Animation & Imagination

Thank You Walt Disney art show unites art space leaders, artistcs and local non-profit.

Title piece of Laugh-O-gram Studio, courtesy of Dan Viets.

Mickey Mouse … what image does the name conjure up? Is it the friendly smile, red shorts and yellow shoes that captivate even the youngest audiences on the current Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Or the mischievous little helper who finds out that some magic is far beyond his control in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? What about the sort of humble clothing maker whose mistaken words lead him to slay a giant in The Brave Little Tailor? Whatever image pops in one’s head, the iconic character is known around the world. However, for many in the Midwest, Kansas City and in and around Hollywood, the man and creator Walt Disney is just as important.

Disney’s lasting ties to Kansas City stand at 31st and Forest Avenue. At the age of 20, Disney incorporated Laugh-O-gram Films in May of 1922, recruiting friends from the Kansas City Film Ad Company, including Ub Iwerks (animator), Rudolf Ising (producer), Hugh Harman (producer), Carl Stalling (composer) and others to begin the work which set the pattern for the career of the world’s most successful film producer. Disney and the staff produced a series of one-reel cartoons he called Laugh-O-grams, as well as a live-action films. Disney’s final film produced in Kansas City was the first episode of The Alice Comedies, in which a live-action little girl interacts with cartoon characters in a cartoon world.

However, the more crucial development may have been the tiniest big thing to happen to Disney while at Laugh-O-gram Studio. A small field mouse came into the studio and Disney managed to tame it enough to stick around the studio. Thus the concept of Mickey Mouse was born. Then the animators’ move to Hollywood started the Hollywood animation boom.

To honor these ties and to help in the continued restoration of Laugh-O-gram Studios, the Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. non-profit is teaming with Jon McGraw and Buttonwood Art Space. “It’s a unique opportunity in many ways. There will be original artwork created for this show titled Animation & Imagination as well as pieces from favorites. The call for artists was received from all over.” Business Manager Kathy Drungilas says they tapped animation networks too. The First Friday reception will be 5 to 9 p.m. June 1 at the Buttonwood Art Space.

“Buttonwood Art Space is our community giveback,” says McGraw, who serves as president of Buttonwood Financial Group LLC. “We want to partner with non-profits. To join with the Thank You Walt Disney group is such a wonderful opportunity. We can help raise the awareness even more.”

Attorney Dan Viets serves as the president of the Thank You Walt Disney group. He has worked tirelessly with others to save the building. Not too many years ago, the city wanted it demolished. Fundraisers saved the building and it is now stable with a new roof and new flooring. However, »»
much like the innovations and dreams of Disney, the non-profit has dreams to restore the building and create an education center and multi-faceted museum. “This is the cradle of Hollywood animation. Warner Brothers and MGM and so many others can trace their origins here,” Viets says. “Even some of the legendary early composers can be linked back here such as Carl Stalling, who got his start in Kansas City playing the organ for silent films. He began with Walt in composing for the early cartoons.”

McGraw says he is honored to be linked with the Thank You Walt Disney group. “Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse and the legacy here should make the community proud. We want to use our connections and skills at Buttonwood to raise awareness of the mission.”

Viets says the mission is only a fraction fulfilled with the building saved, but so much work is yet to be done. “There is also the educational aspect with the artists in town at Hallmark and those budding artists at the Kansas City Art Institute.” Drungilas says she can’t think of any artist who has not been influenced by Disney. “Disney inspires inspiration.”

Viets even spent time recently with Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. Recently, an ambulance was dedicated to Disney’s service as a Red Cross ambulance driver immediately following World War I. The ambulance is now housed at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. Viets says the family foundation has given some monetary support and the rest of the matching grant could be utilized with the auction that accompanies the Buttonwood art show. The Disney shareholders meeting occurred around the same time in which Viets made another appeal.

“Like many, I take pride in the Missouri ties of those who have moved to Hollywood. So much film history can be traced to the Midwest. Look at Joan Crawford, who lived in Kansas City and attended Stephens College in attended Stephens College in Columbia. Steve McQueen grew up in Slater. The list goes on and on,” he says.

With the need to raise money and awareness, Viets says McGraw and Buttonwood fulfill both goals. “We still need about $160,000 to make that match. Kansas City has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate a great philanthropic spirit to us. We also have an architect and a construction company willing to help. We are trying to make this a five-year project. We will have permanent artifacts of Walt Disney such as the drawing table of Disney and Ub Iwerks. There could also be traveling shows and collections with a specific theme. If we put out a call, I bet we would have a deluge. I would also like to see a lecture room and a small boutique theater to show films in conjunction with the exhibitions. It has never been more exciting because we can see a bright future.”


