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New Strategy Touted to Reanimate Disney Laugh-O-Gram Building

Backers Believe a Mixed-Use Approach Makes Financial Sense

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Above image credit: A minimalist mural marks the site of Walt Disney’s very first studio at 31st Street and Forest Avenue in Kansas City. (Screenshot | Google Maps)

Backers of the effort to reanimate the historic Laugh-O-Gram building where Walt Disney got his start a century ago believe they finally have a winning strategy to complete the languishing project.

The new plan calls for the building near 31st Street and Troost Avenue to be renovated for multiple uses: a small theater and exhibition space dedicated to Disney and his fellow animators; a Plexpod co-working space; and a digital media training center run by KC IMAGINE.

The proposal is intended to bring additional activity and revenues to the project to help sustain its Disney-oriented side. Previous efforts that called for the building to be solely used as a museum didn’t pencil out financially.

“Thank You Walt Disney originally wanted the whole building to be a museum, but people  realized small-footprint museums just can’t make it,” said Ron Green, executive director of digiSTORY KC.

A rendering of how the building is expected to look following renovation. (Rendering | Gould Evans)

Green, a retired Hallmark training executive, would manage the digital educational center, which plans to prepare young people for careers in the growing digital media industry. Backers hope many will come from the neighborhood.

The new concept for moving the project forward was put together with the help of Gary Sage, a former city economic development official.

Sage now leads the building development committee at Thank You Walt Disney, the nonprofit behind the endeavor.

“I think this will be a great redevelopment project for that area that will continue the momentum,” Sage said.

Walt Disney about the time he opened his Laugh-O-Gram studio. (Courtesy | Thank You Walt Disney)

“Troost has always been that dividing line, not only race but poverty as well. There is already a demand for digital media jobs and this pandemic will probably increase that demand.

“Our hope is to provide opportunities for folks in this neighborhood for high-paying jobs.”

The preliminary plan calls for part of the first floor of the two-story building to be a 50-seat screening room for lectures and movies about Disney and the animators who worked with him.

The future entertainment industry giant had a studio at 1127 E. 31st St. from 1922 to 1923 before leaving for Hollywood.

An exhibition area and welcome center also is planned for the first floor. The rest of the level will be the KC IMAGINE training center.

Upstairs will be a recreation of Disney’s original office space, and about half the floor will be reserved for Plexpod co-working space.

An outdoor area proposed for the renovated Laugh-O-Gram project. (Rendering | Gould Evans)

Butch Rigby, the developer who bought the building in 1996 and launched the Laugh-O-Gram effort, said Gerald Smith, the founder of Plexpod, was interested in managing the building and leasing co-working space to entrepreneurs.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

Rigby said the building, which is formally called the McConahay Building, was scheduled for demolition by the city when he bought it. It was in terrible condition at the time. The building was designed by Nelle Peters, a pioneering woman architect, and opened in 1922.

With the help of a substantial donation pledge by Disney’s late daughter, Diane Disney, the building was stabilized with a new roof, brick repairs and steel internal framework, about $600,000 worth of work, in the late 1990s.

Progress stalled until now.

Rigby said the timing is right for the project because of all the new investments along the nearby stretch of Troost. That neighborhood revival coupled with identifying additional revenue sources to sustain the project  makes it more feasible.

The Laugh-O-Gram studio was on the second floor of the building. (Courtesy | Thank You Walt Disney)

Gould Evans has prepared drawings to go out and get solid construction cost estimates, and a series of Zoom presentations beginning this Thursday are intended to educate interested people and potential donors about the plan.

“Now we can say here’s what the building is going to be and we’d like to get donors involved,” Rigby said.

The project still has about $150,000 left from Diane Disney’s pledge along with $160,000 in public tax-increment financing funding available. That money is earmarked for facade repairs.

There’s no estimate yet for the remainder of the project cost. Rigby said if the fundraising effort is successful, construction of the project would take about 18 months to complete.

The Laugh-O-Gram Zoom schedule begins with an overview of Disney’s local legacy Thursday. It will be followed Dec. 17 with a peek at the new proposal. The final topic on Jan. 7 will be about the overall revival of Troost.

All Zoom meetings will be from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is founder and publisher of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.

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