A Century of Walt Disney
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.
Walt Wednesday #44
In conjunction with the film's release, Babes in Toyland was prominently featured on The Wonderful World of Color television program, with an episode titled "Backstage Party" airing on December 17, 1961. Babes in Toyland earned $4.6 million in rentals from the United States and Canada.
Walt Disney's Childhood Home
From 1914 to 1921, this house was home to the family of world famous film animator Walt Disney. It was here that Disney first developed a passion for entertaining and an interest in cartooning. Walt set up a makeshift art studio in the garage where he used a borrowed motion picture camera to experiment with different animation techniques, creating what became the first Laugh-O-gram shorts and the start of his success. Various members of the Disney family occupied the residence until November 1921, when Walt’s father sold the house. Today, it remains a private residence and is not open to the public. The house and garage were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
Walt wrote "Well here I am but no mustache."
Walt Disney's Laugh-O-gram
A look back to 1922 to see the world of Walt Disney at the Laugh-O-gram Studio is black & white view of that world. Since color photography did not become commonplace until decades later, our view of Disney in Kansas City lacks the life and vibrancy of full color. Deb Pieti, however, is helping Laugh-O-gram devotees change that. Deb is an accomplished photo digital artist who specializes in colorizing old black & white photos. Deb is working with Thank You Walt Disney, the non-profit that owns and is renovating Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-gram Studio in Kansas City, to create colorized versions of Laugh-O-gram photos that will be displayed in the renovated building.
Here is an example of one of Deb’s completed projects:
The original black & white photo was taken on the roof of the McConahay building during a filming session of Walt and his Laugh-O-gram crew. Note how Deb’s colorized version brings that scene to life! Her colorized photos will help Laugh-O-gram visitors gain a greater sense of immediacy during their visit to Walt’s former studio.
Here is another example of her work to date on photos relevant to Walt’s time at Laugh-O-gram in Kansas City:
You have probably seen this black & white title logo from one of the Laugh-O-gram films. Deb’s use of vivid colors brings refreshing energy and spark to that artwork.
Deb also used her photo retouching skills to help this 1920’s Baron Missakian photo transform from a sepia toned artifact to a dynamic image of the brooding young Disney.
Source: Thank you Walt Disney
Accident at the Laugh-O-Gram
Early Saturday morning on July 31, 2020, a car crashed into the northeast corner of the Laugh-O-gram building. The driver fled the scene leaving an open glass of Margarita and her purse in the car. The wreck caused significant damage to the building which was going through exterior renovations at the time. Above you can see a picture of the damage caused from the car wreck.
The concern at that time was that the driver would not be found and that even if she were found, she would not be insured. Fortunately the driver did come forward at a later time and was insured enough to cover the entire damage done to the building. The wreck stalled renovations on the exterior of the building for about six months.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s/80s we visited Disneyland on a regular basis and often after school, before "Annual Passes".