Published May 17th, 2021 at 10:23 AM
Kansas City has an unsolved art mystery.
When a curiousKC reader reached out about a few Disney murals that once hung in the old D.A. Holmes School, formerly The Benton Grammar School, it seemed that surely someone would know what happened to the pieces.
Afterall, the artwork depicting now-iconic characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse was created by Walt Disney himself.
So what happened to the murals that the future cartoon tycoon hung in the very hallways that he once walked as a student?
The short answer: No one knows.
Before getting to the best guesses from both Disney scholars and local historians as to what may have happened to the murals, it’s worth taking a look back at Walt Disney’s time at the school as both a student and esteemed guest. The timeline spans more than a century in the building at 3004 Benton Boulevard, which once fostered Disney’s young imagination and later inspired the creation of a pair of original murals that are nowhere to be found.
In the fall of 1911, young Walter Disney walked through the doors of The Benton Grammar School, a large, red brick building where Disney would attend elementary school through June 1917.
During his time at Benton, Disney regularly battled tired eyes due to his morning paper routes. He also ran track, did a solid impression of Abe Lincoln and fostered a strong friendship with classmate Walter Pfeiffer, who according to “Walt Disney: A Biography” author Louise Krasniewicz, heavily influenced Disney’s interest in film, in particular the work of Charlie Chaplin.
Classmates of Disney would eventually recall drawings of an original character, dubbed Mortimer Mouse, scribbled in the margins of the 13-year-old’s textbooks.
In June 1917, Walter graduated from Benton and the Disney family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where the artistic teenager would further hone his craft before returning to Kansas City in 1920.
“It was good to know that I have not been forgotten by my Alma Mater. Kindly extend my kindest regards to all my friends and former teachers at Benton, and be assured that I am looking forward to the time when I can visit Benton again. My best personal regards to you, Walt Disney.”
A 1931 edition of “The Bentonion” yearbook acquired by Vintage Disney Collectibles includes a six-paragraph letter written to his Alma Mater from Disney.
The letter provided a full postgraduate update from the school’s famous former student. Disney disclosed that in more than 10 years since graduating from The Benton School, he had traveled abroad to drive ambulances in France, briefly worked on the railroad, returned to Kansas City for a career in advertising and eventually found success opening his own studio.
Far from forgettable, Disney’s mouse Mortimer was now Mickey, and his cartoons were shown in theaters around the world.
A Friday edition of The Kansas City Star, published Nov. 7, 1941, announced Disney’s upcoming 1942 reunion at his former grammar school.
The column revealed a few details of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural project planned to go up in the school’s hallways to commemorate Disney’s early years in Kansas City. The Benton Grammar School hallways would be prepped for two mural panels, “ten feet long and three feet wide,” featuring original drawings by Disney.
Eleven years after penning the letter to his former administrators, Disney arrived back in Kansas City for the reunion.
Press coverage of Disney’s visit to The Benton Grammar School reported more than 800 students, faculty and parents in attendance. The celebration included recognition of Disney’s grammar school relay track team, a skit celebrating the eighth birthday of Donald Duck featuring voice actor Clarence Nash and the dedication of two murals, originally conceived in the Disney Studios.
While the two murals depicting characters including Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio to name a few, were based on original Disney drawings, the project was actually completed by artist Corrine Mitchell and a team of around 90 artists assigned to the WPA mural project.
“The artist who executed the murals was remarkable in her own way,” said Hector Casanova, an assistant professor at the Kansas City Art Institute who teaches a course on murals at Disney’s former art school.
Casanova refers to Mitchell, of course, whose life’s work did not evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the most recognizable brands on Earth, but rather a portfolio of trailblazing contributions to the arts as a feminist and civil rights leader.
A Black woman from the South, Mitchell’s legacy tied to the Benton School murals raises the stakes on the missing art.
In 1992, Mitchell became the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition featured in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
The Benton Grammar School became D.A. Holmes School in 1953. Named after local civil rights leader and Paseo Baptist Church pastor Reverend Daniel Arthur Holmes, the D.A. Holmes School converted to a segregated all-Black school the same year.
In 1964, La’Verne Washington enrolled at D.A. Holmes School.
“I remember as a child, from Kindergarten to sixth grade, the joy of walking around that building and looking at those gigantic murals of Mickey, Minnie and Goofy,” Washington said.
Washington, a soul artist living in Washington D.C., grew up in Kansas City and remembers the misplaced Disney murals fondly.
Fifty-seven years after she first walked the D.A. Holmes School halls, it was Washington who reached out to the curiousKC team with her fingers crossed in hopes of tracking down the lost art.
“I think Mr. Disney wanted us to just have them everywhere. It made going to grade school special,” she said.
In 1995, more than 50 years after Disney’s stopover at The Benton Grammar School, it was Diane Disney Miller’s turn to tour her father’s former hometown. Along with her husband Ron and Disney scholar Dan Viets, Diane’s Kansas City stay included a guided tour of D.A. Holmes.
But by 1995, the murals were nowhere to be seen.
“The school was still operating, but they were not there in 1995,” said Viets, who took the Millers through the former Laugh-O-Gram Studio and school that day.
“We would have seen them that day if they were there.”
D.A. Holmes School closed its doors for good in 1997.
The historic space sat vacant for several years, before it was purchased from the Kansas City Missouri School District in 2002 and redeveloped into a senior living community.
“Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius,” a 2002 book published by The Kansas City Star and written by Viets, along with co-authors Brian Burnes and Robert W. Butler, dedicates a brief section to the mysterious case of the Benton murals.
In addition to coverage of the day Disney stopped over at his former school for the dedication of the murals, the book last references one of the murals being relocated within the school’s halls in 1987.
The consensus on what may have happened to the murals is rather underwhelming when it comes to art heists and unsolved mysteries of that nature.
While conducting research for their book, Viets, along with local historian and journalist Burnes, conducted interviews with former students of the D. A. Holmes School, like Washington, who saw the murals with their own eyes.
Viets and Burnes believe the murals were simply thrown out at some point during the eight-year window between 1987 and 1995 — well before the building was sold.
“What I was told by people who attended the school and remembered (the murals) is that they were vandalized by kids being kids over the years to the point that they couldn’t save them,” Viets said.
“Maybe that was an assumption by the students who I talked to, but that seemed to be the consensus. My guess is that they were probably just thrown in the trash. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
The murals’ distinction as a WPA project has sparked interest in researchers like Viets, who have worked to track down the art.
Databases listing WPA projects are out there, but unfortunately any search for the work by Mitchell and her team that brought Disney’s vision to fruition comes up empty
In fact, of the more than 225,000 works created by the federal project, it is estimated that many have been lost over the years.
When it comes to the potential value of the missing artwork, Viets estimates a price tag anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars … if recovered.
“They are truly one-of-kind,” Viets said of the hardly-photographed murals that Disney unveiled to his junior Benton cohorts in the winter of 1942.
“There’s nothing to compare them to that have been sold recently. They’d certainly be very valuable.”
“It would be really interesting to find out what happened to them,” added Casanova, who has become intrigued by the case.
The KCAI “mural guy” sees a clear paradox when it comes to the disappearance of the potentially valuable murals.
“It was something that was created for students of that school to enjoy for generations. It’s disappearance is just unfortunate and very much works against the spirit of what Corrine Mitchell, Disney and just muralists in general are trying to accomplish through their work,” Casanova said
“That is creating work that anyone can enjoy, it doesn’t matter what their race, class or where they come from.”
Fairway Management, the group that owns D.A. Holmes Senior Apartments, did not respond when approached for comment on the missing Disney murals.