Realityland: Walt Disney and the city that gave birth to a mouse

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Before there was Mickey, there was Walt this is his story:

Part Two The Disneys are going to Kansas City. (Part One was in yesterday’s post)

In 1910, Disney Patriarch Elias Disney contracted typhoid and became very ill. Although he would recover, the work he missed put the family in such a bind that the Disney family could no longer keep their farm. Elias secured a job working for the Kansas City Star newspaper and the family closed down the farm and moved to KC. Elias’ two older sons Herbert and Raymond were both adults by now and chose to move back to Chicago.  So in 1911, Elias and Flora moved their three remaining children Roy, Walter, and Ruth. Moved to a house on Bellefontaine Street in Kansas City.

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The house still is standing today. It is a private residence. The owner isn’t related to the Disneys and didn’t even know of the house’s history until a newspaper article back in the 1980’s. She says she has been offered money to buy the home but refuses to sell it since her family has owned the home since the 1940’s.

The only real giveaways are the Mickey Mouse picture in the window and the statue on her front lawn. Both were given to her by Disney fans. The lady who owned the home also said she had gotten used to people coming by and photographing her home.

As the five remaining Disney family members settle into their home. Elias had bad news for his two sons Walter and Roy. He expected them to work in order to help support their family. Walt was nine and Roy was 17. They were both expected to be up by 3:30AM in order to deliver papers for their father’s paper route. Years later Walt would reminisce about the cold weather and be walking the dark streets alone in the early morning.  After delivering the papers he had to get ready for school.  Walt attended the Benton elementary school. On Saturday’s he attended drawing classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Benton Grammar school on the left as it is today. On the right, as it looked in Walt Disney’s day. Pretty much the same.

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Kansas City Art Institute. Where a young Disney somehow found time to attend while going to school full time and keeping an early morning paper route.

Walt often fell asleep in class and was generally a poor performing student.  Walt kept his paper route going for six years. The family was surviving with Elias, Roy, and Walt all working. In 1917, Elias had read about a jelly company named O’Zell’s that was going to venture into the carbonated beverage field.  Elias felt like this was a good opportunity for him so he invested in the company and moved the family back to Chicago so he could work at the company’s distribution center.  Roy decided to stay in Kansas City and one of the older brothers Herbert who had since gotten married moved to the house in Kansas City with his wife and child in tow.

In Chicago,  Walt attended high school and even drew comics for the school newspaper but dropped out before graduating. By this time, the US was involved in the first World War, and Walt wanted to enlist. Being too young to enlist ( he had been caught trying to give a wrong birthdate) he signed up with the red cross instead and became an ambulance driver. by the time he had arrived in France however, the armistice had already been signed and the war was over. Walt spent about a year abroad and even drew cartoons on his ambulance which was featured in Stars and Stripes magazine. While overseas Walt also began smoking, something that became a lifelong habit.

After his stint with the red cross, Walt returned to Kansas City.  By now the entire family minus brother Raymond were all living in the family home again.  Seems that Elias’ soda venture had gone belly up and they were depending on brothers Herbert and Roy to bring in the income. Walt tried to get a job as a cartoonist for The Kansas City Star but was declined an interview. (Shame because at the time the paper had a cub reporter named Ernest Hemingway and how epic would that have been to have Disney and Hemingway on the same paper?)

Disney did find short-term work making illustrations with the Pesman Rubin Commercial Art Studio.  and while the job didn’t last but a few weeks, it was very significant because it was at this job he meets someone who will change his life. Ubbe Iwerks.

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From the Disney museum, the importance of the partnership between Disney and Iwerks.

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. Ubbe Iwerks drawing an early version of Mickey Mouse. While the idea of Mickey Mouse was Walt’s, Ubbe Iwerks created his look. The saying Goes Iwerks gave Mickey his body, Disney gave Mickey his soul.

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After the studio job fell through Iwerks and Disney decided to venture out into their own. The company was called the Iwerks-Disney company. Ubbe got first billing because they decided if they reversed it, the name would sound like an optical company. The venture was short lived and they both found work at the KC Slide Company. 
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The former office of the KC Slide Company. Slides were illustrated cards that were slid into the projector before shows and would advertise local businesses. Disney and Iwerks would both leave the company in 1922 and form their own company called the Laugh O Gram Company.
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Walt Disney’s business card featuring a self-portrait.

Iwerks and Disney formed the Laugh O Gram Company in  May of 1922. They found work fairly easily making short cartoons for the Newman Movie House in downtown KC

A postcard showing the Newman Theater the first place in the entire world a Disney cartoon was ever shown. The theater has been gone for years. City Center Square one of the tallest buildings in KC now occupies its space.

