes never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. However, during my interview with him in 1996, I can confirm he was sincere and the memory of the them brought him to good-natured laughter.
Jim Korkis: You have quite the reputation for pranks at the Disney Studio.
Ward Kimball: When we moved into the new Burbank studio, there were very few bathroom stalls that were operating. We had a main hallway in the building and these units teeing off from it and in each hallway was a man’s ‘can’ as we called it but only two stalls. So I got this idea. There was always a traffic jam in the morning due to not enough restroom stalls.
So, one day, I went down to a Salvation Army thrift store and bought twelve pair of shoes and some second-hand pants and took some wooden doweling to support the pants and shoes. I got to the studio very early one morning before anyone had come to work.
I rigged up all of these in the stalls… even the women’s stalls… with these shoes on the floor and the wood supporting these pants that I had pulled down and set on all these thrones and locked the stall doors.
Then I went to sleep at my desk where an hour or two later I was awakened by people pounding on the stall doors and yelling. All hell broke loose. ‘Give me a chance. What are you doing? What’s taking so long?’
Apparently, they looked under the stalls and saw the shoes and pants rumpled up but it never occurred to any of them to look over the top. They’d all look down under. Eventually the gag was discovered.
JK: Another version I heard involved the use of animation cels.
WK: That was another time. We took some cel material. Remember it was transparent. And we covered the top of the toilet bowl with it and then put down the lid. The women never suspected when they sat down to use the facilities until it was too late.”
JK: Let’s just say that your practical jokes were legendary, Ward, like at Ben Sharpsteen’s wedding and the wrap party for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
WK: Not everyone cared for Ben Sharpsteen. A lot of the guys felt he was Walt’s ‘hatchet man’ and he could be pretty hard, you know. So I knew they’d get a laugh at him getting back a little of his own if you know what I mean.
So for Sharpsteen’s wedding, I hired a life drawing model to walk down the aisle completely naked except for a wedding veil and holding a baby to disrupt the ceremony.
At one of the wrap parties for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I hired a guy to dress up as a policeman and come in to the party and harass Walt that the party was too noisy and he would have to take them all in to jail. Well, by the time the guy finally showed up, Walt was so drunk himself that he kept arguing with the policeman and telling him he was going to have his badge.”
Another prank animators used to play on Sharpsteen that he never knew about was when the animators were “dipping their pen in company ink,” the term used for having sexual relations with the ink and paint girls, they would sign Sharpsteen’s name in the motel registers rather than a standard “John Smith.”
JK: You were telling me earlier about Christmas as Santa Claus.
WK: I used to dress up as Santa for my kids at Christmas. We made quite a ceremony out of it where someone on the roof would pound on the roof and yell, ‘Now Dancer, Now Prancer…’ and all the kids would storm into the living room just in time to see me dressed as Santa at the chimney with my back turned toward them. I would then turn around and hand out presents.
This got to be such a big deal that other neighborhood moms started coming by and pretty soon there was a whole gang of kids and parents. So one way I put a stop to this was by giving out as Santa condoms to the men one Christmas as presents.
Years later when my daughter Chloe was old enough, [my wife] Betty complained that it was a shame that Chloe had missed out on all this. So under duress, I agreed to do it one more time. But I always liked twists so this time instead of a Santa costume, I rented a gorilla outfit and drove home wearing it.
Bill Peet, the storyman, told the other animators that he was going to phone the police and tell them he was a local animal handler and that a gorilla had escaped and was in the vicinity of my home.
But Peet on the way home apparently got roaring drunk and forgot all about it and when he did get home, he collapsed on the front lawn and his wife turned on the sprinklers to try and sober him up before he came into the house.
Well, at the Kimball home, there was the sound of reindeer on the roof. The kids rushed in and I turned around in the gorilla costume with arms raised and growling.
It scared Chloe and even today she doesn’t like me to tell the story. The dog got upset at me, too, and chased me out of the house and there I am panting and sweating in a neighbor’s house where I peel off the costume.