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 E. 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 E. 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 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 volunteers), 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 at 1127 E. 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.
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 had begun 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 went on to be 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, Missouri is an important part of American popular culture history. Today, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. is in the process of restoring the crumbling McConahy building and opening a Walt Disney museum at the site.
Read full biographical sketches of Walt Disney and his associates in Kansas City, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of Walt Disney (1901-1966), film producer, by Dory DeAngelo.
- Biography of Friz Freleng (1905-1995), cartoonist and film animator, by Dory DeAngelo; Freleng was a Disney associate from Kansas City who helped in the creation of cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzalez, Sylvester Puddy Cat, and Tweety Bird.
- Frank Sherman Land (1890-1959), founder of the Order of De Molay, by Daniel Coleman; Disney was once a member of the Order of De Molay citizenship organization, which was founded in Kansas City in 1919.
View images relating to Walt Disney held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Laugh-O-Gram Studio; located at the McConahay Building at 1127 E. 31st Street.
- Walt Disney and Others at Luncheon, 1942.
- Walt Disney Letter to the Kansas City Public Library, 1937.
- Walt Disney Residence, picture taken in 1989.
- Newman Theater Interior, Postcard; where Disney's first Laugh-O-grams were shown.
Check out the following books and articles about Walt Disney:
- Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney, by Katherine Greene and Richard Greene.
- Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World, by David Koenig.
- Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius, by Brian Burnes, Robert W. Butler, & Dan Viets.
- Disney: The First 100 Years, by Dave Smith and Steven Clark.
- “Main Street USA: Marceline Inspired Walt Disney's Imagination,” by John Robinson; About Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, blueprint for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.
- “It's a Small World after All: Walt Disney's Missouri Roots,” by Dan Viets in Missouri Magazine, 1997.
- Browse more holdings about Walt Disney in the Kansas City Public Library’s catalog.
Continue researching Walt Disney in Kansas City using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Vertical File: Disney, Walt.
- Vertical File: Buildings – McConahay Building; which housed Laugh-O-Grams.
- Vertical File: Residences – Disney, Walt.
Brian Burnes, Robert W. Butler, & Dan Viets, Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2002), 78-81, 85.
Dory DeAngelo, "Biography of Walt Disney (1901-1966), film producer," Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.
Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 61.