In the early 1920s, when Walt Disney was in his early 20s, he was heading up a struggling animation studio on Kansas City’s east side.
A small field mouse became his pet, lived in a drawer in his office, and shared his food. That mouse would later provide the inspiration for Mickey Mouse. Disney's studio, where early animators cut their teeth making black-and-white silent cartoons, is still struggling. There are now plans for a green future.
Paying Tribute in Missouri
Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Ill. But he spent much of his childhood in Missouri, first Marceline (about 125 miles northeast of Kansas City), and then Kansas City, Mo.
Disney was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in 1993. And Butch Rigby – a film buff and founder of Screenland Theatres – recalls a conversation from that time with a Kansas City radio disc jockey, John Hart.
"And he (Hart) said, 'Hey, there is not one single place in Kansas City that reflects the fact that one of the most famous people in the world came from here, worked here, started here,'" says Rigby.
At first, the idea was to build a statue in honor of Walt Disney. Then there were talks about a possible Disney Museum in Union Station. But those ideas fizzled out. Today, plans are still in development to re-open Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram studio, just east of Troost.
Laugh-O-Gram Studio: A Training Ground for Animators
Butch Rigby stands outside the two-story red-brick building at the corner of 31st and Forest. "This is still just a small 10,000 foot building," says Rigby. "And it’s not a giant museum project like people want to imagine. It is, however, equally as important."
The second floor of the McConahay Building housed the first cartoon studio owned by Walt Disney. It was a training ground for pioneering animators like Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. But Disney was not known for his financial prowess, and the company filed for bankruptcy in July 1923. Disney then moved to Hollywood, Ca. with an unfinished "Alice's Wonderland."
"What’s significant is that some of those kids would follow Walt (Disney) and Ub (Iwerks) out to California and they would literally found 20th century cartoon animation for the movies," says Rigby.
"Ub Iwerks was the prolific genius artist who would draw, a few years after they left Kansas City, Mickey Mouse; Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, they founded a little company, Harman-Ising (Cartoons). They came up with 'Merrie Melodies' and 'Looney Tunes' (at Warner Brothers). Those two guys would end up training two young animators, Hanna and Barbera."
Back from Collapse
By 1996, this building was slated for demolition. The roof had collapsed on to the second floor, and that floor nearly collapsed on to the first. When Rigby and his film partner, John Shipp, bought it on behalf of Thank You Walt Disney for just over $12,000, it was thought that the building couldn’t be saved.
"Very slowly, but very surely, we’ve taken it one step at a time," says Rigby. "(We've) removed all the demolition, put up scaffolding to hold all the walls up, brought in bricklayers, brought in framers, brought in new concrete floors, so now we have a cool shell that is ready for programming and for use as an interactive historic site."
But getting that "cool shell" ready has taken more than a decade, and it's been expensive. Rigby estimates about $700,000 has been invested so far; this includes in-kind services and the bulk of a $400,000 match from the Walt Disney Family Foundation. Doors and windows remain boarded up, covered with cartoon figures.
A Place with a Story
Despite the challenges, Jeremy Knoll, with BNIM Architects, says there are some advantages to working with an historic structure. His firm, with a focus on sustainable architecture, is based in the Power and Light building in downtown Kansas City.
"This (Laugh-O-Gram studio) is a place that already has a story to it," says Knoll. "It’s a place that people will come not because of where it is, but because of what it is and what it means to the community."
Knoll, and his colleague, Josh Hemberger, are members of a young architects group, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Emerging Professionals. On their way to work downtown, Hemberger and Knoll often ride the MAX along Troost, and they've talked about a sustainable design competition.
When Hemberger came across an NEA Our Town grant, focused on community identity and a sense of place, they thought it would be a perfect match for Walt Disney’s cartoon studio.
A Sustainable Plan
"We’re going to go in and document what’s there and then work with a local engineer to do some energy modeling and to figure out how we can make that building a living building as sustainable as possible," says Hemberger. "So that it can really be a model for how you redevelop in that area on a budget.
The design competition is expected to provide Thank You Walt Disney with a template mapping out an interactive historic site with exhibit space, a small theater, and the restoration of Walt Disney’s office.
Knoll says the goal is to create a living place, not just a tribute to Disney, but something to carry forward his legacy.
"Walt Disney didn’t grow up in Mission Hills, he didn’t grow up in Overland Park. He grew up right here in this neighborhood, in fact, in the Santa Fe neighborhood at Linwood and Benton," says Knoll. "And this is where he chose to have a studio, this is where this famous person that everyone knows about, got his start."
Knoll and Hemberger say even if they don’t get the grant, it’s been an opportunity to make connections. They’re determined to stick with it, and anticipate other grants and fundraising will come through to complete the project.
Butch Rigby has set a goal for 24 months. But it's a timeline he's given before.
"It will be finished. Butch Rigby says it will be finished. All of our board members say it will be finished," says Rigby. "I have to be the one guy who stays with it to see it to the end."
Rigby is hoping that there will be a happy ending, perhaps just like a Disney movie.