Walt Disney

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library
  • Date of Birth: December 5, 1901
  • Place of Birth: Hermosa, Chicago
  • Claim to Fame: founder, Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc.; founder, Walt Disney Co.
  • Spouse: Lillian Disney
  • Date of Death: December 15, 1966
  • Place of Death: Burbank, California
  • Cause of Death: lung cancer 
  • Final Resting Place: Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles

When strolling through Disneyland or Walt Disney World, few visitors would remember that Walt Disney first started his animation career in Kansas City, Missouri. On May 23, 1922, Disney pursued that dream as he opened his first studio at 1127 East 31st Street. The business, named Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc., failed dismally. Nonetheless, many enthusiasts fondly recall the story of Disney's inglorious first corporate venture in Kansas City.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901, Walter Elias Disney moved with his family to Marceline, Missouri, at the age of five. In 1910 or 1911 (sources differ), the Disney family moved to Kansas City, where Walt helped his father and brother deliver Kansas City Star newspapers at 3:30 a.m. During these years, Walt attended the Benton School and occasionally took classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.

After a return to Chicago and a stint serving in the Red Cross in Europe immediately following World War I, Disney came back to Kansas City, where he was hired by an advertising agency named the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Using a movie camera borrowed from the ad agency, Disney and a few friends experimented with animations in the family garage.

Disney and his friends created "Laugh-O-grams," which were very short silent animation clips that complemented feature films at the Newman Theater in Kansas City. The target audience for the first Laugh-O-gram was local, as it parodied a recent scandal in the Kansas City police department.

The modest success of Laugh-O-grams made Disney a locally-recognized entertainer. He used his new-found influence to bring together a small group of "employees" (really they were hobbyists), to make an animated version of "Little Red Riding Hood." When they completed this longer cartoon, Disney boldly decided to open his own studio at the age of 20. Several locals who were encouraged by his early success invested $15,000 in Laugh-O-gram Films, Inc., which gained legal status on May 23, 1922.

The studio opened on the second floor of the small McConahy Building on 31st Street. It employed Walt Disney and four other regularly-paid employees. Laugh-O-gram Films quickly attained an $11,100 contract from a company named Pictorial Clubs to produce a cartoon series. Unfortunately, Pictorial Clubs failed to pay more than a $100 down payment, and Disney's company quickly became insolvent. In July 1923, after just more than a year of existence, Laugh-O-gram Films went bankrupt. Walt Disney departed for Los Angeles in hopes of greener pastures.

Walt Disney
Walt Disney working at Laugh-o-Gram studios. Courtesy of the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC.

Despite the failure of Disney's first venture, Laugh-O-gram Films was the starting point for his future success. Just before the company went bankrupt, Disney began a cartoon called "Alice's Wonderland," based on Lewis Carroll's children's story, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Disney completed and used this cartoon to establish a reputation in Los Angeles.

In 1928, Disney finally found national success with the debut of Mickey Mouse, which emerged as the main cartoon character for Disney's film and theme park empire. Disney later recalled that the inspiration for Mickey Mouse came from a mouse he found and kept as a pet at the McConahy Building in Kansas City. Accordingly, Disney's first studio in Kansas City is an important part of American popular culture history. Today, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., is planning to restore the crumbling McConahy building and open a Walt Disney museum at the site.

Acknowledgement: 

This article has been adapted from an article published at KChistory.org.

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