Walt Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, prior to moving to a farm on the edge of Marceline, Missouri. He lived in Kansas City from the age of about 9 until he was 22 years old.
He founded a company called Laugh-O-Grams on the second floor of the McConahy Building at 31st and Forest in Kansas City. Disney began producing a series of cartoons based loosely on fairytales and children’s stories. These films were shown in movie theaters around the country and in Europe. In addition to animated films, Laugh-O-Grams also created live-action movies, and educational films.
Disney also contracted with some of the major Hollywood studios to provide them with newsreel footage of national significance that took place around Jackson County. Among these were the groundbreaking ceremonies for the World War I Liberty Memorial in 1922. He also filmed babies for proud new parents.
His final film produced in Jackson County had the most direct impact on the history and development of the Walt Disney Company, as we know it today. While working for A.V. Cauger’s Kansas City Film Ad Service, he met a little 4-year old girl named Virginia Davis, who appeared in ads for the Warneke Bread Company. Walt’s idea was to create a series of films featuring Virginia interacting with cartoon characters. They were known as the Alice in Cartoonland series.
When Disney’s distributor forced him into bankruptcy at the end of July 1923, Walt who was then 22, pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles. Upon his arrival in California, he immediately set out to find a new distributor for his Alice Series. The signing of a contract on October 16, 1923, is regarded by The Walt Disney Company as their official beginning.
Until the arrival of Disney and his crew of animators from Jackson County there had never been animated cartoons produced in Hollywood. Among the young men who worked with Disney in his Kansas City studio were Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. Of course there was Ubbe Iwwerks, who is credited with drawing the first Mickey Mouse.
Harman and Ising left Disney after a few years and became the founding animators of the Warner Brothers cartoon studios as well as the first animators at MGM. They also trained William Hanna and supervised his first work with Joseph Barbera, Hannah-Barbera Studios went on to create Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear.
Disney Studios, MGM, Warner Brothers and Hannah-Barbera created and produced the vast majority of all the animated cartoons made in Hollywood for several decades.
Other boys from Cauger’s Kansas City Film Ad Service who were important to the early animation industry were “Bugs” Hardaway (the man Bugs Bunny was named for). Isadore “Fritz” Freleng, one of the most creative directors and animators at Warner Brothers and co-founder of the DePatie-Freleng Studios, which produced the Pink Panther cartoons.
Carl Stalling was the organist at the old Isis Theatre at 31st and Troost, one block from the Laugh-O-Grams studio. Disney drug him to California and recruited Stalling to help him add music to the early Mickey Mouse films and the Silly Symphony series. Stalling went on to work for Warner Brothers and became the most prolific composer and arranger in animated films.
So, the boys from Jackson County are responsible for not only Mickey Mouse, but Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, the Taz, Tweety and Sylvester, Tom & Jerry, the Pink Panther, Yogi Bear and Scooby Doo, just to name a few. The McConahy Building at 31st and Forest, the home of Laugh-O-Grams, will hopefully be restored sometime in the near future, possibly as a museum to Disney and the animators from Jackson County.
Reference: Dan Viets, Jackson County Historical Society Journal.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.