Now an enormous media conglomerate, The Walt Disney Company began as a small animation studio in 1923. But years before Walt Disney and his brother Roy started the Hollywood-based company, they produced lesser-known cartoons out of a short-lived studio, Laugh-O-Gram, in their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
Walt Disney founded Laugh-O-Gram when he was just 19 years old. He’d been commissioned to produce a series of short, animated clips called “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams” that appeared in the newsreels played in three local theaters. While the original snippets blended entertainment and advertising, Disney eventually pivoted to shorts based on fairytales and fables, such as Little Red Riding Hood.
It was here at Laugh-O-Gram that Disney began working with animator Ub Iwerks, the designer of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. The two of them, alongside several other animators, started the production of Alice’s Wonderland, starring child actress Virginia Davis in the title role. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the film was a mixture of live-action and animation—an early ancestor of movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Enchanted.
By 1923, Laugh-O-Gram Studio filed for bankruptcy. Disney moved to Los Angeles, where his brother was recovering from tuberculosis, and eventually founded the Disney Brothers Studio, which later became the Walt Disney Company. Here, he produced 56 sequels to Alice’s Wonderland, as well as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
After he lost rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney debuted (and quickly patented) his character of Mickey Mouse in 1928. According to legend, the anthropomorphic rodent was inspired by a mouse that had frequented Laugh-O-Gram. Disney and Iwerks had reportedly named the sentimental character Mortimer, but later switched to Mickey at the behest of Disney’s wife.
The obsolete Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City eventually fell into ruin, but was later restored by Thank You Walt Disney, a local organization funded by the Disney family. The building is now home to a movie theater exhibiting restored Laugh-O-Gram cartoons as well as an educational center.