One hundred years ago, 20-year-old Walt Disney incorporated his first professional film studio, Laugh-O-gram. He opened it in a building designed by noted KC architect Nelle Peters at 31st and Forest Streets.
The work young Walt Disney did in that studio laid the foundation for his entire incredible career in filmmaking. He had learned his craft during the previous two years at the Kansas City Slide Company/Kansas City Film Ad Company owned and operated by Arthur Vern Cauger.
Walt met his lifelong friend, Ub Iwerks, while working briefly for the Pesmen-Rubin Ad Agency in Kansas City shortly after Walt returned from World War I. He learned the technique of stop-motion animation while working for Mr. Cauger. Walt and Ub then taught their fellow artists how to animate drawings, which they learned from books checked out from the Kansas City Public Library.
When Walt incorporated Laugh-O-gram, it was the beginning of the most significant career in the history of movie making. Indeed, film historian and critic, Leonard Maltin, calls Disney, “. . . the most successful and influential producer in the history of movie making”.
During his career, he earned 31 Academy Awards, a record which is unlikely to ever be equaled by anyone else in the business of film. Along the way, he revolutionized the theme park and resort industries with his creation of Disneyland in California and the plans he made for Walt Disney World in Florida.
While at Laugh-O-gram, Walt created a series of one-reel, black-and-white, silent cartoons which rivaled the best cartoons being produced in New York and New Jersey, then the center of the movie business. He borrowed liberally from the best in the business, but he added his own distinctive touch to the short films he made while in Kansas City. He also produced short live-action films which foreshadowed the many outstanding live-action films he produced in his later career.
Walt not only worked at the Laugh-O-gram building, he lived there as well. He saw no point in paying for an apartment since he worked almost constantly. He would go to Union Station, which was constructed during the more than ten years he lived in Kansas City, for a shower, at least once a week.
Perhaps the most significant event at Laugh-O-gram was Walt taming a mouse and keeping him as a pet. He said many times that while he slept in his studio, he would be awakened by mice taking the remains of his employees’ lunches from a wire wastebasket. Walt began to put food out for the rodents and found that one little mouse seemed to be braver than the others.
He lured that mouse with morsels of food and tamed him until he would willingly play on Walt’s drawing board. The mouse lived in a drawer of Walt’s desk, and later in a small cage. Five years later, when Walt’s silent-film character, Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, was stolen from him, it was his memory of this little mouse in Kansas City which he said inspired the creation of the world’s most famous fictional character, Mickey!
Walt entered into a contract for his animated films, but the company he contracted with went bankrupt, forcing his own company into dire financial straits. His last attempt to save the studio was an ambitious production he called “Alice’s Cartoonland”. He had met a four- year-old little girl named Virginia Davis while he worked at KC Film Ad. He recognized her innate talent and charm. He cast her as Alice in what he hoped would become a successful series of cartoons in which she, as a live-action character, interacted with cartoon characters in a cartoon environment. This concept was a reversal of the “Out of the Inkwell” series produced by the Fleischer Brothers Studio back east.
While in Kansas City, Walt began to correspond with Margaret Winkler, the nation’s foremost distributor of animated cartoons. She was immediately favorably impressed with the unfinished Alice comedy Walt sent her.
Walt was forced to take bankruptcy himself in the summer of 1923. He liquidated the assets of his little company, and decided to head west, buying a first-class ticket on the Santa Fe Railway and going all the way to Hollywood on it. When he got there, he initially hoped to work as an actor or a director, but he found that no one was hiring young Midwest boys with no prior experience of that sort.
His big brother, Roy, who was in a veterans’ hospital near Los Angeles recuperating from tuberculosis he picked up during World War I, advised Walt to fall back on what he knew best, producing animated films.
Walt’s correspondence with Ms. Winkler paid off. On October 16, 1923, she offered him a contract to produce the Alice Comedies, on the condition that the same little girl who appeared in the pilot episode would continue to play the character. Walt persuaded Virginia’s parents to move to Los Angeles so that she could continue as Alice.
Roy and Walt produced the next Alice comedy entirely on their own. Walt was the first producer of animated films in Hollywood. As the little Disney Brothers studio began to make money on the Alice Comedies, Walt called on his old friends in Kansas City to come west and join him. Ub Iwerks was the first to do so. Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, and others followed.
After working with Disney for a couple of years, Harman and Ising became the founding animators at Warner Brothers Studio, and then did the same at MGM. Along the way, they trained Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera how to animate. Young Isadore “Friz” Freleng worked for Disney briefly and later became one of the most important creative geniuses at Warner Animation before co-founding the DePatie-Freleng Studio, famous for the ”Pink Panther”.
Virtually, the entire Hollywood animation industry, from the earliest years through the middle of the 20th century, was founded by animators who got their start working for Walt Disney at Laugh-O-gram in Kansas City.
For the past 25 years, Butch Rigby and I and many others have worked to preserve and restore the Laugh-O-gram building which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It would have been demolished long ago if not for our efforts.
We now hope that we are on the verge of obtaining funding which will allow the building to be restored and to become a place where young Kansas City animators will once again learn their craft, in the digital age, as well as a museum telling the amazing story of the fact that the Hollywood animation industry had its beginnings in a red brick building at 31st and Forest Streets in Kansas City, Missouri.
By Dan Viets, THANK YOU WALT DISNEY, INC.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s/80s we visited Disneyland on a regular basis and often after school, before "Annual Passes".