The Laugh-O-gram Story: Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Laugh-O-grams (yes, with a small "g") were a series of seven black-and-white animated short cartoons that Walt Disney produced for theatrical release with a crew of young, inexperienced animators in 1922 in Kansas City, Missouri.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 1923 (with the process finalized in October) with Walt taking the train in August 1923 to California for a fresh start. We all know what happened next, but some of us are still a little hazy about Walt's animated beginnings—so here is that story.

Laugh-O-gram Films Inc. was Walt's first animation studio and was incorporated on May 18, 1922 with Walt as president, which was illegal because he was still a minor and too young to be a corporate officer. In the June 17, 1922 issue of the trade paper Motion Picture News, Walt announced that six films had been completed and would be released every two weeks. They hadn't, but it was one of the earliest examples of Walt's promotional skills to try to drive up excitement for his product.

Walt had done a previous series all by himself in 1921 of less than a dozen one-minute cartoon joke reels called the Newman Laugh-O-grams for the Newman Theater chain of three movie theaters in Kansas City about topical conditions in the city.

Those topics included things like potholes, ladies' fashion, the long wait for public transportation, and a police scandal. They were inserted into Newman's weekly newsreel, News and Views that ran before the main feature along with comedy shorts and live stage acts.

The Laugh-o-grams, lowercase g, were meant to be short and inspired by the telegram as "editorial cartoons."

Walt had pitched the idea that these would be "moving" editorial cartoons. The person who arranged for the deal was the manager of the Newman Theaters, Milton Feld, who would later go on to be a circus promoter and, of course, his family is now responsible for today's Disney on Ice spectaculars.

These cartoons were very brief, like a telegram, which helped inspire the lowercase word at the end of the name, and focused on delivering a short message getting an instant laugh of recognition. In fact, the Newman Theaters originally promoted them as "Laugh-A-grams" until Walt insisted on the other name. (One of Walt's creditors had bills designated "Laughograms".)

The average length of a telegram in those early days was ten words or less and this cartoon series mirrored as well getting a single short idea across succinctly. Today, the word "gram" is still used in a similar fashion, like in the term "Instagram."

These films were more of a novelty like the familiar vaudeville "quick sketch/lightning drawing" act, but without the physical cartoonist (just a flat photograph of the back of Walt's moving hand holding a pen). The drawings would seem to magically appear, adding layers of detail with each second, until the final editorial comment about Kansas City was apparent as a punchline.

Even though the newsreel was shown weekly, Walt's efforts, because he was producing them all by himself at night while he was still working at the Kansas City Film Ad Company during the day, appeared only sporadically during the few months they were shown beginning in March 1921.

However, Walt also supplied some other cartooning work for the theater including short bits like an anniversary celebration where movie stars jumped out of a cake and also a segment with a professor reminding the audience not to read the title cards aloud…or they would find themselves dropped down a chute and onto the street thanks to his Rube Goldberg-ish contraption.

These Newman Laugh-O-grams made Walt a minor local celebrity, with people recognizing that the 19 year old had done the cartooning, stopping him on the street and complimenting his cleverness and sense of humor.

Originally they were done in the family garage, but when his family decided to move to Oregon, Walt rented a small space. He called his make-shift storefront studio "Kay Cee" (for Kansas City) and an aspiring high school student named Rudy Ising, tempted by an ad Walt had placed in the newspaper suggesting he would teach cartoonists how to animate, showed up to help.

Ising did some minor work on the final Newman Laugh-O-grams, primarily helping film the animation frame-by-frame and inking in bit-by-bit the light blue outlines that Walt had drawn on the paper, so that it seemed the cartoon was practically drawing itself.

The reel of Newman Laugh-O-grams that has been commonly seen is actually a compilation of a few of the better ones put together as a sample sales reel. No other examples of this series seem to exist, which is not unusual since the material was so brief and so locally oriented.

It was common practice to dispose of a reel of nitrate film after it had served its purpose because it was too dangerous to store it as it was flammable. Since this was a sales reel, Walt took it with him to California which is why it probably survived.

As more young artists responded to Walt's ad, he decided he wanted to create his own animation studio and to expand into doing a longer six minute, or so, narrative cartoon like those already being produced for theaters.

Walt transferred the Laugh-O-gram name to his new business perhaps to encourage potential local investors who had seen and enjoyed the Newman Laugh-O-grams of the proven value of the work he could produce.

The business operated on the second floor of the McConahy Building at 1127 East 31st Street just a block east of Troost and a couple of blocks west of Paseo. At one point, Walt occupied five small rooms on the west end of the second floor of the building and then when things got bad, he operated out of two rooms until he was finally evicted for non-payment of rent.

The building still survives today, but is in a terrible state of deterioration and there have been ongoing attempts over the last few years by a group called "Thank You Walt Disney" to restore it into a theater, learning center, and museum. They have stabilized the building, which is a good first step, but getting financial assistance to proceed further has always been a challenge.

One block away at the corner of 31st and Troost was the elaborate Isis Theater, whose resident organist was Carl Stalling, who later became instrumental as the music director for the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons. It was at this time that Walt who loved going to see movies met Stalling and developed a friendship.

