Monday, November 30, 2009

Walt Disney and the Benton Grammar School

On September 12, 1904, the residents of Kansas City, Missouri, celebrated the opening of the Benton Grammar School. Named in honor of Senator Thomas Benton, the school as originally built had just 12 rooms and a kindergarten.
Benton Grammar School.

Walt Disney attended Benton between September 1911 and June 1917.
While at Benton, a young Walt Disney impersonated President Abraham Lincoln, going so far as to don a cape and stovepipe hat. Disney so impressed the principal with his recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he was taken into each of the school’s classrooms, where he repeated his performance for the enjoyment of other students.

Front cover of The Bentonian, a soft-cover yearbook-type booklet published by the school's administrators.

About six months ago I acquired a soft-cover yearbook publication titled, "The Bentonian." The booklet contains a letter written by Walt Disney, in response to request from his former principal for a post graduation update. In the letter, dated February 18, 1931, Walt Disney wrote:

"Dear Mr. Cottingham: I was very pleased to receive your kind letter of February 6. I have often thought of you and my former teachers at Benton and have always had a feeling that I should enjoy a little visit with you on one of my trips to New York. Quite a few of my classmates have dropped in to see me, from time to time, and I have enjoyed discussing with them our school days together.

When I was in school, Benton had a record of winning the K.C.A.C. meet six years in succession. I have often wondered what sort of record the school has held since that time.
I was graduated from Benton in June of 1917 and spent my last year under Miss Beck. I have often wondered about Miss Beck, and if she is still teaching in Kansas City. I would like you to extend to her my kindest regards.

My high school career was very short. After I was graduated I worked during the summer as a News Butch on the railroad, and the following fall moved to Chicago. I spent my Freshman year there. Following that I joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and went to France. I was in France one year. I met an old classmate from Benton while in France. I can’t seem to remember his name, but he was one of two brothers, who were on the track team in school. He told me that Walter Clayton was in a hospital in Toul, France, but by the time I arrived in Toul, Walter had been transferred. I returned from France in the fall of 1919.

I went to Kansas City, and started to work for the Grey Advertising Company as an Apprentice Artist. I left that company to work for the Film Service Company of Kansas City, and it was there that I learned the work in which I am still engaged.

While I was working with the Film Service Company I made a short weekly film for Frank Newman, and this led to the establishing of a Studio of my own. I made cartoon versions of fairy tales, but this venture was not successful.
I moved to California in 1923 and started in business with my brother Roy. Since that time we have built our business up to what it is today, and at the present time we have a Studio employing about seventy-five persons, both artists and technicians.

Our products are shown all over the world and are meeting with great success. We have our own sound apparatus and produce the entire picture in our own Studio. In add
ition to the Mickey Mouse cartoons, we produce a series known as Silly Symphony cartoons. Several years ago I produced a series of educational films on "Child Care of the Teeth," for Doctor McCrum, who conducts a dental clinic at the Linwood School. I thank you for your interest, and extend to you my best personal regards. It was good to know that I have not been forgotten by my Alma Mater. Kindly extend my kindest regards to all my friends and former teachers at Benton, and be assured that I am looking forward to the time when I can visit Benton again.

My best personal regards to you,

Walt Disney."
The back cover of The Bentonian features a great Mickey Mouse illustration.

Almost 11 years to the day he wrote that letter, Walt Disney and his wife Lillia
n made a stopover in Kansas City. The Disney’s were on their way back to California, after attending the Washington, D.C. premiere of The New Spirit, an income tax film produced at the Studio for the Treasury Department. Disney had been invited back to Kansas City by his former teacher, Miss Daisy Beck. While there Disney renewed old friendships and visited childhood haunts.

A special mural unveiling ceremony was held in Disney’s honor in the Benton gymnasium. An article in the Port Arthur News, published the year prior to Disney’s visit reported: "Miss Corrine Mitchell, working on a Works Progress Administration art project and using drawings from Disney’s studio, is making the murals in two 4 by 10 panels. In them, Pluto, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Donald Duck and others will be depicted."

Disney treated the estimated 800 students, teachers and parents in attendance to a showing of two cartoons, including The New Spirit. Disney voice talent Clarence Nash, and a Works Progress Administration orchestra provided additional entertainment. The February 20, 1942 Emporia Daily Gazette reported, "...present at the reunion was 'the voice of Donald Duck,' Clarence Nash. He had a dummy of 'Donald' and the dummy was presented with a birthday cake in honor of 'Donald's' eighth year of success."

Following Nash’s skit, Disney was awarded the school’s silver Loving Cup, which Benton’s relay team had won in 1917. Disney had participated on the team at the behest of teacher Daisy Beck.

South Central Business Association luncheon that followed the Benton Grammar School ceremony. From left to right: Homer Blackwell (National Screen Service); Clarance Nash (voice of Donald Duck); Mrs. Lillian Disney; John Gage (Kansas City Mayor); Walt Disney; Edwin Barnes Sr. (SCBA President); Frank Land (founder of the Grand Council of DeMolay, of which Walt Disney was a member); Mrs. Joseph Wirthman; Keith Martin (Director of the Kansas City Art Institute - Disney attended the school); and three of Disney's Benton classmates.
Photo courtesy Kansas City Library Archives.

At the conclusion of the school ceremony, Disney and his entourage attended a luncheon in his honor, sponsored by the South Central Business Association. The luncheon was held at the Blue Bird Cafeteria, not far from Disney’s old Laugh-O-Gram studio on Troost Street, and Bert Hudson’s barbershop, where Disney’s early childhood drawings had been purchased and put on display.

1931 Christmas card, sent to Disney's grade two teacher, Ethel Fischer.
Courtesy Hake's Americana.

Despite a whack on the wrist for bringing a live mouse to school, Disney had an affinity for his Benton Grammar School teachers, including Miss Daisy Beck, whom he frequently corresponded with. The Disney’s visit to Kansas City ended with a dinner hosted by Beck at a private residence.

The Benton School was recently sold and was undergoing conversion into condominiums. It’s not known what happened to the murals.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Fantastic article. The Kansas City years are such an amazing time period.