View Full Version : Effort afoot to revive to "Laugh-o-Gram" Studio

05-28-2012, 07:54 AM

An animated effort to revive a Disney landmark
Laugh-O-Gram in Kansas City was sometimes called “the cradle of Hollywood animation.”
The Kansas City Star

Amid cracked sidewalks, a weedy lot and a “keep out” sign behind an old metal fence, a boarded-up brick building off Troost Avenue awaits its rebirth.

For 15 years, a Kansas City group has raised money to revitalize Laugh-O-Gram, Walt Disney’s first professional animation studio, and turn it into an interactive historical site, educational museum and perhaps more.

Now, 90 years after Disney began work there in May 1922, organizers are launching their final fund-raising push, hoping to complete the project by 2015.

“There is an important question people raise: Why is this taking so long?” said Butch Rigby, chairman of the group Thank You Walt Disney Inc. “The answer: It’s just a slow fund-raising process.

“But perseverance is important. Walt Disney wanted to build Disneyland for a long time, but he never gave up. And we will not give up on saving this important part of our history.”

The group has raised and spent nearly $1 million and hopes to raise at least $2 million more. For First Friday this weekend, the group will sponsor a benefit juried art show and a visit from Bret Iwan, the former Hallmark Cards Inc. illustrator who is now the official voice of Mickey Mouse. It is also holding an open design competition for the new space.

And, if the group can raise even more money, it plans to put a working animation and digital media studio on the second floor of the building, at the southwest corner of 31st Street and Forest Avenue.

“We’re in talks now,” Rigby said. “But it’s more than just a dream.”

Jeremy Knoll, one of two Kansas City architects who approached Thank You Walt Disney Inc. to help develop a vision for the building, said such a studio, to be called the Mid-America Center for Digital Storytelling, could help snag more donations.

“The program they are working on would provide digital animation training to Kansas City with a focus on creating jobs here, some of which are currently outsourced overseas,” Knoll said.

Rigby is thrilled by the possibilities.

“Imagine the inspiration that young animators and digital storytellers would get knowing they’re working in the very office where the pioneers worked,” he said.

Sometimes called “the cradle of Hollywood animation,” Laugh-O-Gram turned out teams of talented animators who followed Disney to Hollywood. Through their careers they helped found the animation departments of MGM and Warner Bros. and launch the careers of a young William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

Laugh-O-Gram also is said to be the place where a tame rodent sitting on Disney’s desk gave him the inspiration for Mickey Mouse.

Though it sits vacant, the building has been lovingly decorated with drawings by students from the Kansas City Art Institute, including a large replica of Disney’s famous business card, which shows the artist drawing at his easel. The windows are covered with drawings by famous cartoonists from around the country — including Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Cathy Guisewite (Cathy) and Jim Davis (Garfield) — as a tribute to Disney’s legacy.

The building’s champions have made progress.

“We’ve taken a building on the city’s demolition list and saved it,” Rigby said. “We’ve removed the collapsed rubble, replaced a significant portion of the exterior masonry and brick, installed new concrete floors, new framing, a new steel structure and a new roof.”

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Central Plains Chapter is helping to raise money and ensure that the renovation incorporates the latest in energy-efficient technology.

The benefit art show and sale, called “Animation & Imagination,” at nearby Buttonwood Art Space features images inspired by Disney and his legacy, including Superman, Spider-Man, Snow White, Yogi Bear, Mickey, Goofy and Winnie the Pooh.

“And we have a rare Minnie Mouse drawing done by Les Clark, one of Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men’ ” — his longtime crew of animators, said Kathy Drungilas, Buttonwood’s business manager. “It was actually used in the 1936 animated short ‘Mickey’s Rival.’ ”

Original art is generally priced from $300 to $2,000, Drungilas said. All unsold works also will be offered for sale on eBay.

“You talk to most people and they say ‘Walt started here? Really? Where was it?’ ” Knoll said.

“The fact that Walt … chose to build his first office at 31st east of Troost can be a point of absolute community pride for Kansas City and kids growing up in that neighborhood. And ultimately it can be a resource for Kansas City that creates jobs and the kind of innovation Walt was such a key part of.”