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Laugh-O-Gram Studio and the start of Walt Disney’s animation career in Kansas City

Kansas City nearly became the capital of animation when Disney began his career here in 1921, and a local nonprofit is working to revive that legacy to usher in a new era of creativity in the metro.

A mural on the side of the Laugh-O-Gram building. Walt Disney produces pages of drawings under the words, "Thank You Walt Disney Inc."

This mural marks the preservation of the Laugh-O-Gram building — and symbolizes its future.

Photo by Smuckola via Wikimedia Commons

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Picture a Hollywood sign over Midtown. You’d need a hill tall enough to see it — but when Kansas City became the focal point for Walt Disney’s career in the 1920s, it almost became a reality.

Disney enthusiasts attest that KC was one missed connection from becoming a worldwide animation capital. As it stands, we can still find glimpses of the House of Mouse’s foundations scattered downtown, alongside a few locals making serious headway to rekindle that legacy.

Where Disney learned to draw

Disney moved to Kansas City at the age of nine and lived in town before moving to Los Angeles in 1923.

Take a whirlwind tour of the animator’s childhood by visiting three still-standing sites:

  • His childhood home on Bellefontaine Avenue. It has been the family home of local Roberta Long since the ‘40s — but sightseers still come by in droves. Roberta’s message to interested fans: “You are more than welcome to come by.”
  • Between studies at Benton Elementary School and delivering papers, Disney took Saturday art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.
  • Disney’s knack for drawing animals started with books from KC Public Library.
Disney and associates stand under a banner reading "Walt Disney's Full-Length Feature" at a business luncheon.

Disney revisited KC in 1942 for a South Central Business Association luncheon. | Photo via Kansas City Public Library

Disney’s first (failed) studio

After returning from World War I, Walt Disney opened Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

Laugh-O-Gram lasted only two years, but in that time, Disney became a known name in local entertainment. The entrepreneur often told the story of a mouse that lived in his desk drawer at the KC studio. He fed it and taught it tricks, eventually growing so fond of the pet mouse that he immortalized it in the studio’s iconic character.

Though Walt Disney was a visionary in entertainment, he didn’t draw many of his legendary cartoons. For that, he relied on his friend Ub Iwerks — co-founder of Laugh-O-Gram, and the KC-born artist who invented Mickey Mouse.

Preserving KC’s legacy in animation

The city planned to demolish the Laugh-O-Gram building near 31st Street and Troost Avenue in early 2000. A local nonprofit, Thank You Walt Disney Inc., managed to save it, initiating a decades-long project to restore and transform the building.

Modern developments have largely paved over Disney’s KC history. The ad agency where he and Ub Iwerks met is now a parking lot, and the theater where he showed his first animations became the Lightwell Building. Laugh-O-Gram Studio fell into such disrepair that the first few years of restoration meant simply stabilizing the crumbling structure.

In February 2023, the nonprofit secured $2 million in federal funding to begin its work in earnest. The project will transform the building into a hybrid historical site, educational center, and working space. Board member Gary Sage describes the nonprofit’s vision to create “Not just a museum of the past. It’s now going to be a museum for the future.”

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