The Laugh O Gram studio was originally located in the same building as the ISIS Theater which was the second place to show Disney’s work.  The Theater is also significant because it is where Disney met Carl Stalling. Stalling worked as an organist at the theater. Stalling would play music while the silent pictures would play. Disney heard Stalling play and offered him a job creating music that could go along with the cartoons (which were also silent at the time).  Stalling agreed. He would eventually follow Disney to California where he would create music for Disney and later almost every warner brothers cartoon from the 1930’s through the 1960’s including the famous tagline ” That’s all folks” and the Merrie Melodies theme which I bet you a dollar you can hum.  It’s the one your thinking. Stalling was a musical genius and Disney discovered him.

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The legendary Carl Stalling

on your left: The Isis Theater as it looked at Disney’s time. Right: Today, it is just an empty lot where someone decided to paint a mural featuring Disney, Mickey and a reminder of what once stood there.

The space in the Isis building quickly became too cramped so later that year they moved about a half block over,

Left:  The home of the laugh O Gram studios as it looked during Disney’s time and as it looked in 2014. Later that year a non-profit company called “Thank You, Walt Disney”  bought the building with plans to turn it into a museum. So far as of today, the building remains vacant and the interior is non-existent but they have repaired the exterior.

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Someone painted a picture of Walt Disney and Ubbe Iwerks on the window on the second floor.

Disney actively scouted for talent to work at his studio and besides Stalling and Iwerks he hired Hugh Harmon, Rudy Ising, Fritz Freleng and Carmen Maxwell. I know me saying those names may not be that impressive but let me tell you what they would eventually do: They would eventually establish the cartoon departments for MGM and Warner Brothers. Among them they would eventually create Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck , Slyvester and Tweety, Tom and Jerry, Elmer Fudd and Yosimite Sam but at this time they were all working for Disney

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The Laugh O Gram superstars hard at work
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The laugh O Grams were short cartoons that would paody a fairy tale such as Poots in Boots or the Three Bears. In total there were seven made only three survive. 

By this time the family had moved to Portland oregon except for Roy who had contracted Tuberculosis and was recovering in Arizona. Disney originally had a room in a boarding house but eventually moved in to the Laugh O Grams Studio and just slept there. To shower he would go to the Union Station train depot and use the showers there. While living at the studio Disney had noticed a mouse that seemed tame and would play on his desk while he worked.  He made a cage for the mouse and feed it and keep it with him at work.  The contact for the shorts was a small amount upfront and the remainder upon delivery. On several occasions he would deliver the shorts in good faith only to be stiffed on the payment. The last short they made at Laugh O Gram was alive action and animation film called “Alices Wonderland’ which featured Virginia Davis the daughter of a friend.

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Disney’s laugh O Gram team and Virginia Davis

The film was only have made when Disney filed for bankruptcy. Despondent and broke he took his last money and bought a one way ticket to los Angeles. His brother Roy was there because the warm dry air of LA was good for his lungs and his uncle Robert who had always been so generous lived there too. Robert offered walt a place to stay. Walt took a half made “Alice’s Wonderland” with him. Perhaps California would  be kind to him.

Epilouge: When Walt got to LA he recieved word that a producer in New York City had heard about his “Alice’s Wonderland” and was intersted in seeing it. He sent for his team inKansas City to come out and help him finish. The demo was a hit and they began to produce a full series. They also built upon the Laugh O Gram idea with “Silly Symphonies”. The producer eventually complained that the Alice series had gotten to expensive and asked for them to come up with a new character. They created “Oswalt the Lucky Rabbit” . This also became a hit, but the producer had gotten greedy. He poached all of Walt’s team away from him (except Iwerks) when Disney took a train to New York to renogiate the contact, the producer told Disney he had stolen his team and had aqquired the rights to “Oswald’ and would produce the series without Disney.  walt felt like his career was over. on thta very long ride back to LA, Disney made several decisons that would change history. One: from now on Roy would negiotiate the deals, he would have read through this producer and had never approved such an awful contract. He would never create another character he didn’t have all the rights to, and thirdly he would create a new character. He and Iwerks discussed their time in Kansas City and Iwerks asked whatever became of the mouse. Disney said before he left KC he found a field in the countryside and set him free. Then Disney said “How about a mouse character?” We can name him “Mortimer Mouse”. When he got home he told his wife (sorry he got married in between the time he left KC and Now) His wife said “Mortimer is a prissy name how about Mickey?”……And you know the rest of the story.

2 Replies to “Realityland: Walt Disney and the city that gave birth to a mouse”

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