Animator and iconic idea man Walt Disney really got his start here in Kansas City. The building at 31st and Forest Avenue could be part of a series if public television’s “This Old House” wanted to take on the McConahay Building. Remember, the mission of the show is “to demystify the home improvement process and to celebrate the fusion of old world craftsmanship and modern technology.” That is exactly what the Thank You Walt Disney board members are trying to do — save the original building while adding features and improvements to draw in 21st century visitors of all ages.
Brian Price, whose favorite Disney film is “Fantasia,” got involved in some events with the Thank You Walt Disney group in 2003 and joined the board in 2008. He now serves as vice president. Lon Davis is director of marketing. He’s been with the group since 2008 as well. The men are representatives of an organization that strives to preserve history. “Once we have an education center and museum constructed and open, I could imagine visitors from all over. The city itself can benefit from the improvements. We have to make sure it happens,” says Price.
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, Rudolf Ising, Hugh Harman, Carl Stalling 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. Four-year-old Virginia Davis of Kansas City appeared in that film and, a few months later, when Walt signed his contract to make the series, he persuaded Virginia’s family to move to Hollywood so she could continue with the series. The signing of the contract for The Alice Comedies on Oct. 16, 1923 is the official founding date of The Walt Disney Company.
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.
Now Disney’s Kansas City dream is being preserved by the Thank You Walt Disney organization. “It’s the realization that this is more than the Kansas City area. Walt’s impact is felt worldwide.” To capture that legacy, The Walt Disney Company honors people with the status of “Disney Legend.” Virginia Davis’ last public appearance was at a Thank You Walt Disney fundraiser in 2009. This past spring, Bill Farmer, who has been the official voice of Goofy, Pluto, Horace Horsecollar, and many others, came to the fundraiser. “People from as far as New Jersey flew in for the event. We know we need the local support, but we also need those who are interested in Disney nationwide and even worldwide,” Price says.
Davis says the building has been purchased and saved from demolition. The roof and walls are structurally sound and the second floor is back in. Right now, it is more like a warehouse rather than a showpiece. “It can stand on its own now. The second phase should include putting electricity, water and plumbing back in,” he says. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Price says the efforts are underway to restore the building to as original as possible, including Disney’s office. The second phase, Davis says, also includes working with an architect to create the design for the education center, museum and movie theater.
“We have to encourage dreaming like Walt Disney did. We need a viable place for kids to go. We need to get kids passionate about animation and art again,” Price says. “We need to tap local leaders to get them interested. It would be a benefit to the entire community. We could start a trip at Union Station where Walt used to bathe and then shuttle guests over to Walt’s home before taking them to the Laugh-O-gram original building. Walt’s original home does still exist, but as of today it is in private hands. The trick is to look at all the sites tied to Walt Disney, not just the studio.” Davis says, “The outing could be called ‘Walking in the Footsteps of Walt Disney.’”
Oct. 6 at the Screenland Crown Center
Special showings of “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” the new film about the revival of the Disney Animation Department during the 1980s and “Frank and Ollie,” about two of Disney’s original team. Also during the event, there will have a live-auction featuring items from the Disney Studios.