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In May I was asked to present “Disney’s 3 Keys To Success” to a group of mostly retired motion picture theatre executives at the Screenland Theatre, very near to downtown Kansas City. The Screenland is also located adjacent to an area known as “film row” from the early 1900’s through the 1980’s. It’s name was derived from the number of offices along a central corridor that were occupied by most of the major film companies and movie theatre chains of the time.
The Screenland Theatre has recently become the epicenter for a local movement to restore Walt Disney’s original, 1921, animation headquarters, Laugh O’ Gram Studios. That building in mid-town Kansas City was doomed to destruction a few years ago but has been saved and partially salvaged by local volunteers that are a part of a not-for-profit group called “Thank You Walt Disney.”
The plan of “TYWD” is to restore the Laugh O’ Gram Studio site and turn it into a learning center and museum. But, because their efforts rely on donations, the group is still a few years and several hundreds of thousands of dollars away from realizing their vision.
As the home of the “TYWD” movement, the Screenland Theatre has become a mini-museum with photos and information regarding Walt Disney’s youthful years in Kansas City, beginning a decade after the turn of the 19th century. The historic information was not only the back drop to my presentation, it reveals lessons in business that Disney learned the hard way.
Walt Disney lived in Kansas City at two different times: from 1911 (when he was 9 years old) until 1917 and, again, from 1919 to 1922. The second time was, arguably, the most influential time of his vast career.
At the conclusion of World War I in 1919, 17 year old Walt Disney was already a very talented artist who had studied at the Kansas City and Chicago Art Institutes. He returned to Kansas City after serving in the Red Cross in France with the hope of finding work as a political caricaturist or cartoonist. With neither position available, Walt’s brother, Roy, who worked at a local bank, found him a temporary job creating ads for periodicals and movie theatres. It was there that Walt would meet cartoonist, Ubbe Iwerks, another individual that became well known in the world of animation.
When their temp jobs ended, Walt and Ubbe tried their hand at starting a commercial art business. But, times were tough and customers were few. Walt needed money to survive and was forced to leave his business to work as an artist for the Kansas City Film Ad Service Company. Iwerks eventually joined him. Walt’s work at Film Ad introduced him to the art of animation. And, with a borrowed camera and a book on the topic of animation that he checked out of the Kansas City public library, Disney began experimenting with this new medium on his own time.
In 1920, an imaginative and industrious, 18 year old Disney believed he was ready to start his own animation company. He set up shop in the second story of a building in midtown Kansas City. With the assistance of only one employee, Walt worked a deal with a local theatre owner to show his cartoons in his movie theatres. The cartoons proved to be very popular and it wasn’t long before Disney was able to hire some talented animators, including Ubbe Iwerks, to come work for him. In 1921, things were going so well for his company that Disney incorporated Laugh O’ Gram Studios.
But, between the high salaries Walt was paying his artists and his inability to make a profit on his studio’s expensively produced cartoons, plus his ineptness as a money manager, it wasn’t long before Laugh O’ Grams was bogged down in debt.
During the days of late 1921 and early 1922, Walt’s ability to pay rent for housing was sporadic at best and he’d often take up residence in the Laugh O’ Gram Studios’ office. Walt was broke and would trade his artistic talent for meals that he would eat at his desk. At times a crumb or two would fall to the floor. Those tiny morsels became a feast to a small mouse living behind a hole in the studio's wall.
Walt was amused by the little creature and occasionally intentionally left a trail of bread crumbs for the mouse to follow, so that he could observe him. Years later, as you can imagine, film lore would credit that rodent as the origin for Disney’s most recognized character…Mickey Mouse.
In 1922, Disney’s Laugh O’ Gram Studios could no longer withstand the strain of its debt and Walt filed for bankruptcy, just before heading to California to become the most successful, animated film producer of all time.
There are at least three lessons to be learned from Walt Disney’s time in Kansas City.
First, just because one does not succeed at something the first time does not make them a failure. In fact, Disney had many business pitfalls throughout his life that, through his tenacity, he could overcome.
Hard economic times are no excuse to quit trying. Although the early 1920’s were tough on Walt and his business ventures, what he learned from those adversities helped his California studio maintain a steady course through the great depression a few years later. It also didn’t hurt that the creative influence that evolved from that little mouse at the Laugh O’ Gram Studios had now become his biggest star.
Finally, inspiration can sneak up on you in the most peculiar ways and may come from the least likely sources. Like Disney, we are creative souls that can find success through quiet observation of life’s smallest details and by embracing our imagination as one of our most productive tools. What good fortune might you find behind your hole in the wall?
I invite you to join me and the “Thank You Walt Disney” effort to “save the house where the mouse was born.” Please visit On their web site, you’ll also find a wide variety of cool merchandise. Proceeds from your purchase, of course, will further advance the restoration of the historic, Laugh O’ Gram Studios.

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