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Obituaries

Ward Kimball, 88; Key Disney Animator

July 09, 2002|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ward Kimball, the most colorful and eccentric of the Nine Old Men, the key group of Disney artists whose work set the standard by which all animation is judged, died Monday at Arcadia Methodist Hospital in Arcadia. He was 88 and died of natural causes.

In addition to his work on the classic features "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo," "The Three Caballeros," "Melody Time," "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Mary Poppins," Kimball directed the Oscar-winning shorts "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" (1953) and "It's Tough To Be a Bird" (1969).

"Ward is one man who works for me that I am willing to call a genius," Diane Disney Miller quoted her father as saying in "The Story of Walt Disney."

Born on March 4, 1914, in Minneapolis, Kimball attended the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, intending to become a painter/illustrator. In March 1934, an instructor persuaded him to submit a portfolio to the Walt Disney Studio in Los Angeles. Kimball later told an animation historian, John Canemaker, that he had insisted that the studio accept or reject him on the spot, declaring "I don't have enough money to buy gas to come back!"

Kimball began work at Disney a month later and remained there until he retired in 1973. He received his first solo assignment in 1935, animating a grasshopper-musician in the "Silly Symphony" "Woodland Cafe." Kimball quickly rose through the ranks to become a supervising or directing animator.

He spent months animating a sequence for "Snow White" in which the dwarfs eat the soup Snow White has prepared for them; he was ready to quit when it was cut from the film.

He made an appointment to see Walt Disney, but Disney began talking about "Pinocchio" and how he wanted Kimball to animate the cricket who would serve as the title character's conscience. Recalling how deftly Disney had defused a problem on one film by building his enthusiasm for the next one, Kimball said, "Walt was a salesman!"

The design of Jiminy Cricket proved difficult. Kimball explained, "Normally, an artist caricatures an animal by learning to draw it correctly--then the caricature becomes a simple problem of degree. But a cricket looks like a cross between a cockroach and grasshopper. I did 12 or 14 versions, and gradually cut out all the insect appendages. I ended up with a little man who looks like Mr. Pickwick, but with no ears, no nose and no hair. The audience accepts him as a cricket because the other characters say he is."

Kimball ranked as among his best work the animation of the jaunty but sympathetic crows who give Dumbo confidence in the form of a "magic feather." A jazz fan and a musician, he found the crows "exactly what I had in mind for animation: I realized you had to create a personality for each one, just as Walt had always insisted that the Dwarfs had to have seven distinct personalities with clean demarcations between them."

But the madcap finale of "The Three Caballeros" (1945) is generally considered Kimball's finest and most characteristic work. Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito zip around the screen, performing the title number as props appear and disappear. The song ends with Panchito holding the last note for an impossible 20 seconds, while Donald and Jose scramble for ways to silence him. Director Clyde Geronimi objected to Kimball's illogical cutting within the sequence: Donald may exit to the right and re-enter from the left.

But Disney liked the effect and, as Kimball noted, "that was all that mattered."

In 1948, Kimball formed a Dixieland jazz band, The Firehouse Five Plus Two, with other Disney artists, including Frank Thomas, another of the Nine Old Men, on piano. They began playing for noon dances on studio sound stages, with Kimball leading and playing trombone. The Firehouse Five soon graduated to nightclubs, including the Mocambo in Hollywood, appeared on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan television shows, and recorded 12 albums (which have been reissued on CD). In his later years, Kimball received fan mail--and royalty checks--for his work with a group that disbanded when the members tired of "the late hours, the extra effort and the frenzy."

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