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The early years of the American Animation Industry was filled to the brim with an overabundance of eager artists and entrepreneurs, and none were more enthusiastic than Kansas City tag-team Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Novice animation fans may know the timeless and culturally significant animated films produced by Walt Disney Studios, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) into the modern day, but did you know that Walt and Ub founded an animation studio prior to their big break? In this snack-sized Nostalgic Showcase Presents, we’ll go over the short-lived Laugh-O-gram Studios, the Alice Comedies shorts, and Disney’s many stories about the creation of Mickey Mouse!

Inside Laugh-O-gram Studio, Kansas City, 1922

A Fairy Tale Beginning…?

In September 1919, Walt Disney returned to Kansas City, Missouri from France, serving in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver for a year following the end of World War 1. By 1920, Walt Disney would start creating animated shorts after work, while working at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, and convinced local theater chain owner and exhibitor, Frank Newman, to include snippets of animation featuring advertisements and satiric depictions of topical events in-between weekly newsreels. Disney was only 19 years old, and his animated shorts, named the Newman Laugh-O-grams, were already leaving an impression. Only the pilot, a two-and-a-half minute sample reel of an unnamed animator creating satirical drawings that come to life in a final animated scene, has survived through the years. Newman commissioned Walt Disney for more Laugh-O-grams, and animated intermission and coming attractions fillers, that played in his theaters. Inspired by the modest successes of these filler shorts, Disney pulled other local animators together to make a six-minute long adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood”- his first of many fairy tale adaptions.

In 1922, with $1,500 donated from local investors, Walt Disney founded the Laugh-O-gram Studio, LLC, employing some of his friends from Kansas City Film Ad Company to animate more fairy tale inspired shorts. The Studio also moved homes, from Walt Disney’s family garage to the second floor of the McConahay Building. Ub Iwerks had been following alongside Walt Disney, even co-creating Iwerks-Disney Studio Commercial Artists in 1919 which fell apart within a month, Ub Iwerks naturally became the chief animator at Laugh-O-gram. Other Kansas City based animators employed under Walt Disney during this period included Hugh Harmon, Friz Freleng, and Carmen “Max” Maxwell1.

Nine of the twelve contracted shorts funded by Frank Newman were produced, with barely enough income to support Walt Disney and his four employees, and rent on the Laugh-o-Gram Studio’s floor in the McConahay Building. In 1922, in dire need of work and funds, Laugh-O-grams Studio signed a six-shorts contract with Tennessee-based Pictorial Clubs, Inc for $11,000, with a $100 advance. However, Pictorial Clubs, Inc filed for bankruptcy a few months later, and Laugh-O-gram Studio lost that contract, too. With staff leaving the studio, and Walt Disney feeling the ever-present financial strain, he pushed forward… and signed another contract, this time with Kansas City based dentist, Thomas B. McCrum, for an educational short film about dental hygiene. While the short was completed, and Walt Disney was paid the agreed upon $500 from McCrum, the proceeds were invested into Disney’s next dream project instead- causing the studio to fall deeper into debt.

Trouble in Kansas City

Walt Disney’s next project, the half-finished Alice’s Wonderland short, proved to be the last straw for Laugh-O-gram Studio. Heavily inspired by Fleischer Studios’ Out of the Inkwell series, Alice’s Wonderland would be the pseudo-pilot for Disney’s later series, Alice Comedies. Out of the Inkwell shorts had animated characters interacting with the real world; Disney’s Alice’s Wonderland/Alice Comedies had live action characters interact in an animated world. However, halfway through Alice’s Wonderland‘s production, the funds completely ran out and Walt Disney was forced to file bankruptcy in 1923.

Walt Disney sold his film camera and with the proceeds, bought a one-way ticket to Hollywood, CA, bringing his unfinished Alice’s Wonderland short with him. The McConahay Building, which housed Laugh-O-grams Studios, LLC for the entirety of the studio’s life fell into disarray and lay abandoned for decades despite being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Until 1996, when it was purchased by the Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. As of the writing of this article, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. has been raising funds to convert the building into a Laugh-O-gram Studio museum with educational animation programs.

