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A Visit to Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studios

It was a warm, sunny, summer morning that greeted me as I awoke and prepared to embark on a day of Disney adventure and discovery.

Was I off to Southern California for some fun in the sun at the Disney California Adventure Park?

Could I be heading to Florida for a secret rendezvous with Lou Mongello and a special sneak peek at a new attraction’s soft launch at WDW?

Perhaps I was jetting away to Paris for a little fine dining and Euro Disney sightseeing with a rather large black mouse that has a certain Je ne sais quoi?

The answer to all three is “no”. Today I have my sights set on something a bit more modest…something that doesnʼt require a plane ticket, an ADR or a fast pass. Today my Disney adventure is in my own backyard, Kansas City, and all that I need is a car, a digital camera and an iced latteʼ. My destination? The McConahy building on 31st Street and Forest Ave. The Disney connection? The McConahy Building was, back in the early 1920s, home to Walt Disneyʼs first animation studio – Laugh-O-Gram.

Latteʼ in hand, empty memory card in the camera and WDW Radio on the iPod, I set off and proceed north along highway 71 towards downtown Kansas City. As I travel through the humid morning I find my thoughts turning increasingly towards, not only the history of the life of Walt Disney, but also towards the history of Kansas City, and how the two intersected all those years ago.

During the first part of the 20th century Kansas City was a place on the move with seemingly endless possibilities and a future as big as the midwestern sky. It was a city riding high at the crossroads of America; a melting pot between the urban sophistication of the east and the restless/adventurous spirit of the American west. It was full of remarkable civic expansion, genre defining jazz, prohibition snubbing bars, smoky gambling halls and corrupt public officials. An editorialist at the time for the Omaha Herald once even proclaimed that if you wanted to see some sin “forget about Paris, go to Kansas City”.

It was into the spirited atmosphere of Kansas City in the roaring twenties, that a man, Walter Elias Disney, also in his twenties, arrived in Kansas City fresh from spending the previous year in France performing driving duties for the Red Cross after WWI. Eager to stand on his own, Kansas City was just the place for Walt to test his mettle and pursue his dream of making a living as an artist away from his parents in Chicago.

When he arrived in Kansas City in 1919 it was his second stint in the city as he had spent all but a couple of years from 1911 – 1919 living there. The city was comfortable. Familiar. He had a support system with family, his brother Roy, and friends. Waltʼs daughter, Diane Disney Miller, states that “Kansas City in the first decades of the 20th century somehow provided my dad with just about everything he needed at that point in his life. The energy of the city, the diversity of its cultural and professional life, his family, his friends – these were the things that shaped his character and fueled his dreams.” (Walt Disneyʼs Missouri, Burnes, Butler, Viets – Kansas City Star Books 2002. p vii.)

Waltʼs early career path in Kansas City between 1919-1923 showed a progression of steps that started out with humble beginnings, a desire to be an editorial cartoonist for the Kansas City Star, which ultimately culminated in the creation of his first film studio, Laugh-O-gram, in May 1922.

While the time of Laugh-O-gram existence was brief, a little over a year, the studio had up to 15 employees on the initial payroll and managed to produce 6 films ( “Little Red

Riding Hood” “The Four Musicians of Bremen,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Goldie Locks and the Three Bears”, “Puss In Boots” and “Cinderella” ) and start on a 7th(“Aliceʼs Wonderland”.)

The office space also provided a spark of inspiration that would ultimately lead towards the creation of one of Disneyʼs most beloved characters.

It was during the Laugh-O-gram days that, according to Walt, he befriended one of the mice that would be found about the studio looking for food. “The legend goes that Walt domesticated one of these creatures, keeping it in a desk drawer, feeding if from his own meager meals and even teaching it tricks. He named it Mortimer.” (Walt Disneyʼs Missouri, Burnes, Butler, Viets – Kansas City Star Books 2002, pg 126.) Several years later, Walt would remember the mouse and use it as a springboard to create a namesake cartoon character whose name would eventually be changed to Mickey and the rest, as they say, is history.

Seeing my exit brings me back to present day Kansas City as I merge off highway 71 and proceed west on Linwood Blvd towards Troost Ave.