Initially, Walt was not looking for artistic expression, but commercial success to generate income to pay the bills and invest in producing future films.

They often studied other animated short cartoons to see how things were done, especially the ones by Paul Terry that did updated versions of Aesop's Fables. That sparked the idea for Walt of modernizing familiar fairy tales as a series.

Walt's strength was in storytelling so he designated more and more of the drawing to his small, young, inexperienced staff, even though he continued to do every chore around the studio, including "washing" artwork off of cels so they could be re-used.

It was apparent they had more enthusiasm than actual cartooning skills, but many of them went on to much greater success later, especially Ising and Hugh Harman, who not only created the Looney Tunes series, but some award-winning cartoons for MGM.

The Laugh-O-gram staff was comprised of Ising, Harman (Walt had previously worked with his older brother Fred on some unrealized projects), Carman "Max" Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with Red Lyon working the camera. Aletha Reynolds inked and painted the cels.

Ub Iwerks joined toward the end in November 1922, primarily lettering the title cards, as well as a little animation. He left in May 1923 and returned to a steady paycheck at the KC Film Ad Company, since he was the sole support of his mother. Because of his friendship with Walt, he probably helped on the other cartoons, but is only officially credited on work for Cinderella.

Walt's friend Walt Pfeiffer was brought on as a "scenario editor," which meant he found jokes in newspapers and magazines. Interestingly, Walt had taken out ads in both the Kansas City Journal and the Post seeking another scenario writer. He advertised the position in both the men's and women's "help wanted" sections, as well as looking for girls "with artistic ability for…cartooning."

Using the book Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development (1920) by E.G. Lutz as his only real animation training, Walt learned short-cuts like how to "hold" and repeat drawings that were being filmed and to use "cycles" (like a character running), and then flipping the "cycle" to go in the other direction and other "tricks."

For the Laugh-O-gram series, Walt developed generic boy, girl, white male dog, and female black cat characters who, like a little theater stock company, appeared in the cartoons, but in different roles. This saved drawing new characters and older animation drawings of them could be repurposed for a new story.

In fact, a generic model sheet for each of the characters (facing forward and to the side) was done up so it could be traced for close-ups, medium, and long shots to help keep consistency. Other characters, from a sawfish to a mother, were also re-used in this same manner throughout the series.

The cartoons are a curious mix of fairy tales, Midwestern settings and Jazz Age sensibilities. The idea of a medieval castle on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town appears for the first time in this series, so it seemed natural to Walt when he designed Disneyland. The original fairy tale provided the barest of story skeletons on which to hang gags and chases, yet each new installment showed significant improvement over the previous entries.

According to Walt, it took nearly six months to make the first Laugh-O-gram, Little Red Riding Hood. Unlike the rest of the series, this one was done in the old-fashioned way of inking the drawings directly on the paper rather than the use of celluloids, which was the process for all the other cartoons.

Even though it is agreed that Little Red Riding Hood went into production first, there is some debate that The Four Musicians of Bremen that started later was actually finished first. Since the cartoons never initially received a theatrical distribution, it is difficult to determine.

In September 16, 1922, Laugh-O-gram signed a distribution contract with Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee, a group that did not distribute cartoons to theaters but to schools, civic groups, private functions and churches. They paid $100 with a balance of $11,000 to be paid on January 1, 1924 after all six films had been delivered.

This was a bad deal for several reasons. First, it gave Walt no operating capital to make the films or pay salaries. Second, the company went bankrupt several months later without paying the remaining balance to Laugh-O-gram. Third, the company that took over was a New York corporation also named Pictorial Clubs.

It legally acquired all of the previous Pictorial Clubs' assets, which included all of Walt's cartoons even those yet unmade but assumed none of the debt. If nothing else, this taught Walt that he needed a strong business manager, like his older brother Roy, to take care of the financial end while he concentrated on the creative part.

Years later, the court pressed Pictorial Clubs to pay $4,000 (especially when it was discovered they had been distributing the cartoons and receiving money) resolving some of the back claims of Laugh-O-Gram creditors. However, this was not resolved until 1927 with the creditors receiving $0.45 cents on the dollar. The investors, with their now worthless stock certificates, received nothing. Unfortunately, it was all too little and too late to make much of a difference.

In fact, during the last days of Laugh-O-gram, Walt survived on occasional $30 checks from his brother Roy, who was recovering from tuberculosis in California as well as eating on credit at a Greek restaurant that operated on the first floor of the building. The other employees all went off to paying jobs.

One of the animators wrote to his parents that the business was "worse than broke," but that they were having fun and learning. It was truly a fraternal experience but one that could not survive without an influx of income.

Walt had plenty of schemes to keep Laugh-O-gram operating, from proposing a series of short animated cartoons that sometimes had stop-motion with "spicy jokes" called Lafflets, producing a live action "Song-O-Reel" (to reference Laugh-O-gram) sing-along of the song Martha as a pilot for a possible series, making a live-action educational film titled Tommy Tucker's Tooth for a local dentist, and finally creating a cartoon that combined animation and a live-action little girl called Alice's Wonderland.