McConahay Building in Kansas City, Missouri, as it stands today (2024).

Oswald and Mickey and Iwerks

Once in California, Walt Disney would finish production on Alice’s Wonderland and send reels to numerous distributers in Hollywood, hoping for a series contract. He would finally hear back, from Winkler Pictures, who contracted Walt Disney and his animators for 35 Alice Comedies shorts. All 35 ordered shorts were completed and released in theaters, 16 of the Alice Comedies shorts have become lost media; they have all been released into the public domain. Ub Iwerks was pulled into being Walt Disney’s chief animator, and the pair collaborated with designing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, commissioned by Winkler Studio’s head producer Charles Mintz. Oswald would become Winkler Picture’s main character, starring in a total of 27 Walt Disney/Ub Iwerks animated shorts; by Spring 1928, Charles Mintz had complete copyright over the animated bunny character. Walt Disney, crossed by Winkler Studios and Charles Mintz, created Mickey Mouse in retaliation… or did he?

For the past century, Walt Disney alone was credited with the design and personality of Mickey Mouse, with one version of the mouse’s creation being inspired by a real mouse Disney took care of in the McConahay Building, while working late nights for Laugh-o-gram Studio. Or was Mickey based on a mouse on the train Walt Disney took after receiving the news directly from Charles Mintz that Oswald no longer belonged to him and Ub Iwerks? Or did Disney unrightfully take sole credit for Mickey’s design, leaving Iwerks in the dust? Here’s what we know is true- after Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney wrapped production on the last Oswald short, the pair started workshopping a new main character. This collaborative effort produced the proto-Mickey Mouse design, seen in the drawing above. It was this new character, who on November 18th, 1928, graced the big screen for the very first time in Disney’s first synchronized sound cartoon- Steamboat Willie. (Plane Crazy, which was produced before Steamboat Willie, would not be released until March 17th, 1929 once sound was added post-production.) Pluto, Donald, and Goofy would soon follow, appearing in their first shorts through the early 1930s. And the rest, as they say, is history…

GIF from Steamboat Willie (1928), showing featuring Mickey and Minnie’s early designs

This article would not have been possible without the dedication to historical preservation and education by the Walt Disney Archives and innumerous independent Disney Animation historians. Although many of the shorts produced by Laugh-O-gram Studio have been lost to time2, the ones that have re-surfaced through the past century have been intricately digitalized and/or restored for future viewers. It’s incredible to watch these early, rudimentary experiments of animation drawn by Walt Disney and his team, compared to the highly-advanced animated films of today.

Disclaimer: Some of the films created in this era may depict outdated and harmful stereotypes, messages, and storylines.

Laugh-O-gram Studio Shorts:

Newman Laugh-O-grams (1921) – only pilot survives, available on Youtube

Laugh-O-grams (1922-1923)

  • Little Red Riding Hood (1922) – available on Youtube
  • The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922) – available on Youtube
  • Jack and the Beanstalk (1922) – lost media
  • Jack the Giant Killer (1922) – available on Youtube
  • Goldie Locks and the Three Bears (1922) -available on Youtube
  • Puss in Boots (1922) – available on Youtube
  • Cinderella (1922) – available on Youtube
  • Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (1922) – available on Youtube
  • Martha (1923)- lost media

Alice’s Wonderland (1923)

Other Materials Referenced in this Article:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) – available to check out at Westlake Porter Public Library

Alice Comedies (1923-1927)