Troost during Waltʼs day, in the 1920s, was a thriving avenue of businesses, retail shops, restaurants and entertainment. An artery of commerce and activity that ran parallel to The Paseo Blvd. – one of the premiere residential addresses of the day with large stately homes, grand apartment buildings and wide avenues. Reflecting on the history of the city during Waltʼs time, and the activity found along the Troost/Paseo corridor, it isnʼt any real surprise that he choose to locate Laugh-O-gram right in the middle of the action between Troost and The Paseo, at 31st street & Forest.

I turn right at the “Best Deal” appliance store and drive north on Troost towards 31st street. The buildings from Waltʼs era that still stand along the avenue serve as quiet historical markers to a time long since gone. Troost in 2009, while still vital to the community and surrounding area that it serves, is not a central hub of commerce, or as thriving and wealthy as it was in the 1920s. Evidence of urban blight and the flight to the suburbs are clearly seen with empty store fronts and overgrown lots sitting next to small businesses like the Desert Wisdom Bookstore, Lawless Times Comics, Creative Mind Community Art Center and the JCC Gourmet Popcorn Company. A large mural, painted on the side of a building by local artist Alexander Austin, serves as a visual reminder to the sometimes turbulent past along this avenue that has seen everything from affluence to race riots and all things in-between. The graphic, black and white painting has Walt and Mickey Mouse paired with historical references of the avenue along with Native Americans and Martin Luther King. It is a powerful piece and one that ads an emotional intensity to the vacant lot that is adjacent.

Turning right at the stop light of 31st street, I see my goal nestled a bit off of Troost proper. I circle the block to look for a place to park and conveniently find a spot along Forest street and the east side of the building. Grabbing my camera I lock the car and set off to walk among the ghosts of Kansas City and Disneyʼs distant past.

Looking at photos taken during Waltʼs time, the McConahy building appears to be a solid red brick building with space organized for both retail shops and business office suites. There is just enough ornamentation and detail work to add some visual flair and uniqueness to the place, but not enough to betray itʼs professional, hard working facade.

Generally, the state of the McConahy in 2009 is similar to the overall Troost neighborhood at large. While the years have most definitely taken their toll, Iʼm pleased to find the outside of the building still standing and in relatively good shape on first glance despite the broken bricks, cracks in the concrete and chipping paint around the window frames.

I am surprised, however, to see that a mini art gallery has broken out on the boarded up windows along the first and second floor. Thank You Walt Disney Inc., the organization that is leading the charge in restoration of this building, has apparently commissioned some of the nations top cartoonists to create posters in honor of Walt and all he did for their profession. Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Tom Wilson (Ziggy), Jim Davis (Garfield), Jan Eliot (Stone Soup) and Cathy Guisewite (Cathy) are just a few of the cartoonists who have donated their time and talent in a show of support to not only Walt but also to the reclamation project that is underway here at 31st and Forrest. The end result is a striking display of vibrant colors and playful shapes that bring a much needed amount of cartoon sensibility and attitude to an otherwise drab window covering. It is a wonderful touch.

On the buildingʼs east side, I see a faint outline of some graffiti that has been applied to the brick at street level. While this kind of medium can be a viable form of art and expression…I wonder what Walt would think of this intrusive display of graphic text and paint applied to his old work space?

A pad-locked chain link fence, plastered with a friendly “Private” sign, extends from the south east corner of the building and surrounds the back side of the lot. Unfortunately, it blocks my entrance to south side of the building proper. The edge of the property sits next to a large abandoned lot which frames this side of the structure with a dense overgrowth of vegetation and trash (Is that an abandoned couch?). Peering through the chain link fence I see “No Trespassing” signs, weeds, piles of boards, large bushes and unkempt grass. A broken concrete path, and an 8 foot brick retaining wall, run the length of the building and I would guess that this area probably served as a back door
entrance for the businesses of the day.

By the looks of things any further access to this side of the building is very much off limits so I decide to head around the corner and continue my exploration along the north/31st street side of the McConahy.

The 31st street side of the building was the public, “store front”, side of the structure. Consequently it is the most accessible part of the building and gives me the best opportunity to examine the structure up close.

