Laugh-O-Gram Studio, First Studio of Walt Disney
The McConahay Building on East 31st was home to Walt Disney's first professional cartoon studio, Laugh-O-Gram Films. The fledgling studio consisted of Walt, Ubbe Iwerks, and a handful of other artists from the Kansas City area. They operated from rooms in the second story of the building and produced several cartoons. It is said that around this time Disney met a mouse that would later provide the inspiration for Mickey Mouse in 1928. Laugh-O-Gram Films was short-lived, opening in May 1922 and filing for bankruptcy in July 1923. Disney and several of his employees would later go on to become pioneers in the animation industry. Today the building is owned by the non-profit group Thank You, Walt Disney Inc., which is working to convert it into an interactive museum.
Backstory and Context
Young Walt Disney and his family moved to Kansas City in 1914. In 1919, Disney returned from Red Cross service in World War I to pursue a career as a cartoonist. After a temporary job with the Gray Advertising Company, he joined with fellow artist Ubbe Iwerks and formed a small business called Iwerks-Disney in 1920. They moved from location to location, and did odd jobs drawing cartoons for various publications such as Restaurant News. Just months later the partnership folded when Disney and Iwerks each got jobs at the Kansas City Slide Company, which produced short carton advertisements for area theaters. In his spare time, Disney used a camera to experiment with making his own cartoons in his father’s garage. On his own he produced a series of short animation snippets called Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams, which he sold to local theater chain owner Frank Newman. Encouraged by this first small success, Disney left the Kansas City Slide Company in May 1922 and established Laugh-O-Gram Films Inc.
To house his new cartoon studio, Disney rented five rooms on the second story of the McConahay Building at East 31st Street. It was a brand new building, having just been completed that year. The two-story, Tapestry Brick Commercial Style structure was designed by local architect Nelle E. Peters and constructed by the Bliss Building Company. The first floor contained storefronts while the second floor could house offices or other businesses. Disney was joined at the studio by Iwerks and the staff also included Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carl Stalling, Isadore Freleng, Carmen Maxwell, Walt Pfeiffer, Otto Walliman, Lorey Tague, William Lyon, Adolph Kloepper, and Leslie Mace. He secured initial funds for the company by soliciting investments from family, friends, and the popular doctor John Cowles.
Cartoons were not in high demand in the early 1920s, and Laugh-O-Gram struggled. The entire staff, Disney included, was relatively inexperienced in both animation and business management. The studio’s first and only major project was when a Tennessee film distribution company called Pictorial Clubs commissioned a series of six fairy tale cartoons for $11,000 in September, 1922. Laugh-O-Grams created the six films, Red Riding Hood, The Four Musicians of Bremen, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Puss and Boot, and Cinderella. The studio, desperate for income, also created an educational film called Tommy Tucker’s Tooth for local dentist Thomas B. McCrum. The last work made by Laugh-O-Gram was a mixed live-action/animated film called Alice's Wonderland. Featuring child actress Virginia Davis, the short later became the pilot episode for the Alice Comedies series.
Tragedy struck the company when Pictoral Clubs went bankrupt without paying for the ordered cartoons. Laugh-O-Gram would not be able to survive long enough for the litigation process to recover the money owed. Soon Disney was forced to move into the studio at the McConahay Building to save money. It was around this time, allegedly, that Disney began seeing a mouse that would sit on his desk at night and watch him while he drew. Its presence planted in Disney’s mind the idea of a mouse cartoon character, which eventually would emerge as Mickey Mouse. In May 1923 Laugh-O-Gram was evicted from the McConahay Building and moved to a small space in the second story of the Wirtham Building, above the Isis Theatre. In July, with all options exhausted, Disney filed for bankruptcy. Shortly afterwards he bought a train ticket for California. Disney left with a cardboard suitcase containing a borrowed suit, some animation equipment, and the only finished copy of Alice's Wonderland. He would eventually find success in Hollywood when the Alice Comedies were picked up for production, giving him a second chance at running a cartoon studio.
Several decades after Laugh-O-Gram, the McConahay Building became vacant and fell into disrepair. By the early 2000s parts of the roof were collapsing. A non-profit group called Thank You, Walt Disney Inc was established to save the building from demolition and restore it. Thanks to donations and a grant from the Disney Family, Thank You, Walt Disney was able to purchase the building, stabilize it, and rebuild the collapsed portions. The group is working to refurbish the building into an interactive museum that will preserve the history of Walt Disney in Kansas City, revitalize the local neighborhood, and teach animation to future generations. Currently the plans call for a recreation of the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, a Welcome Center, a space for screening classic films, offices, and an educational facility to teach art and animation.
Barrier, Michael. “The Pet in the Family: On the Farm and in the City, 1901-1923.” In The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Green, Ron. “The Roots of Animation in Kansas City.” Jackson County Historical Society Journal (Summer 2014): 15-19. Accessed June 9, 2018. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51181e81e4b04512ec820440/t/53d5510de4b02f566ee1b0e6/1406488845322/disneykc.pdf
“History.” Thank You, Walt Disney Inc. Accessed June 9, 2018. https://thankyouwaltdisney.org/history/
Karel, Victoria C. “McConahay Building, Laugh-O-Gram Films, Incorporated.” National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places. 1977. Accessed July 5, 2018. https://dnr.mo.gov/shpo/nps-nr/78001655.pdf
KCPT. “Walt Disney’s Kansas City Connections | Arts Upload” (video). Posted September 18, 2015. Accessed June 9, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnMs-vI9ViI
Merritt, Russell and J. B. Kaufman. “Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams, 1921-1923.” San Francisco Silent Film Festival. 2011. Accessed June 10, 2018. http://silentfilm.org/archive/laugh-o-grams
Susanin, Timothy S. Walt before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
TheClassicsDisney. “’Alice's Wonderland’ (1923)- Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Grams/ Walt Disney's Alice Comedies” (video). Posted July 8, 2012. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ie7GFxr4TU0&list=PLC951C3B3759616AD&index=8
TheClassicsDisney. “’Little Red Riding Hood’ (1922)- Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams” (video). Posted July 7, 2012. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9etdQpJ_uE&list=PLC951C3B3759616AD&index=3
TheClassicsDisney. “‘Tommy Tucker's Tooth’ (1922)- Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Grams” (video). Posted July 8, 2012. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5V2Wp-Isbw&list=PLC951C3B3759616AD&index=7
“What is Walt Disney’s connection to Kansas City?” Missouri Valley Special Collections. Accessed June 9, 2018. http://www.kchistory.org/faq/what-walt-disneys-connection-kansas-city