That final project was a wonderful showcase of everything he and his staff had learned during the last two years and later served as his sample to sell the Alice Comedies series. He even developed a not-successful-enough plan to have parents pay him to film their children and then do three showings of the film in their living rooms.

Basically, Walt had become an expensive baby photographer. The last money he made in Kansas City was shooting film of a 6-month-old girl named Kathalee Viley. He used that money to buy his train ticket to California. Years later, he tracked down the girl who had grown up and married to inquire how she was and what her life had been. The film that Walt had shot of her had deteriorated so badly that it could not be saved.

For decades, several of the seven Laugh-O-gram cartoons were considered lost forever, not a surprising situation for silent films and especially cartoons which were considered disposable. In addition, after the bankruptcy of the Laugh-O-gram studio, Walt no longer actually owned the films, nor did Pictorial Clubs that had contracted to distribute them, because they had gone out of business.

In fact, they weren't owned by anyone and so were what are considered in film circles as "orphans": public domain entities with no one interested in preserving or protecting them.

Other than the fact that Walt Disney was connected with these films, they did not stand out artistically from the hundreds of other similar cartoons made during this same time. In addition, Walt had gone on to the highly successful Alice Comedies. Even Walt considered the Laugh-O-grams as just an early step to learn animation and what would appeal to an audience.

Once the name "Disney" became popular with the early Mickey Mouse shorts, a short-lived somewhat shady company Sound Films Distributing Company in New York, run by producers Bollman and Grant, found some of the public domain prints, put a soundtrack to them, gave them new titles, and distributed them in the United States as "new" Disney cartoons in 1929-1930. The series was entitled "Whoopee Sketches," and included other public domain cartoons, as well.

In England, the same thing happened and the prints were distributed by Wardour Film Ltd. with even different titles from the Bollman and Grant ones, and different soundtracks. They were released as the "Peter the Puss" series, because the films featured a black cat that would later evolve into Julius the Cat, in an attempt to also capitalize on the popularity of Felix the Cat. Wardour even made some brief edits to some of the films to make them seem more contemporary by removing certain references.

Obviously, these companies were looking to make a fast buck but by so doing, it helped some of these prints to survive since new prints were struck. However, because of the new titles, these films were not recognized as the Laugh-O-grams and were hidden away in plain sight until some fairly recent discoveries.

For decades, the only evidence of Little Red Riding Hood was a photo showing the full-sized mis-leading poster for the cartoon in the Laugh-O-Gram studio. The American Film Institute had it on its list of the "10 Most Wanted Films for Archival Preservation" for years.

A British film collector, David Wyatt, stumbled across a print of the film by accident at a 1978 liquidation film sale of 16-millimeter prints from an old rental library in central London and purchased it for approximately $3.

"They showed me this huge room full of 16-millimeter films, and I went quietly bananas," Wyatt recalled. "I don't think I realized the films were rare, but the fact that they were titles from Disney made them interesting. I didn't think it was anything that special. It was just, 'Here's another not terribly good cartoon.'"

Animation historian John Canemaker stated at the time, "It's our first chance to see the origins of what would become the Disney empire and style. It's a bit like finding the acorn that grew into the oak."

Wyatt gave a lengthy account of his discovery to Disney and animation historian Charles Solomon for the July 17, 1998 issue of the Los Angeles Times:

"I began collecting films as a kid aged 11, silent comedies like Chaplin and Charlie Chase. I've always been into comedy. Later on though, I had a friend who was only collecting cartoons. Somehow we started to swap over! At the time I found the Disney (silent) film, I had a job at the BBC, making children's television. I was involved with Vision On, a mix of live-action and animation.

"While I was at the BBC, one of the big London film libraries was bought out by another company. The contents of the library were sold off, and I got a catalog listing some of the films on offer. I was reading it on the train to work and by the time I arrived I was so excited that I bunked off work for the day and went straight there!

"The film room was vast, a real Aladdin's cave. I just said, 'Wow!' I went there day after day. Among the films I picked up were Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, two of Walt Disney's Laugh-o-grams.

"At the time, I had no idea these films were 'lost' as such. In these cases, you usually don't know if there's one copy or 100 circulating, at least unless a title's publicized by a studio or archive." [Note: The films had their new titles, Grandma Steps Out and The Peroxide Kid, so they were not identifiable in any book as Disney's Laugh-O-grams.)

"Some years later—this was the 1980s—I went to the Pordenone silent film festival (named after the Italian town where it's held). Both my copies of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood were screened there, and this got the attention of Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman who were researching their book on silent Disney." [Note: The book, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, was first published in a bilingual volume in 1992 from an Italian publisher.]

"They borrowed the films from me, and stills appeared in their book, along with my name. Then, two years ago, I was contacted by Scott MacQueen, the Disney archivist who hosts the Disney's Unseen Treasures tour, who got the films reinstated in the Disney archives. Obviously, they represent some of Walt's earliest work, and an important milestone in cartoon history. But as films, I don't think they'll set modern audiences rioting in the streets!"

Next Week: How all the other missing Laugh-O-gram cartoons were miraculously found in the 21st century and a complete filmography of the series with synopsis and notes.