Walking along the sidewalk I find large areas of boarded up space that are covering the multiple shop entrances and windows that would have been alive with merchants and patrons during Waltʼs day. The brick work appears to be in various stages of repair/ disrepair as I find areas of new brick application next to geometric Tetris type shapes of older brick deterioration. Peeling red paint can be found covering the ornate trim, decorative iron work, wooden doors and surrounding wood work. A row of embellishing molding, about 3/4 of the way up the north face, is about half gone. This leaves the resulting exposed red brick looking very naked and half finished. The flat roofline on this side of the building is uneven and frequently interrupted by spaces of missing bricks and/or concrete trim. It is apparent that nothing on this side of the McConahy has escaped the wrath of time and elements but it is also apparent that there are restoration forces at work to combat further decay and deterioration.

Finding an area that is covered with a locked chain link door, instead of the customary plywood board, affords me the opportunity to take a quick peek at the inside of the structure, and check the state of the interior, without actually gaining entry. Peering into the dimly lit open space of the first floor, I find more evidence of the reclamation project with fresh plywood leaning against a far wall. Thick metal beams support a ceiling that appears to have been recently replaced as the exposed wood looks fresh and new. The back wall has boarded up doors and windows that overlook the inaccessible south side of the building. There is also a fair amount of trash and construction debris scattered about the concrete floor and I smile to myself and wonder if any of Mortimer the mouseʼs distant family still reside in the trash that is pilled in the corner.

The northwest corner of the building is where Laugh-O-gram Studios was housed in a second floor/two room suite. Vines sneak up and wrap around this corner of the building which gives the impression that the surrounding vegetation is lovingly giving a giant green hug to this corner of the McConahy. (Are they Disney fans as well?) The now boarded up windows of the studio overlook 31st street and offered a prime viewing spot for the activity along the street below. I canʼt help but wonder if the artists used the daily scenes and everyday people that transpired beneath them as inspiration and research for their work.

Directly below the studio on the first floor was the location of a small, family run diner called the Forest Inn Cafe. The cafe, due to itʼs proximity to Laugh-O-gram, was always filling the space with tantalizing aromas and food temptations while the animators worked away. During the studioʼs final days, the cafe also became a way for Walt to sustain himself as co-owner Jerry Raggos would bring up food for Walt when he was living in the studio. Walt remembers this time of his life in the following quotation from the book Walt Disneyʼs Missouri. “I remember a couple of Greeks who ran a restaurant below my office gave me credit to run up the food bills for a time, but even they grew hard-hearted in the end, and though they never really let me starve, they always made sure I got the cheapest food in the house and fed me on leftovers.” (Walt Disneyʼs Missouri. Burnes, Butler, Viets – Kansas City Star Books 2002. p 109.)

Pausing for a moment in front of the boarded up windows of the diner I take a moment to imagine the smell of the wonderful aromas myself. I can almost hear the sounds of clanking cutlery, casual conversations and ringing registers that would have originated from this end of the building when the Forest Inn Cafe was open.

To get to the west side of the building one must ascend a set of stairs, marked by an “816 Bicycle Collective” sign, up to a small courtyard that sits above street level by about 8 feet or so. Upon ascent I find the west side of the building exhibiting the same characteristics of the south side. Overgrown vegetation, fallen bricks and cracked concrete are the dominant features of the courtyard that wraps around this side of the building and leads to the inaccessible south side. A single window sits in the west wall that is a combination of boards and broken glass but otherwise nothing else remarkable can be found. Up the path, south of the courtyard, a few patrons at the 816 Bicycle Collective shop watch me with some detached interest but quickly go back to their own conversation after figuring out I wasnʼt a potential customer or nuisance.

And with that my self guided tour ends….not as much with a bang but a small, satisfying realization that from these humble beginnings greatness was born.

I descend the stairs, past the “816 bicycle Collective” sign once again, and head back to my car. As I do my thoughts turn full circle to the end of Laugh-O-gram and the circumstances surrounding its final curtain call.

By the spring of 1923, Walt was faced with mounting debt, restricted cash flow and limited full time staff. The financials for the studio werenʼt good and prospects for long term survival looked grim. It was into this environment that Walt started production on the grandest, most innovative feature yet attempted by his fledging studio…”Aliceʼs Wonderland”.

