Monday, June 18, 2007
A letter from Ward Kimball
Here's a treasured possesion of mine: a reply from the incomparable Ward Kimball to a long-winded fan letter I sent him at the age of 15, in 1973. (Click to enlarge) I can't remember where I got ahold of the Disney Studio address but I do recall scribbling a five-page missive of high praise and holy ambition to become an animator to the man who was my number one hero at the time and remains one of them still . I also recall not expecting much in return; fan letters to Charles Schulz always ended in a pleasant but disappointingly generic form letter from "Snoopy." (sigh)
There wasn't much out on animation those days but I knew Kimball was the "screwball" animator and director who had won Oscars and Emmys for projects like MARS & BEYOND, TOOT/WHISTLE... and TOUGH TO BE A BIRD. There was also a short-lived syndicated show on TV back then called THE MOUSE FACTORY that he produced and directed. It was uneven attempt to make Disney seem "cool" to kids with different stars like Johnathan Winters and Jo Anne Worley guest hosting each week to cover a general topic using Disney clips. I knew that he had also animated a lot of the mice and pretty much all of the cat in CINDERELLA, was largely responsible for Jimminy Crikcet and had done my favorite sequences in ALICE. And that Walt himself had gone out of his way to hail him as a "genius" in the Pete Martin biography I had read at the library.
So you can imagine the excitement at 236 East Genesee St. when this came, a full personalized letter from the man himself, complete with sage advice and ecclectic rubber stamps (note the R. Crumb one on the back envelope!). I must have read it a million times and I'd like to say it sunk in immediately, but it took a great while longer. It did encourage me to open up to Ralph Bakshi's work, which at the time I did with a vengeance.
He also passed my screed on to colleagues like Ken Anderson and Don Duckwall, who responded in equally generous kind with brochures, model sheets (and in Ken Anderson's case an original drawing!) which showed up in the weeks following this. I was in heaven. I continued to write back, but I think they all felt they had done their due, (they certainly had!) and I wasn't crushed that the correspondence ended there.
One thing that really struck me later was how he reacted to my deep scorn for the Hanna-Barbera products of the time (SCOOBY-DOO etc). He was highly realistic and grounded toward their dillema of producing animation in an era where the economics reduced things to the same exigencies one would encounter "selling washing machines." That mature view resonates more deeply now than ever and was solidly driven home in 1985 when I found myself "reduced" to working at Filmation, something as far from Disney as anyone could imagine. Still, at that point in time I took the intiative to contact Mr. Kimball again and although he didn't recall our previous correspondence, (thank goodness), he invited me over to his house for a chat and I ultimately spent a few hours on a very cold but sunny Saturday afternoon in February, talking with him about all things Kimball and all things animation.
What made his optimism and charitable outlook in that old letter feel even more poignant that afternoon was learning that he must have written it during (or just after) a time of such acrimony between him and leadership at the studio that events led to him choosing to go into semi-retirement and essentially close the Disney Animation chapter of his life. That's a story I don't feel is mine to publish, but I will cover some of our conversation from that day in a later post.