In tribute, the artists at Buttonwood are producing works showcasing line art, cartoons, highly colorful works and pieces inspired by imagination and will donate all or up to 50 percent of net sales to benefit the TYWD organization. Several of these artists are part of the local art scene while others have strong ties to the area, but have moved on. Still others are new to the art scene.

Local artist Erin Lavin may be one of the younger artists to participate in the Animation & Imagination. She is an English major at the University of Kansas with an affinity for drawing, thanks in part to her father Jamie Lavin, local artist and gallery director at Buttonwood. “I grew up watching Disney movies such as Robin Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin so to be part of an exhibition that caters to my more cartoonish style is great.”

Local artist Keith Shepherd retired from Hallmark in 2004. He is preparing four pieces that look at four iconic princesses – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Little Mermaid. “I have always liked the pulp fiction novels from the 1930s and »»
1940s so my artwork has them in distress or them causing the distress.” Shepherd says Disney is an animation and art standard to strive toward and like many artists, he finds himself doing just that from time to time. “The opening night exhibition should be exciting. I am looking forward to the event, especially to see people react to and with my art.”

Darryl Woods describes himself as a cartoonist/commercial artist/illustrator. He enjoys giving his art talents for charity events and often can be found drawing for hours at the events. His caricatures are prized and he has been part of Planet Comicon for years. “I am a Lucas Films Studio artist. I will be in the front window the first night of the exhibition painting an image of Darth Vader. It should be a fairly large painting,” he says.

Woods also donated pictures of Yoda and Boba Fett. “I have never seen my works auctioned before. I wanted to give simply because of Disney,” he says.

Artist Todd Smith lives on the Kansas side of the state line. His artistic history is linked to work on storyboards for Family Guy’s first season, the Spiderman cartoon for the Fox Kids Network, and penciler for Archie comics. He has 21 books in circulation and 19 he wrote and illustrated for children. “Since I was little I wanted to be an animator. Animation is one of the most unique art forms. It is a moving and thinking art where you hope viewers learn to care about these series of drawings and if they care, you have done something great. They talk and breathe. They become fascinating,” he says. Basic animation for Smith started when he would draw flip books as a child and teen. He attended Columbus College of Art and Design. There he found the chance to take his flip books and put them on film. He then worked for a company that produced television commercials. In Denver at the former Celluloid Studios, Smith worked on the pilot episode of South Park, and helped with Batman the Animated Series, the Wild Thornberrys and television commercials with iconic characters like Tony the Tiger.

“There is nothing like the Walt Disney Company. In my opinion, the first real animation came with Snow White. Walt put so much personality into those characters. We all fell in love with the dwarves. There is a Pinocchio. Every type of water is animated there from a giant ocean, tears, fish bowl to just simple drops of water. It’s incredible.”

Thank You Walt Disney Vice President Brian Price, through networking, met Woods and Smith in 2011. “We talked about the restoration project and the possibility of participating in an auction. A year passed and he visited me again,” Smith says. “I would love to see the building. I want to sit in Walt’s office and just draw something. I want to be a part of the restoration and help in whatever the Thank You Walt Disney group does for this initiative.”

One of the special guest artists, Bret Iwan, has an artistic and personal life that somewhat mirrors Disney. Both Iwan and Disney were born in Chicago, raised partly in California, moved to Missouri and then eventually found their way back to California. Ironically Disney drew and provided the first voice for Mickey Mouse, now Iwan is the third person and fourth including Disney to voice the iconic character. For three years, he has been the voice.

“I did a phone audition because a friend of mine who works for Disney suggested I try. When I want to be silly, I give them the Mickey Mouse voice, but I never thought I would have a callback audition. They wanted me to be the guy,” he says. “I moved back out to LA from Kansas City.” Iwan’s first employment after graduating from Ringling College of Art and Design was Hallmark in 2004. Some of his Mickey Mouse artwork has been placed in Disney Fine Art too.

“I learned to draw by drawing Mickey. My dad and I would sit and watch any Disney cartoon; he would pause the movie at certain points and we would draw. Even now, when I sit down to doodle, Mickey forms on the page,” he says.

Iwan says he has always been fascinated with Walt Disney. “It just wasn’t the characters and the movies, but his life and legacy, his ingenuity and the ability to come from his humble beginnings to rise to that incredible level. When I moved to Kansas City, I dove into the significant locations that related to Disney. Kansas City was a great place for him and for me. There was also a great kinship when I worked briefly in the licensing studio at Hallmark. I got to draw Mickey then. However, above anything else, it is an honor to be the voice. It’s exciting, but at the end of the day, I’m just doing my best to fill in for Walt.” l

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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