Aliceʼs Wonderland was to be a cartoon/live action epic that involved a little girl, Alice, (to be played by an adorable Kansas Citian, 4 year old Virginia Davis) whose visit to a cartoon studio provides the necessary inspiration for a night time dream trip to cartoon land and the resulting adventures she has there. It was a brilliant and innovative concept, mixing live action with a cartoon, and one that Walt was sure would send him and his studio to the big time if only he could keep the wolves at bay a little while longer. Unfortunately that proved to be a difficult, if not impossible, task by this point. Walt was so broke that he survived by sleeping in the studio space, eating from cans of beans and Forest Inn Cafe handouts and bathing in the nearby Union Station train depot. By June of 1923, due to his inability to pay rent, Walt had to move Laugh-O-gram out of the McConahy building and into the Wirthman Building right around the corner on Troost. In July 1923 he closed the studio for good and boarded a train for Hollywood with $40 dollars in his pocket, a version of Aliceʼs Wonderland in his briefcase and dreams of bigger and better successes in California.

I have mixed emotions as my Kansas City Disney adventure comes to a close. On one hand I am humbled and empowered by being so close to the formative history of a man who has influenced my life and provided so much joy and happiness for me, my family and countless millions of others the world over. But I am also a bit bewildered as to why this place, and its significance, isnʼt better known to, not only Kansas Citians, but to the world at large. You wouldnʼt be too far off in calling this 100 year old building of red brick, concrete and wood the cradle of modern cartoon animation as many of the talented Laugh-O-gram artists (Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Rudy Ising) followed Walt to California and all played significant roles in pioneering and advancing the art of the animated story. (Another Kansas City alum, Friz Freeling, convinced by Disney to follow suit in 1927, went on to an equally iconic career creating some of the most classic Warner Brothers shorts.) Yet here it sits, without any fanfare or flashing neon lights, on a fairly nondescript street corner in a working class neighborhood while an oblivious public passes by completely unaware of the amazing history and story that is housed inside its walls. But this could all change if the Thank You Walt Disney Inc. organization has anything to say about it.

Thank You Walt Disney Inc. was formed by a group of Kansas City volunteers and donors, who, upon seeing a need and realizing that there was a very real possibility of loosing the McConahy building to age and deterioration, stepped up to the plate several years ago, along with the Walt Disney Family Foundation,Time Warner Cable, UMB Bank and other corporate and individual sponsors, and took steps to preserve and restore this national treasure.

A significant infusion of capital allowed much needed infrastructure repairs to happen. Cleaning the debris, carefully removing and preserving some of the original interior, putting in new steel, laying new concrete floors, new framing and new brick work were all completed to stabilize and shore up the structure and prepare the interior for further restoration. This work was followed closely thereafter by the installation of a brand new roof to properly protect the inside and allow the interior restoration to start at some point. Their hard work and determination is evident when you compare photos of the building before the organization started their work to its current condition.

According to the Thank You Walt Disney organizationʼs website the current efforts to “restore the Laugh-O-gram Studio in Kansas City represent more than just a fascination with Walt Disney and his incredible life. They represent our opportunity to preserve a part of our history that would have otherwise disappeared, and will ultimately serve as a catalyst to link education and hope with our youth, enabling them to become true leaders in our community”.

For me, the McConahy Buildingʼs holds the treasure of inspiration underneath its battered exterior and within its restored walls. It inspires me because it represents the beginning of one manʼs journey and his call to action. It inspires me because within the two room office suite on the second floor, Walt lived, worked, dreamed, planned, succeeded and failed before he became the “Walt Disney”. It inspires me because Walt slept on the floor, shared his food scraps with a mouse and ate some beans from a can just to keep his dream alive. I think that Walt Elias Disney Miller (Waltʼs grandson and President of The Walt Disney Family Foundation) summarized the significance of the building best by saying: “This is a part of history that canʼt be replaced. This building was the start of an amazing career and legacy. Walt was in Kansas City when everyone else in animation was in New York; what he started in that little building became the greatest animation studio ever.” (Walt Disneyʼs Missouri. Burnes,Butler,Viets – Kansas City Star Books 2002. p 185.)

Climbing back behind the wheel I take the last sips from my lateʼ, stow my camera in the back seat, start the engine and merge into traffic for the trip home. On they way Iʼm compelled to stop at the store and grab a can of beans…. just in case.


















Artcile and photos by John Knell, guest columnist

For more information, visit thankyouwaltdisney.org