Walt Disney in Missouri Part II: Realityland, how hard times in Kansas City gave birth to a mouse.

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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.


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 began to 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 Elementary as it looks today, and below as it looked during Walt’s day. Pretty much the same.


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.

From the Disney museum, on the importance of the partnership between Disney and Iwerks.
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.
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.
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.
Walt Disney’s Business card with 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 1930s through the 1960s 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 in Kansas City

The legendary Carl Stalling.
The Isis Theater in Disney’s day.
A mural stands on the wall where the theatre once sat.

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

The building which held the Laugh o Grams Studio was on the second floor of this office building. This is how it looked then.
The building was in disarray for years and finally began to collapse. There wasn’t so much as a plaque on the wall. I grew up in KC and I didn’t even know the building existed.
In 2014, 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. This building has been called the “cradle of American Animation” and yet, it is still just an abandoned unknown building in midtown KC

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 Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn Peppy LePew, Sylvester and Tweety, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam among many others but at this time they were all working for Disney in a cramped office in KC.

The Laugh O Grams Superstars hard at work.
The laugh O Grams were short cartoons that would parody 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 into 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.

The Laugh O Gram team and Miss Davis.

The film was started but Disney had to file 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.

Epilogue: When Walt got to LA he received word that a producer in New York City had heard about his “Alice’s Wonderland” and was interested in seeing it. He sent for his team in Kansas 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 too 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 negotiate the contract, the producer told Disney he had stolen his team and had acquired the rights to “Oswald’ and would produce the series without Disney.  Walt felt like his career was over. on that very long ride back to LA, Disney made several decisions that would change history. One: from now on Roy would negotiate 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.


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