  • Alice’s Day at Sea – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Spooky Adventure – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Wild West Show – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Fishy Story – available on Youtube
  • Alice and the Dog Catcher – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Peacemaker – available on Youtube
  • Alice Gets in Dutch – available on Youtube
  • Alice Hunting in Africa – available on Youtube
  • Alice and the Three Bears – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Piper – available on Youtube
  • Alice Cans the Cannibals – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Toreador – available on Youtube
  • Alice Gets Stung – available on Youtube
  • Alice Solves the Puzzle – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Egg Plant – available on Youtube
  • Alice Loses Out – available on Youtube
  • Alice Gets Stage Struck – available on Youtube
  • Alice Wins the Derby – available on Youtube
  • Alice Picks the Champ – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Tin Pony – available on Youtube
  • Alice Chops the Suey – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Jail Bird – available on Youtube
  • Alice Plays Cupid – not available online
  • Alice Rattled by Rats – available on Youtube
  • Alice in the Jungle – available on Youtube
  • Alice on the Farm – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Balloon Race – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Orphan – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Little Parade – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Mysterious Mystery – available on Youtube
  • Alice Charms the Fish – lost media
  • Alice’s Monkey Business- lost media
  • Alice in the Wooley West – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Fire Fighter – available on Youtube
  • Alice Cuts the Ice- lost media
  • Alice Helps the Romance – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Spanish Guitar- not available online
  • Alice’s Brown Derby – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Lumber Jack – lost media
  • Alice the Golf Bug – not available online
  • Alice Foils the Pirates – lost media
  • Alice at the Carnival – lost media
  • Alice’s Rodeo – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Collegiate – lost media
  • Alice in the Alps – lost media
  • Alice’s Auto Race – partially found – clip available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Circus Daze – available on Youtube
  • Alice’s Knaughty Knight – lost media
  • Alice’s Three Bad Eggs – not available online
  • Alice’s Picnic – lost media
  • Alice’s Channel Swim – lost media
  • Alice in the Klondike – lost media
  • Alice’s Medicine Show – lost media
  • Alice the Whaler – available on Youtube
  • Alice the Beach Nut – lost media
  • Alice in the Big League – available on Youtube

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927-1928) – available to check out at Westlake Porter Public Library

Steamboat Willie (1928) – available on Youtube

Plane Crazy (1929) – available on Youtube

Sources:

https://www.laughogram.org/

https://d23.com/walt-disney-laugh-o-grams/

https://www.thankyouwaltdisney.org/

https://pendergastkc.org/article/biography/walt-disney

https://d23.com/walt-disney-legend/ub-iwerks/#:~:text=Called%20Iwerks%2DDisney%20Studio%20Commercial,joined%20him%20as%20chief%20animator.

https://news.azpm.org/p/news-npr/2021/7/7/197019-walt-disney-didnt-actually-draw-mickey-mouse-meet-the-kansas-city-artist-who-did/

https://www.thedisneyclassics.com/blog/the-fab-five

https://lostmediawiki.com/Alice_Comedies_(partially_lost_series_of_Walt_Disney_animated_short_films;_1920s)

Footnotes:

  1. Hugh Harman would form a partnership with Rudolf Isling, animating and pitching Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid to Warner Bros after the pair left Laugh-O-gram Studio, making Bosko/Looney Tunes cartoons under Leon Schlesinger Studios. Friz Freleng would follow Harman and Isling, and became an important figure in the world of animation in his own right- directing and producing shorts, eventually earning the title as head animator for Leon Schlesinger Studios… coming up next month! ↩︎
  2. Many films from the early 1900s-1951 were produced on nitrate film, which was, unfortunately, highly flammable and caused many fires within the studios, prompting major Hollywood studios to invest in their own voluntary fire departments. When ignited by cigarettes, the film reels rapidly combusted causing the destruction of the sole copies of these irreplaceable early films. Most copies that were sent to the theaters to be shown were tossed at the end of the showing cycle, leaving an even smaller percentage of a chance of the copies and originals being found intact. ↩︎

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the Youth Services team at WPPL since January 2023, and previously worked in the Circulation Department. She has a Bachelor's of Fine Arts Degree in Animation from the Savannah College of Art and Design (2021), and has participated in four separate charity zines since graduation and creates freelance illustrations whenever her nose is not in a book.