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Built in 1919 for local exhibitor Frank L. Newman, the Newman Theatre was known for its opulence and extravagant features. It was the biggest and most costly of any Kansas City theatre at the time, holding an audience of 2,000. Notably, in 1921 a series of short satirical cartoons called Newman Laugh-O-grams were screened, which were the first animated productions created solely by Walt Disney. The Newman became Paramount Theater in 1947 and operated for a short time as Towne Theater before eventually closing due to a decline in business. It was demolished in 1972 for an urban renewal project. Today the site is occupied by a skyscraper called the Lightwell Building.


The Newman Theater c. 1928. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Building, Rectangle, Door, Font

The Newman Theater around 1928. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

The Newman Theater around 1928. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

View of Main Street looking north from 12th Street in the 1940s. The Newman can be seen on the left, before it was renamed the Paramount. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

View of Main Street looking north from 12th Street in the 1940s. The Newman can be seen on the left, before it was renamed the Paramount. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Interior of the Newman from a 1919 postcard shortly after its opening. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Interior of the Newman from a 1919 postcard shortly after its opening. Image courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Newman Theater marquee c. 1932. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Photograph, Black, Building, Vehicle

Coon Sanders Novelty Orchestra Band plays at the Newman to accompany Charlie Chaplin's film "The Pilgrim" c. 1923. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Window, Event, Art, Vintage clothing

The Newman Laugh-O-Grams screened exclusively at the Newman in 1921. They were the first commercial cartoons ever produced by Walt Disney and aired to the public.

The Newman Laugh-O-Grams screened exclusively at the Newman in 1921. They were the first commercial cartoons ever produced by Walt Disney and aired to the public.

The first cover designed by Walt Disney for the weekly Newman Theatre Magazine.

Font, Pattern, Paper, Circle

The Newman Theatre was built in 1919 by Frank L. Newman, the premier exhibitor in Kansas City. While the Newman was his flagship theater, he also owned and operated two other theaters downtown, the Royal and the Regent. The Newman was built at the site of the Brady Building, which had been destroyed by a fire in 1918. The theater was designed in the Colonial Revival style by popular local architect Alexander Drake. It was built using steel and concrete to render it fire-proof and cost up to $400,000, reportedly the most expensive theater ever built in Kansas City at the time. Newman included many lavish features in his theater, including Italian tapestries, hand-painted murals, and Greek figures. It had seating for an audience of 2,000, a 35-piece orchestra pit, a mezzanine floor promenade, lounges, and even a nursery. The Newman Theater opened to much fanfare in June of 1919; each year the anniversary of its opening was celebrated with a week of special acts.  

Frank Newman sold his theaters and left Kansas City in 1925 after being offered a job managing theaters for the Famous Players-Lasky Film Corporation in Los Angeles. Around 1941 the Newman Theater was acquired by Paramount Pictures Inc., which renamed it the Paramount Theater in 1947. Business declined, and in 1969 the theater changed ownership and briefly operated as the Towne Theatre before finally closing. It was demolished in 1972. Today the site is occupied by the Lightwell Building, constructed as City Center Square in 1977.

Walt Disney's Newman Laugh-O-grams

Walt Disney had lived in Kansas City for several years before doing a tour in France with the Red Cross and upon his return in 1919, he decided to pursue a career as a cartoonist. He briefly worked for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio at the Gray Advertising Company, where one of his assignments was the Newman contract. Here, he illustrated the covers for several issues of Newman’s weekly Newman Theatres Magazine.

In 1920, Disney got a job at the Kansas City Slide Company (later the Kansas City Film Ad Service) which produced advertisements for local theaters. Using a camera borrowed from his boss A. V. Cauger, Walt drew and filmed a short set of cartoons in the garage behind his family home. They were primarily satirical works addressing current social issues in Kansas City, such as crime and ladies’ fashion among other things, which he called Local Happenings. At the suggestion of Cauger, Disney showed the cartoons to Newman Theatre manager Milton Feld. He agreed to screen them and asked for a new one each week.

Newman Laugh-O-grams debuted on March 20, 1921 during a screening of the film Mama’s Affair, the first recorded airing of a Walt Disney production. The film shorts were included in a newsreel called Newman News and Views, which covered topics relevant to the Kansas City community. Disney created Newman Laugh-O-grams for the next several months, before leaving the Kansas City Film Ad Service. Laugh-O-gram Films was incorporated on May 23, 1922. The original Newman Laugh-O-gram sample reel is the only known copy of a Laugh-O-gram in existence, as the nitrate film stock prints were casted on at that time were highly flammable and commonly destroyed when their run were complete.

Hamilton, William and Robert Maes. “Paramount Theatre.” Cinema Treasures. Accessed June 10, 2018. http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/3356

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. “Newman Laugh-O-Grams” (1921)- Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams. Posted July 7, 2012. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51CRL1EtMN4

Viets, Dan. Burnes, Brian. Walt Disney's Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius. Edition Illustrated. Kansas City Star Books, 2002.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

https://kchistory.org/image/newman-theater-1

Missouri Valley Special Collections

Missouri Valley Special Collections

Missouri Valley Special Collections

https://kchistory.org/image/storefronts-main-0

https://kchistory.org/image/coon-sanders-novelty-orchestra-3

https://disneyfinds.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/laugh-o-grams/

https://thankyouwaltdisney.org/