A dream for local historians, restoration efforts at the Troost office building once occupied by Walt Disney are finally coming true, champions of the project teased Thursday.
Within the walls of the formerly crumbling brick structure at 31st and Troost: neglected stories of Disney’s inspiration and impact — along with plans to reanimate the space with a theater, coworking and the digital arts.
Long-running work to revive Laugh-O-gram Studios as a 21st century community asset — branded by Disney himself with an intentionally lowercase “g” — is further along than ever, Ron Green, executive director of KC Imagine and DigiStory KC, told a private group of Kansas Citians and Thank You Walt Disney champions.
The conversation Thursday marked the first of three virtual sessions, designed to offer updates on the hotly-anticipated project and a sneak peek at the Disney secrets the space will hold.
“This is going to take some time and money to put together, but there’s a vision for great things and we’d appreciate your support,” Green said of the effort to add onto the legacy of Disney, who spent a significant portion of his youth and young adulthood in Kansas City. (The famed animator moved into the building near Troost in May 1922.)
A full timeline for the project’s completion has not yet been announced, but work to replace the ground and second floors of the building, along with extensive renovations to its windows, and the addition of a new roof have already been completed.
The Troost structure is expected to house classroom space, a museum, a sixth Plexpod-run coworking facility, and a new location for Screenland Theatres, announced Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Theatres and the renowned local developer behind such renovations as Westport Junior High School and the Nelle Peters Building.
Rigby also serves as chairman of Thank You Walt Disney — a local organization committed to preserving the history of Walt Disney and restoring the building that housed Laugh-O-gram Studios. That includes the office near 31st and Troost where Disney was first inspired to create Mickey Mouse.
“This little, 10,000-square-foot building is going to be as we’ve always described — an interactive historic site,” Rigby said, noting the project is expected to draw additional creative energy to the East Side, establishing it as a sort of dreamers-hub.
“It’s going to have not only a small theater and a working animation lab,” he continued, emphasizing the idea of bringing additional energy to the neighborhood. “It’s going to retell the story to everybody in that neighborhood that 31st and Troost is just as great a part of our city as any other.”
Click here to read more about plans for the famed office space and Thank You Walt Disney Inc.
More than 40 participants journeyed back through Disney’s upbringing in the metro, as the team behind the project shared factoids that detailed Disney’s crossover influence on animation and the Kansas City-born artists who developed iconic characters like Bugs Bunny.
The group also unveiled photos of Disney artifacts that shed light on one of the original mousketeer’s potential inspiration points for Walt Disneyland: Kansas City’s Electric Park.
Once located at 46th and Paseo, the park burned to the ground in 1925 — an incident observed by eyewitness and childhood-Kansas Citian Walter Cronkite, the late veteran journalist.
“Nothing remains of Electric Park today, but it was a spectacular example of what a beautiful, well-maintained, landscaped amusement park could be,” said Dan Viets, Kansas City attorney, Thank You Walt Disney board member, and co-author of “Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius.”
Viets painted a picture of 1920s Kansas City and Electric Park, a time and place that captivated a young Disney and fostered his signature imagination.
“It was surrounded by a train, it had a beautiful fountain, this bandshell where John Phillip Sousa and his band played for the entire summer — so you know this place was a big deal,” he said. “Electric Park was a spectacular place and a big influence on Walt’s idea of what an amusement park could be.”
In a similar way, Thank You Walt Disney and its supporters hope Laugh-O-gram can be just as magical for today’s Kansas City creatives, doers, and dreamers, Rigby said.
“We’re going to have a combination of Plexpod offices for young entrepreneurs who want to work in the same offices as Walt Disney worked, who will interact with the young people who will be learning the digital arts,” he said.
“I think one of the greatest teachers for these young students — in addition to the classroom training — is that they’re going to get real world experience with people involved in the digital media arts.”
A second private gathering is set for Dec. 17.