The story of Disney can’t be told without mentioning the Midwest and especially Kansas City. In his first studio Walt met the people that would go on to create Disney, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.
Born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois, Walt Disney’s early years saw his family moving to Marceline, Missouri when he was four, and later settling in Kansas City, Missouri in 1911.
It was in Kansas City that Walt established his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Grams, which operated from 1922 to 1923.The historic building that housed Laugh-O-Grams can be found at 1127 East 31st Street in Kansas City. Fondly referred to as “the Cradle of Hollywood Animation” by animation historians, this location holds significance as the birthplace of many talented individuals who went on to establish America’s best animation studios.
In the summer of 1923, Walt Disney headed to Hollywood. Together with his brother Roy, they established the Disney Brothers’ Studio.
That studio would become Walt Disney Studios.
So, let’s take a look at some of those talented individuals…
Ub Iwerks (U-B I-Works) and Walt Disney met at the Pesmen-Rubin ad agency in Kansas City, igniting a friendship that would shape their careers.
Their creative journey intertwined through various ventures, including the Kansas City Film Ad Service, the Iwerks-Disney Studio, Laugh-O-Gram Film Studio, Disney Brothers’ Studio, and ultimately the Walt Disney Studios.
Iwerks played a pivotal role in the success of Disney’s iconic character, Mickey Mouse. He is credited with bringing the beloved mouse to life.
Iwerks was also an instrumental figure in the emergence of new animation studios in California, including MGM and Screen Gems.
As a teenager, Hugh Harman joined forces with Walt, who taught him about animation in exchange for working on his projects. Hugh was a major force behind the early Laugh-O-Gram films.
Hugh started working with Rudy Ising and together they started Arabian Nights Studio in Kansas City. They would eventually move to Los Angeles and join up with the Disney Brothers again.
They later left Disney and created the Harman-Ising Studio (say that studio name out loud: Harmon-izing). They became the visionary animators behind the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and MGM animation studios.
Harman and Ising also helped Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera on their first collaboration, “Puss Gets the Boot”, the first-time audiences met Tom & Jerry. Those guys would go on to start their own studio with creations like Scooby-Doo, the Flintstones, and Superfriends.
Rudolf Carl Ising Sr.’s journey began at Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram studio in 1923, he joined Disney to help create the Alice Comedies.
Following a rift with Disney, Ising and Harman partnered with Charles Mintz to produce Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. They made several Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Cartoons for Disney, but Universal owned the character, and when Universal took control back, Harman and Ising were replaced with Walter Lantz, who would go on to create Woody Woodpecker.
Ising was hired at Warner Brothers where he created the first Merrie Melodies, he later moved on to MGM and developed the Happy Harmonies series.
Carmen “Max” Maxwell, hailing from Arkansas, made his way to Kansas City, where he was offered a position at the Laugh-O-Gram studio, becoming one of Kansas City’s Animation Pioneers. Maxwell also worked with Harman and Ising as they collaborated at the Arabian Nights studio located at 31st & Troost.
Disney called Maxwell back to his company, to help create the world of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, Maxwell’s journey took a new turn when he joined forces with Harman and Ising once again. Together, they worked on Bosko shorts and Looney Tunes cartoons.
Maxwell was also production manager for MGM cartoons.
Isadore “Friz” Freleng, a fellow Kansas City resident, shared a creative connection with Hugh Harman during their time at Westport High School.
Both showcased their artistic talents by drawing cartoons for the school yearbook. Friz’s journey in animation began at Kansas City Film Ad, where he collaborated with the likes of Hugh Harman, Ub Iwerks, and Max Maxwell.
His colleagues recommended Friz to Walt Disney himself. On January 15, 1927, Freleng joined the Walt Disney Studios as an animator. However, their partnership had challenges, leading Friz to leave Disney after just eight months.
Freleng went on to become an animation luminary at Warner Brothers. He created numerous characters, including the iconic Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Tweety and Sylvester. Additionally, Freleng gave life to Yosemite Sam, a character many believe was inspired by his own spirited personality.
After leaving Warner Brothers he moved on to create and direct many of the Pink Panther shorts.
And finally… Carl Stalling, from Lexington, MO. Stalling was an organ player at the Isis Theater in Kansas City.
He created background music for Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams shown at the theater. Stalling’s collaboration with Disney helped create a sing-along “Song-O-Reel” and Carl also invested his money in the studio. He played a pivotal role in developing synchronized music for Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” cartoon and is credited with creating the “click track” technology still used today. Stalling also performed Mickey’s voice in a few early cartoons when Walt was busy.
Stalling is best remembered as the musical director for all the Looney Tunes shorts at Warner Brothers. At the time of his death, he had composed music for over 600 animated shorts.
Fascinating history. I knew a lot of the individual stories, I never quite connected them up.
Jeremy and I stopped by to see the original studios in Kansas City.
We also stopped at Walt’s boyhood home a few blocks away.
Neither the studio nor his home are in great neighborhoods, but the city is trying to preserve the buildings.