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Backers Continue Push for a Walt Disney Museum in Kansas City

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3 minute read

Speeding up or down 31st Street at Forest Avenue, it’s easy to miss the wall-sized mural, “Thank You, Walt Disney.” 

That location was once the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, Disney’s first professional film studio and apartment, which lasted for only one year in 1923. However, in the past 20 years or so, an organization called “Thank You, Walt Disney Inc.” has been dedicated to recreating that space as an educational art and film studio and museum.

A minimalist mural marks the site of Walt Disney’s very first studio at 31st Street and Forest Avenue in Kansas City. (Screenshot of Google Maps)

A curiousKC question asked why Kansas City doesn’t have a museum for Walt Disney since he lived here. 

While Disney regarded Kansas City as his home, he was born in Chicago. His family moved from Chicago to Marceline, Missouri, when he was four and later to Kansas City, where Disney first worked as a paperboy with his brother and father for the Kansas City Star. At about this time he took classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, according to the Kansas City Public Library.  

Disney would go on to serve in the Red Cross after World War I, living in France for nearly nine months. When he came back to the states he visited his family in Chicago, but he and his brother returned to Kansas City. That’s when he founded Laugh-O-Gram Studio at 1127 E. 31st St.

Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Gram
This oil painting was created by Kansas City artist Phil Starke. (From book, “Walt Disney’s Missouri”)

The 20-year effort to transform the old studio into a museum has been stunted for lack of funding, said Dan Viets, acting president of Thank You, Walt Disney.

The Walt Disney family provided a grant for the initial renovation of the once-crumbling structure, and several local construction companies also gave monetary support. That was the first step to opening a Kansas City museum for Walt Disney. The second is to remodel the place into a museum-safe and educational space.

“No one has really come forward with the initial major grant that I think we need to attract other funding. We have been very close many times,” Viets said.

Laugh-O-Gram Studio potentially is a great asset to Kansas City, Viets said. But he struggles to explain why the roughly $5 million needed to remodel the building hasn’t come through, other than folks think that the Walt Disney Co. will front the bill. That’s simply not the case, he said.

According to Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Theatres and chair of Thank You, Wal Disney, however: “It’s moving for sure.” But it’s about setting the project into motion with the correct players.

Rigby and Gary Sage, another board member who also worked with the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, said the nonprofit organization is gearing up for a capital campaign to raise funds for the remodel. They aim to launch the campaign in the summer of 2020. The organization was quoted anywhere between $2.5 million to $6 million just for the building. The good thing, Sage added, is that development along Troost has begun, which means they can be part of a broader effort.

“The neighborhood momentum is there,” Sage said.

When the organization bought the building – designed by the famous Nelle Peters – the city had scheduled a demolition because the original owners couldn’t renovate a crumbling, old building with leaky skylights. 

“Whenever someone tries to tear down a Nelle Peters building there’s an outcry,” Viets said with a laugh. 

The second part of the curiousKC query was: “How was (Disney) able to leave KC if he was broke?” 

The Laugh-O-Gram Studio business went bankrupt. But Disney had saved enough money personally for a first-class ticket on the Santa Fe Railway to Los Angeles, where his uncle lived. Throughout the 1920s, Disney would churn out animation after animation, not once losing steam. 

But Kansas City was always in the back of his mind. The beloved and possibly most famous character was inspired by Disney’s tiny pet friend that hung out in the old studio/apartment on 31st Street – Mickey Mouse. 

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