Disney Studio Renovated and Revitalized

No name looms bigger than Walt Disney as a favorite son in Kansas City, so it’s fitting that his landmark office becomes once again a major attraction. And no one seems better suited to spearhead that resurgence than local mover-and-shaker Butch Rigby, owner of KC’s Screenland Theatres for 26 years. After all, Diane Disney, daughter of Walt, said of Rigby, “More than anyone, you remind me of my father.”

Walt Disney’s original “Laugh-O-Gram” cartoon studio was housed in the McConahay building located at 3100 Forest Ave., just east of Troost. This was the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, an actual little field mouse that Walt kept as a pet on his desk and in his drawer, and the incubator of the great animators, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising.

Disney acquired and developed the building in May 1922 but abandoned it in 1923 when he filed for bankruptcy and left for Hollywood, taking with him only a one-reel cartoon film, Alice’s Cartoonland. In 1996 the building was slotted for demolition but visionary Butch Rigby bought it for $12,000; he simply couldn’t allow such a historical goldmine to fall into obscurity.

The building was in a state of total collapse. Rigby set to work on it with BNIM, the U.S. Green Building Council, an NEA grant and $400,000 from the Disney Family Foundation. He also worked closely with KC architect Jeremy Knoll. They added steel, concrete, brick, a new floor, roof and walls. The initial expenditure was $700,000. Adding to that cost will be a new flashier exterior with glass and landscaping. Rigby’s plan is always to “transform the street as much as the building.” In addition, the building will be green and sustainable to the maximum degree.

When complete, the 10,000-square-foot building will be a center of innovation and technological advancement, just as it was in the early 1900s. Roughly half will be devoted to a recreation of Walt Disney’s office, with interactive exhibits, memorabilia, merchandise, and a soda/coffee and gift shop. The other half will be a hive for new work with a decided “digital DNA,” including the presence of the KC digiSTORY Center. There will be classroom/event space for training and public programs and space for new media startup endeavors. In other words, it will offer creative “fertile ground” for another generation of big ideas.

The revitalized Disney Studio is certainly close to Rigby’s heart; it’s been a 20-year dream of his. But he professes to be more excited about the revitalization of Troost (just as he is revitalizing east 63rd Street). Already millions of dollars are being poured into construction and new living space in the area. Rigby terms it not just gentrification but “the marrying of the east to west side.”

Fundraising to finish the project is ongoing. The Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, the Mid-America Regional Council and various market tax credits are being pursued.

And for it all, we say “thank you, Butch Rigby.”

For more information, see www.thankyouwaltdisney.org.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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