The Firehouse Five Plus Two was a popular Dixieland Jazz Band that was active from 1949 to 1972. The band was made up of a group of animators, writers, and other imagineers from the Walt Disney Studios back in the 40s led by band leader and trombonist Ward Kimball (who was one of Disney’s lead animators and formed the group known as Disney’s Nine Old Men).
The group got started in the early 40’s when a group of Disney employees would get together in Ward Kimball’s office every day during lunch to listen to old jazz records by such artists as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Most of these jazz-loving Disney employees had played musical instruments when they were in school and one day got the idea to bring in their instruments and play along with the records during lunch. One day the record player broke in the middle of a song, but the players kept on playing! Turns out they didn’t sound too bad even without the record accompaniment. So they kept on playing.
Originally they titled themselves the Huggajeedy Eight and then the San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers. During this time they were requested to play for dances and parties in the surrounding area. One day the band was asked to drive down to San Diego to play at the Horseless Carriage Club’s Auto Tour. The one rule though was that no vehicles could be newer than 1914. So, Ward Kimball found and restored a vintage 1914 firetruck for the group to drive down in. Naturally, the group put on firemen’s uniforms since they were riding on a firetruck. However modern day fireman’s uniforms would never do so Ward Kimball placed an ad in firemen’s magazines searching for authentic turn of the century uniforms.
Now the pieces were in place. They had the truck and they had the uniforms and were ready to drive to San diego as The Firehouse Five Plus Two. The “Plus Two” was added so when the group was hired the people who hired them would know they were getting a seven piece ensemble, and not just five musicians).
The Band was “discovered” by Les Koenig who worked at the time for Paramount Studio and was himself a jazz fan. He heard the band playing for a high school dance and asked them if they’d like to make records. They recorded their first album in 1949 – The Firehouse Five Plus Two Story.
The band was proud of what they called their “good time” sound (which is the term they also used for their record label, Good Time Jazz) and became an overnight sensation following that first album.
The 1950s saw the band playing concerts, dances, weddings, parades, and more. The 1955 opening of Disneyland presented a new opportunity for the group as the band was made up of some of Disney’s best animators. Walt Liked them and invited them to play in Disneyland on opening day in 1955. They appeared on ABC’s opening day coverage playing in front of the firehouse in town square, in the opening day parade, and at the now extinct plantation house restaurant in Frontierland.
Disneyland was a perfect setting for the happy brand of jazz for which the group was quickly becoming known.They eventually played summer appearances at Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Saloon for 15 years in a row. The music of these performances was captured live at the Golden Horseshoe for one of the band’s later albums The Firehouse Five Plus Two at Disneyland.
That album was their first in-person recording and is great because it has everything from Ward Kimball’s announcements, the jokes he cracks, the warm response from the audience and even a clunk at at the end of the track “Anvil Stomp” which was drummer Eddie Forrest accidentally dropping the anvil on his foot. This album includes such tracks as “Anvil Stomp,” “Lassus Trombone,” and one of their signature tracks, “Tiger Rag”.
In the beginning when Ward Kimball is saying he’s going to bring a little culture to the Golden Horseshoe, is because the first song is called “Anvil Stomp” which is a Firehouse Five zany take on Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. The second song was “Lassus trombone,” a version of “Lassus Trombone” by Albert White and His Gaslight Orchestra was used in the 1976-1991 Main Street USA Area music.
The band was also invited to perform on the original Mickey Mouse Club’s Anything Can Happen Day and performed two songs, “I Want To Be a Fireman” and “Tiger Rag”.
Because the group was made up largely of animators who were used to sound effects in their work, you can hear that they aren’t afraid to incorporate non-traditional instruments and sounds into their music giving it a very unique and playful sound. One can frequently hear sirens, bells, and whistles in their music. They are also notable for having brought back the Washboard. There was a time when playing the Washboard was very common in dixieland jazz groups but they had grown increasingly more rare throughout the years. Ward Kimball brought the washboard back to popularity in the firehouse five and you can hear him playing it in several tracks.
On November 17, 1971, the Firehouse Five Plus Two played its last gig at a car show at the Anaheim Convention Center. Ward Kimball was the one consistent member of the band through the years. Kimball was once quoted as saying, “Don’t get the idea from all this that this is a one man affair.” He continued, “the band exists as a unit, and no man is any more important than any other one,”
It’s easy to forget that these band members had day jobs. They worked for Disney. Members of the band through the years were responsible for animating legendary Disney characters such as Jiminy Cricket, supplying sound effects to a number of Disney movies, and designing things such as the nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and also Main Street USA itself.
Their producer Les Koenig said of the band, “Not having to play for money, they were free to do what they liked. They liked jazz, liked to play it, and played to please themselves.”
Ward Kimball once said of the band that they never had practice or rehearsals. They just got together and had fun.
Through the years the band appeared in many places. They appeared on a float in the 66th Rose Bowl Parade, played at Bing Crosby Golf tournaments, and appeared on TV shows such as Lawrence Welk and The Mickey Mouse Club.
There was a nod to the band in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog with Louis the alligator belonging to a jazz band called The Firefly Five Plus Lou.
New York Times critic John S. Wilson summed up the group perfectly describing the band as “just happy—an enviable condition for anything.”