We uncovered lots of fascinating pieces of Disney history while working on Ward Kimball’s biography—you know, the one that the Disney Company’s lawyers won’t allow you to see. Among the discoveries were film reels of Ward’s home movies, which I can report are a fair deal more interesting than the average person’s home movies.
We transferred those reels, and with permission, I’m sharing a rarely seen piece of movie footage shot by Ward. Tomorrow, it will be exactly 65 years since this film was recorded (April 4, 1948). In it, Ward and Walt Disney visit the home of Dick Jackson, a wealthy businessman who operated a scale-railroad in the backyard of his Beverly Hills home.
Kimball had been a close friend of Jackson’s for years, and often dropped by for steamups. A little over six years earlier—December 7, 1941, to be exact—as he was driving to Jackson’s for a steamup, he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The news unsettled him momentarily, but he “forgot it all with Jackson’s locomotive,” he wrote in his journal. Backyard railroading had the magical effect of allowing people to put the real world on pause, even if only for a few hours at a time.
In spring 1948, Ward had become aware of Disney’s budding interest in scale-model trains, and he invited Walt to come along to Jackson’s place for an afternoon of scale railroading. This is, I believe, the first time that Walt had ever personally operated scale-trains. Disney was hooked after the visit, and soon after he began constructing his own luxe backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific.
Kimball’s unusually close relationship with Disney allowed him to capture these unguarded moments of his mercurial boss. Disney appears to be enjoying every hunched-over second of the railroading experience, and he takes the time to acknowledge Ward’s camera on multiple occasions. Ward wrote about the day’s events in his private journal:
Sunday, April 4, 1948
Up with bright sun. Kids helped me put nitrogen around orange trees. If they didn’t, no Jackson train ride. Damp grass. At 12:45 left for Jacksons in Beverly Hills. 1st over there. He started the Colorado Central. Steam up at 2:00. Walt Disney arrived soon after. Got a big kick out of it all. We showed him the works. He couldn’t quite believe that it was all scale! He tried it out—got scared when drivers spin. “What the hell was that!” he’d ask me. He had lots of fun. We all took movies and Jackson took stills. Showed Walt Jackson’s shop. Kids rode and played “Train Robbers.” Home at 5:30. Broiled corn beef over fire place.
The original film is silent so I added some music—of course, Kimball’s band The Firehouse Five Plus Two. Below are identifications of the people in the film, including Ward’s wife Betty and their three children: