Walt Disney began his animation career in Kansas City. Raised in Marceline, Disney’s family moved to Kansas City then to Chicago during the 1910s. After serving in WWI, Disney returned to the city in 1919 and found work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. During this time, he and his friends created silent clips called “Laugh-O-Grams” to play alongside films at Frank Newman’s theaters. These comedic shorts gained recognition, giving Disney the influence to pull together a team to create a longer animated film that parodied “Little Red Riding Hood.” Impressed, local investors pledged $15,000 to realize Disney’s dream of owning an animation studio. On May 23, 1922, Disney opened Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc. in a five-room suite on the second floor of the McConahay Building at 1127 E. 31st Street.
Although the business went bankrupt in July 1923, Laugh-O-Gram jump-started Disney’s successful career and that of several other animators. During the studio’s one-year operation, Disney created a cartoon based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and used the film to build his career in Los Angeles. Like Disney, several Laugh-O-Gram animators relocated to Hollywood, where they paved the way for the golden age of animation. Among them were Rudolf Ising, Hugh Harman, and Friz Freleng, who created well-known characters like Tom and Jerry and the Looney Tunes.
Despite Laugh-O-Gram’s importance in Kansas City’s film industry and in animation history, the two-story tapestry brick building that housed the studio decayed in the latter half of the twentieth century as a result of white flight and urban disinvestment. Today, Kansas City nonprofit, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., is working with city leaders on a plan to restore the building to be a museum and tribute to Disney’s first animation studio.