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ESSAYS

In Walt Disney's Missouri: Kansas City

Walt Disney spent the better part of a dozen years in Kansas City, living there most of the time from 1911 to 1923. The axis of his life was along 31st Street, stretching east from Troost Avenue. Eighty years ago, 31st and Troost was the center of a thriving commercial area; now it's just one intersection in an urban wasteland.

Just one block east of Troost, at Forest Avenue, is the McConahy Building, a new building when Disney set up his Laugh-O-grams studio on the west end of the second floor in May 1922. When I first visited and photographed the building on a Sunday morning in 1989, it was in severe disrepair. (An elderly man—mistaking me for an official visitor of some kind—said as he walked by me, "It's about time they did something about that place, chief.") Ownership has since passed into the hands of a nonprofit group called Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., whose Web site says that "selective demolition" is under way as a prelude to reconstruction. I saw no evidence of such activity, although what's left of the building has been shored up to prevent its complete collapse.

During most of their time in Kansas City, the Disney family lived in this house at 3028 Bellefontaine Avenue, a few steps north of 31st Street. Walt's friend Walt Pfeiffer—later his employee at the Burbank studio—lived a few doors up the street.

This building at 3004 Benton Boulevard was the Benton Elementary School when Walt Disney attended it between 1911 and 1917. It was later renamed the Holmes School, for a prominent African American, after the racial composition of the neighborhood changed. The school closed in 2002. When I visited Kansas City, the building was soon to reopen as apartments for the elderly.

The point of visiting places like the Disney sites in Kansas City is to step back in time and connect with the lives of people long dead. Although Kansas City as a whole is prosperous and attractive, Walt Disney's old neighborhood is so badly blighted—and so radically different from what he knew—that making that imaginative leap back to 1922 is, I'm afraid, very difficult. Stepping back in time even further, to the first decade of the last century, is much easier at Marceline, a two-hour drive northeast of Kansas City.

[Posted April 4, 2005; revised March 20, 2008]

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