The KC nonprofit trying to restore Walt Disney’s first animation studio is on its way to making its dream a reality.

Photo from Wikipedia.

A dilapidated building on East 31st Street in KC is considered by many to be the birthplace of the world’s most beloved animated mouse and Walt Disney’s first art studio.

It was here in this crumbling two-story building just a block east of Troost and a couple blocks west of the Paseo that Disney observed mice coming to eat crumbs, leading him to pen several cartoons that served as the foundation for future Disney star Mickey Mouse. Disney toiled away here, trying to make a go of it as a cartoonist in his fledgling business he called Laugh-O-Gram Studio. But an animation business proved difficult and Disney went bankrupt, so in 1923 he packed his bags and bought a one-way train ticket to Southern California, where he thought he could find more work.

Over the years, the building has fallen into disrepair. It was deemed structurally dangerous and scheduled for demolition—until a group of dedicated citizens decided to scrap together the funds to save it. Their nonprofit, called Thank You Walt Disney, aims not only to save the building but also eventually create an education center there. 

Restoring the Laugh-O-Gram Studio has been a labor of love for Thank You Walt Disney’s founder Butch Rigby and longtime member and current president Dan Viets. They have been on a mission for nearly 30 years to revitalize the historic building. As of now, the building is closed to the public and remains vacant, but this nonprofit’s story is one of patience and perseverance. 

Raising funds for the restoration project has been and continues to be a long process. Viets estimates they need $6.8 million to bring their vision for the studio to life. Twenty years ago, the organization received some initial funding from the Walt Disney Family Foundation, allowing them to save and stabilize the building but not fully restore it.

But things are starting to look up. In February 2023, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver presented the organization with $2 million dollars in federal funding from the $40 million Cleaver secured for community projects for his district. “That’s the first big money we’ve seen in 20 years,” Viets says.

So far, Thank You Walt Disney has received $3 million from various organizations and donors, and momentum seems to be building.

A recent $5,000 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council to develop a short film chronicling the history and importance of the Laugh-O-Gram Studio and a matching grant by local arts enthusiast Richard E. Fagerberg has given the nonprofit $10,000 to move forward with the film project. 

The short 25-minute film will eventually serve as an orientation video for people who visit the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, educating visitors about the building’s importance, how it came into being and a little history about the films made there. Viets also hopes sharing the film with local philanthropies and organizations will help them raise the last of the money needed to fully restore the building.

“The entire 20th century Hollywood animation industry grew out of the Laugh-O-Gram building in Kansas City,” says Viets. “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of what Walt accomplished.”  

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