Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Disney In the 70s (part 3)

WARD KIMBALL Left: Ward Kimball by Ward Kimball, from the collection of Bob Foster (Ward actually could draw Mickey Mouse) Ward Kimball -- probably the most well-known of Walt Disney's original group of animators -- left the studio in the early 70s. I'm told the reason for his departure was a simmering feud with Disney's Chairman of the Board Card Walker. Mr. Walker thought a portrait of Walt Disney -- carved in granite and prominently displayed on the first floor of the Animation Building -- was a fine piece of art work. Kimball circulated a memo making it clear he thought the portrait was a piece of something else. At any rate, soon thereafter Ward K. departed, taking his talent, stock options and Academy Award with him. Over the next thirty years, he came back to the studio often, but never as a long-term staff employee. He came back to lecture, and he came back for well-paying short-term gigs. In the late seventies, he signed up to work at WED on the EPCOT Transportation pavilion at Disney World. That's when I got to know him. In 1980 I interviewed him for an article on Disneyland's opening in 1955. I had talked to various old-timers about their memories of the park's early days, and I talked to Ward about what he recalled of the first day that Disneyland was open, with all the big shots, all the television cameras, and everything else. It turned out he had a terrific story about it. I liked his tale so much I used it to end my article. Ward told it like this:
I was playing with my jazz band the Firehouse Five in one of the Disneyland show areas, in front of several television cameras. It was hot, it was crowded, but somehow we staggered through to the end our segment of the tv show. After that, we went over to the court house on Main Street to entertain the hordes of people. I happened to see Walt's wife Lillian, and asked her what she thought of Walt's new toy. She was tired and hot and a little bewildered by all the pandemonium. She just looked at me and sighed: "Well, at least he isn't running around chasing other women."
The above quote came out in an advertising supplement in the Los Angeles Times that trumpeted Disneyland's 25th anniversary. I was then a staff animation writer at Disney, wrote the piece because I was asked, and didn't think much about it. But a couple of days after it appeared, I got a phone call from one of Walt Disney's former secretaries, and she was livid: "That article is horrible. I talked to Mrs. Disney about what you wrote, and she never said that 'chasing other women' thing." I said "Oh," hung up the phone, and figured my four-year career at Disney would soon be coming to an abrupt end. I recall a sour column of bile rising into the back of my throat. Ultimately, my time as a Disney employee did end, but it happened six years later. Beyond the angry phone call, there turned out to be no repercussions over Ward's quote or my publishing of it. To this day, I don't know if Lillian Disney misremembered talking to Ward, or Ward was embroidering a story, or what. But I like to think...I want to think..that Ward Kimball was telling me the unvarnished truth.


Anonymous said...

You weren't the first to hear that one. Ward told the exact same story to the author of a book of collected first-person interviews, "You Must Remember This" compiled by Walter Wagner, published in 1975. Ward followed up that comment of Mrs. Disney's in the book with this coda(as best I can remember it): "I thought that was kind of an odd thing to say". Lese Majeste!

That said, I have trouble believing that you didn't think anything of such a quote when you printed it. I mean, it isn't something my own mother would have enjoyed seeing in the LA Times if she'd said it, joke or not; much less the widow of one of the world's most famous men(especially considering what he's famous for). Even though Ward told the anecdote to you, it might have been poor judgement to print it at the expencse of a still-living woman(Mrs. Disney). Sorry to be harsh, but this was a real person, with real family, grandkids, etc. The point of the anecdote is that Walt didn't(apparently)fool around, but how could that NOT have embarrassed her to read that?
Not very smart as a DISNEY staff writer to do that. Not being fired for it shows more restraint on someone's part than you exercised yourself.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the club, Steve. Many Disney old codgers have told me things only to recant them some years later.

There are probably a number of things I would never write about even though I observed them firsthand.

Steve Hulett said...

Kimball knew I was interviewing him for publication; obviously he had sent the anecdote out into the world at least once before, as you note. He never mentioned to me that he thought it "and odd thing to say."

You're probably right to question my judgement, but I was young at the time. Single guy that I was, I thought Lillian's comment to Kimball was wry and witty.

Shows what an overdose of Vitamin E will do to you.

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