Final push in effort to save Walt Disney's KC studio - KCTV5

Final push in effort to save Walt Disney's KC studio

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© Image courtesy The Kansas City Star © Image courtesy The Kansas City Star

An effort is under way to preserve the animation studio where Walt Disney got his start.

Disney spent his teen years in Kansas City, and the characters he created are now being used to help raise funds to save his first studio.

Years before he introduced Mickey Mouse to the world in Steamboat Willie, Disney was a young, struggling cartoonist who started an animation company in Kansas City called Laugh-O-Gram.

He and a group of animators worked out of a brick building at East 31st Street and Forest Avenue, creating short cartoons for theaters to run before the movies. But after a year-and-a-half, Disney ran out of money and the business failed.

"He wasn't a particularly talented cartoonist and he wasn't a particularly talented businessman, but he'll ironically be known as the greatest cartoon businessman in history and that's because he surrounded himself with talented people," said Butch Rigby, one of the founders of Thank You Walt Disney, Inc.

Butch Rigby is one of the founding members of Thank You Walt Disney, a charitable organization dedicated to preserving the old Laugh-O-Gram studios and turning it into a living museum.

Rigby says Disney and his animators made history in the Laugh-O-Gram studio when they created the first ever cartoon combining live actors, called Alice's Wonderland and starring Walt Disney himself.

"He was able to take these very talented people and get the very best out of them," Rigby said. "They were always the ones leading the way, and the things they did in Kansas City were foreshadowing of all the things they would do at the Disney Studios, using the very cartoonists that came from Kansas City.

After going bankrupt, Disney bought a one-way ticket to Hollywood and convinced some of his animators to go with him.

Besides creating Disney Studios, those Kansas City animators went on to draw for Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbara, having a major influence on the cartoons people watched as a kid.

"It's like this incredible flower from the seeds that grew right here at 31st and Troost in Kansas City," Rigby said.

But the best thing Disney took with him to Hollywood was his memory of a field mouse he took care of inside the Laugh-O-Gram studios.

"Mickey Mouse was based upon a real-life mouse named Mortimer that Walt used to feed at his desk at the Laugh-O-Gram studios," Rigby said.

It has been about 90 years since Laugh-O-Gram shut down, and now the goal is to turn the shuttered building into an interactive museum within the next two years, to inspire the next generation of animators.

"It's very important that a kid walk in there, get excited, see the room where Walt Disney used to sit to draw cartoons; we'll have a little animation lab and studio for animators and students to come and experiment," Rigby said.

Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, is offering a $500,000 matching grant to Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. to renovate the Laugh-O-Gram studios.

They have already raised $350,000 and received money to help bolster the building. The hope is an art sale featuring drawings from your favorite Disney movies will help them secure the remaining grant money to pay for the renovations.

Another $100,000 is needed in hopes of being able to showcase Disney's early career in Kansas City to the world. The hope is to have the education center and museum open in three years.

An art auction featuring drawings from your favorite Disney movies began at 6 p.m. Friday night at the Buttonwood Art Space at 3013 Main St. Hundreds attended the event. The exhibit is on display until 3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

The man who does the voice of Mickey Mouse, Bret Iwan, attended Friday night's gala.

Iwan showed of his "Hi ya pal" Mickey Mouse voice. He is also an animator and one of his works was auctioned off.

Iwan said he was glad to attend the event, noting that Disney got his start in "the heart of America."

"It's because of that, we have everything we know and love with Disney," he said.

Louise Hicks and her husband bought Iwan's artwork. They said Disney's legacy is important in Kansas City.

"Walt Disney is a legend," she said. "He's a Kansas City boy."

Disney spent most of his childhood in Marceline, MO. Marceline's Main Street inspired the Walt Disney properties' Main Street.

To view a sample of the art for sale, click here and look for "shows."

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