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The Birth of an Icon


In 1921, while still employed at the Kansas City Film Ad Company (formerly the Kansas City Slide Company), Walt Disney decided to create short animated films that he called “laugh-o-grams” with his partner Ub. These first few animated shorts were produced in Walt’s garage. He continued to work at the KC Film Ad company until the spring of 1922, when he quit his job and rented a space in the McConahy Building at 1127 E. 31st Street for an animation studio. And on May 18, 1922, Walt officially had paperwork commissioned for Laugh-O-Gram studios.

Laugh-O-Gram studios received a steady stream of business, including a film commissioned by a local dentist called "Tommy Tucker’s Tooth", which highlighted the benefits of brushing one’s teeth. However, a commission on six short fairy tales fell through when the company that had financed them went bankrupt, and Walt was frustrated. Not one to give up easily, Walt was soon working on a new project called Alice’s Wonderland. This film combined animated characters with a live-action “Alice”, played by Kansas City-native Virginia Davis.

Walt struggled along through the summer of 1923, nearly bankrupt, until encouragement arrived in the form of M.J. Winkler, a New York distributor who expressed interest in Alice’s Wonderland. Sadly, Walt just couldn’t catch a break, and ran out of funds. In the fall of 1923, Walt headed west to Hollywood, with Laugh-O-Gram studios officially declaring bankruptcy in October, 1923.

While in Hollywood, Walt formed the now famous Walt Disney Company with his brother Roy. Determined to be a success, Walt and Roy continued on with their Alice films, now a series titled The Alice Comedies. Luckily for them, M.J. Winkler was still interested, and in 1923, the first few Alice films were successfully made and distributed. However, at the beginning of 1926, Walt began to express disillusionment with these films. He decided to finish out his obligations to the series, and move on. After The Alice Comedies, Disney was busy with the creation of Oswald the Rabbit, a comical, animated rabbit who had a penchant for pranks and starred in several Disney films, like "Poor Papa" and "Trolley Troubles".

Oswald was well-received by critics, and corresponding merchandise only added to the notoriety of the films. Dazzled by their newfound success, the Disney brothers purchased adjoining lots for their studio, and built homes for themselves and their respective wives. What Walt didn’t know, however, is that one of his distributors, Charles Mintz, was scheming behind his back. Mintz lured Disney employees away from the young company with offers of higher salaries and more artistic freedom. Blissfully unaware and naturally trusting, Walt refused to listen to his friend Ub (who was aware of Mintz’s schemes) and was shocked when he traveled to New York and was met with the news that Mintz had gained control of Oswald and most of Disney’s employees.

With only a cross-country train ride to think up a new idea, Walt was desperate to create the next animation sensation. As his train passed through Union Station in his old hometown of Kansas City, Walt was reminded of the small mouse called Mortimer he had tamed while at Laugh-O-Gram Studios. Disney had captured this mouse, and kept it as a pet, feeding it crumbs and even making sure it was released into safety once he left for Hollywood. Inspired by his mouse from Laugh-O-Gram Studios, Walt returned to Hollywood full of ideas about an animated mouse, and was determined to make Mortimer (soon changed to “Mickey” after a helpful suggestion from Walt’s wife) an even bigger sensation than Oswald. The entertainment industry would eventually gain a huge star in Mickey, all thanks to the little mouse from Kansas City.

4/27/2021

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