In the mid-1940s, a group of Walt Disney animators, artists, writers and musicians who loved jazz and collected records would gather around a phonograph at the studio during lunch breaks and play along with the records.
“Then one day the phonograph broke down right in the middle of ‘Royal Garden Blues.’ Undaunted, we kept right on playing and found to our amazement that we sounded pretty good all by ourselves!” remembered band chief Ward Kimball.
Originally, the band was called the “Huggageedy 8”. Kimball explained: “That was the sound of my old Model-T Ford. Huggageddy-huggageddy-huggageddy.”
Then it was called the “San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers.” Laughed Kimball, “San Gabriel is a little town near Pasadena where I live. So if it didn’t turn out, the boys figured they’d let them come after me! But it went okay and pretty soon we began to feel like musicians.”
The final name was a result of Kimball getting a 1914 American La France fire truck that took six months to clean and fix. In addition he got some red fireman shirts, white suspenders and authentic leather fire helmets for a trip with the band down to San Diego as part of an event of the California Horseless Carriage Club in 1948.
It was a 250-mile round trip. While aboard the fire engine, the band played in the streets, serenaded firehouses along the way, stopped at schools and disrupted classrooms when children ran out to listen to them, and generally caused all sorts of snarled traffic challenges.
Why were they called “Firehouse Five Plus Two”? Kimball often gave coy answers (he told Groucho Marx on the March 18, 1954 episode of “You Bet Your Life” game show “because there are seven of us”) but he did tell me in an interview at the Disney Institute: “Firehouse Five was the original name and we thought it was great but in order to let people know they were going to get a seven piece band instead of five, we’d say ‘plus two!’”
Over the course of a little over two decades, nineteen different men were members of the Firehouse Five Plus Two band at various times:
Danny Alguire (cornet)
Ralph Ball (tuba)
George Bruns (tuba)
K.O. Eckland (piano)
Eddie Forest (drums)
Harper Goff (banjo)
Jerry Hamm (drums)
Ward Kimball (trombone)
Don Kinch (trumpet/tuba)
Johnny Lucas (trumpet)
Jim MacDonald (drums)
Clarke Mallery (clarinet)
Monte Mountjoy (drums)
Bill Newman (banjo)
Ed Penner (sax/tuba)
George Probert (sax)
Dick Roberts (banjo)
Tom Sharpsteen (clarinet)
Frank Thomas (piano)
Disney artist Hank Porter was asked by Ward Kimball to join the group as a piano player. Porter had played the piano ever since he was a child and by all accounts was a very, very accomplished player. For whatever reason, Porter declined the offer.
One of the things that made the band unique was having a fire siren and alarm bell in their music like Firehouse Stomp, the band’s theme song adapted from the popular march Under the Double Eagle. Kimball insisted it was “not for corn but for fun and for what it adds to the music.”
“Walt always liked music and he was very proud of us. He couldn’t get over the fact that some of the guys who worked for him as animators and artists were all of a sudden the toast of the music world. He didn’t get mad if we took some time off once in awhile but we made it a rule not to take advantage of the situation,” remarked Kimball.
The band played for Bing Crosby at his annual Pebble Beach Golf Tournament which led to four appearances on his radio show.
Television also welcomed the firemen and they appeared on The Ed Wynn Show, The Milton Berle Show, the Make Believe Ballroom and the very first Disney television special, One Hour in Wonderland in 1950.
They also appeared in two feature films, Hit Parade of 1951, a B musical from Republic and Grounds for Marriage, a 1951 MGM comedy, where Van Johnson and Kathryn Grayson go to the Firehouse Club to hear the band play “Tiger Rag”. Here’s a clip from that:
In 1950 the band made a series of Snader Telecriptions (fillers for TV when shows ended early). These films show the band in a firehouse setting and feature Kimball and Harper Goff. They did The Lawrence Welk Show and made a memorable appearance on Bobby Troup’s Stars of Jazz show in 1958.
On opening day of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, the band appeared at the firehouse on Main Street for the ceremonies. “Walt told us to wander around the park and play wherever there was a crowd. We were the first mobile band at Disneyland,” remembered Kimball in a 1984 interview.
In 1956 the band appeared on the original Mickey Mouse Club where the band joined the Mouseketeers for “I Want To Be a Fireman” and “Tiger Rag” with Mousketeer Cubby O’Brien sitting in on drums.
Firehouse Five Plus Two recorded 150 tunes for a dozen albums that fortunately are currently available on CD. The band appealed to the general public, but they were also a huge hit with jazz fans, playing to large crowds at the Frank Bull-Gene Norman “Dixieland Jubilees” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
In the early 1950s, they made several journeys north to play at Hambone Kelly’s, Club Hangover and at the old Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada. Often jazz greats joined the performances as featured guests.
Brick Mack, Dick Shaw and Virgil Partch held a party on the last Red Car ride from Los Angeles to Long Beach while they and their guests danced to the music of Ward Kimball’s Firehouse Five Plus Two.
An animated version of the band appeared in the 1953 Goofy short How To Dance. The band received an homage in the ending of the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog, with the jazz-playing alligator Louis now belonging to a group called “The Firefly Five Plus Lou”.
“Firehouse Five Plus Two At Disneyland”, was recorded on July 27 and 28 of 1962 at the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, a regular venue for the band in the summertime. Besides the music are samples of Kimball’s announcements like: “We’re going to take a 15 minute break. So you have time to go on all the Rides!” The band also took part in many of the Dixieland at Disneyland festivals, sharing the bill with the likes of greats like Louis Armstrong.
Although the band’s last official gig was an auto show at the Anaheim Convention Center in 1971, few people realize that the band did get together nine years later to make one more final appearance in the 1980 Tournament of Roses Parade where they had performed thirty years before as the first jazz band ever to be in the parade.