Excerpt: 'Lessons for Dylan'

In 1968 I did a story for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine on Mickey Mouse's 40th Birthday. I interviewed Ward Kimball, one of Disney's "nine old men," one of the original animators on Snow White. He created Jiminy Cricket, among other things.

"You can recognize my house," he told me when he gave me driving directions. "There's a railroad car out in front."

I was expecting a cast-iron caboose with geraniums growing out of it, a two-foot tall planter behind a white picket fence. It was a full sized railroad car. He also had two working steam engines in the back. A mile of track. And a guesthouse filled with toy Mickeys and Plutos and The Goof (old-time Disney people always call him "The Goof").

I took my friend Terry Gilliam who was interested in learning about animation — this was long before Monty Python — and the first thing Ward showed us was how to get a cat looped on marijuana. If you're interested you put the cat in a paper shopping bag, blow some smoke into the bag and crunch up the opening.

He told us about Walt (old-time Disney people always call him "Walt").

"He wasn't much of an artist," Kimball said. "In fact he couldn't even sign his name. Not the stylized way it was drawn on the cartoons and the comic books."

When kids would ask for his autograph, he told us, Walt would say, wait, I'll do you one better, and get a photo of him and Mickey that one of his artists had signed.

Of course I put this bit of trivia into the story, and Kimball got into all kinds of trouble for it. I don't know, but I got the feeling that if he hadn't been the guy who created Jiminy Cricket he might have gotten fired. This is the kind of family secret you just don't tell the LA Times. I ended up writing a note saying I messed up just because I felt bad and didn't want anything to happen on my account to this very nice man who'd created Jiminy Cricket.

Kimball also said that Walt's genius was as an editor and a story-teller. This is true. When they brought Snow White back for a 50th anniversary release, I saw it twice in the same day, something I've never done before or since. I just couldn't believe it was as good as I thought it was. It is. Story telling so perfect Disney cut The Soup Song, a very funny bit that's one of the add-ons on the DVD. The song is funny, a Bavarian drinking song about soup instead of beer, the animation-almost complete, everything but cleaned and colored-is even funnier, Kimball directed the animation. It got laughs, it would get laughs, the easy decision would be to finish it and keep it in. But Disney, under incredible pressure and close to bankrupt, had the courage to cut it because he knew it hurt the story.

"I remember story conferences, Walt would act out all the parts, do all the voices." Disney's secret to great story-telling? Kimball knew the exact words. "'Just when things are going well,' he told us, 'bring back the witch.'"

I had about three great months. My hair came back. Darker. My colostomy was reversed. That was nice. It took major surgery and I had to figure out a new diet and relearn muscle control and Easter Sunday at friends I ran out of my diapers and had to borrow one of Dylan's, but life was getting better. My CT-scans were clean, I was getting better.

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