Hearne: Rewriting the History of ‘Thank You Walt Disney’


Diane Disney Miller tours DIsney theme park with Art Whatshisname

Get me rewrite!

The first thing I thought when I read Diane Disney Miller‘s obit in the Star a week ago; somebody screwed up. With so many staff shortages and veteran reporters and copy editors laid off, no one caught the fact (or remembered) that Miller spent considerable time and energy here in the early-mid 1990s being courted by Screenland movie dude and attorney Butch Rigby.

Ah but Rigby remembered.

And he was granted an “As I See It” column in the newspaper five days later (he’s pals with columnist Mary Sanchez). A column that provided him the chance to accomplish two goals; a minor rewrite of history and an opportunity to kiss up to Miller’s heirs and maybe land a donation for his 20 year-old plan to erect a monument and/or museum here to the beloved animator who spent part of his early years in the Cowtown.

Mission accomplished, except for one thing; it was a faulty accounting.

Because Diane Disney Miller’s visit in 1994 was little more than a schmooze trip to attempt to get her to contribute to Rigby’s group’s original plan to build a statue of her father Walt.

Walt Disney and daughter Diane

Walt Disney and daughter Diane

“I’d love to see a statue of Walt sitting at his drawing board and looking at a little Mickey Mouse on the floor,” co-organizer Jon Hart , a DJ on KCMO-AM at the time told me in July of that year. “His childhood home is still here, but nobody’s even bothered to put up a plaque.”

Their game plan: set a series of meetings to finalize the plans, decide where the statue would go, its cost and then how to pay for it.

“We do not anticipate contacting the Disney organization until we have our plans formalized and finalized,” added co-organizer John Shipp.

Laugh-O-GramStudiosUnfortunately – thanks to a bit of homer reporting by my pal Brian McTavish – it morphed into pretty much all smoke and mirrors from there.

And four months later the statue concept blossomed overnight into a $30 million film and animation museum that Miller somehow “endorsed” with little more than a passing comment to McTavish that it was “a wonderful idea.”

Accompanied by a vague pledge by the Uptown Theater to provide a half million buck “interest free loan” if the project were to be located at the nearby Uptown Shoppes.

However, even though Rigby’s group Thank You Walt Disney had been formed months prior to that, Rigby’s editorial cited Miller’s visit as “the point we realized that Walt Disney’s days in Kansas City were important to preserve. We formed Thank You Walt Disney Inc.”

Butch Rigby

Butch Rigby

What followed Miller’s visit were years of squabbling and infighting by different local interests, each of whom wanted a piece of Rigby’s $30 million dream scheme. For half a minute the Uptown thought it had the deal in the bag, only to learn that Thank You had subsequently flirted with AMC honcho Stan Durwood and his Power & Light District,interested parties at Union Station, Bartle Hall and Liberty Memorial and who knows where else.

Long story short, McTavish’s front page yarn made Miller’s involvement sound credible – $5 million in local donations, $5 million in national donations and a $20 million bond issue – and just about everybody wanted a slice of that cake.

However that was then followed by questions and uncertainty over whether the Walt Disney Co. would even allow it, let alone contribute to it.

Suddenly Rigby’s Thank You Walt Disney organization was divided into opposing camps.

“The Disney family doesn’t want the (Disney) corporation involved,”  said  TYWD board member Connie Vitale. “The corporation hasn’t ever indicated that they would want to be involved anyway. The Catch-22 to that is that the family wants to see what kind of corporate support corporate Kansas City is going to provide. And corporate Kansas City wants to know if the Disney corporation gives them a green light.”

Miller’s husband Ron Miller – the former CEO of Disney had been forced out of the company by Roy Disney and Michael Eisner.

Worse yet, Diane Disney Miller was “kind of fluctuating, because evidently there are other cities looking at doing this, too,” Vitale added.

“I think a Walt Disney facility in Kansas City is very viable. But time is against it coming, because there are people actively working in California now that are working against it coming here,” added Uptown main man Larry Sells.

Sure enough, in October 2009 the Miller-backed Walt Disney Family Museum finally opened in the Presidio of San Francisco.

Worse yet, in the midst of all this 1990s confusion, Kansas City’s power brokers stepped in and relieved Rigby, Shipp and Hart of their duties while the Big Boys attempted to sort things out corporate style..in vain.

Brushed aside by the suits, Rigby – to his credit – purchased the rubble remains of what were reportedly Disney’s first digs here at 31st and Forest and has been slowly plowing money into saving it ever since.

072312_DO_WaltDisneyFamilyMuseum1Unfortunately, at this stage of the game, Rigby’s grand plans have yielded little.

No $30 million film and animation studio populated by Kansas City Art Institute students. No state-of-the-art, inner-city Disney landmark attraction at 31st and Forest. Not even the measly statue initially proposed.

Miller’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention Kansas City or Thank You Walt Disney.

There is however a Thank You Walt Disney website.

Complete with a vague mission statement about being “committed to being a leader in art animation study, while encouraging confidence and entrepreneurial individualism” and  a few lines about restoring the building on 31st “where the mouse was born.” Nothing though about the original statue or any of the other grand plans. And with original board members Hart and Shipp missing in action.

So yeah, let’s give Rigby credit for having his heart in the right place…

At the same time while taking note of the fact that the newspaper allowed him blow a little smoke up everybody’s you-know-what with an abridged version of Thank You Walt Disney and its relationship with Diane Disney Miller.


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11 Responses to Hearne: Rewriting the History of ‘Thank You Walt Disney’

  1. Kyle Rohde says:

    I usually comment to argue with you, Hearne, but this is a great column. I’ve wondered for years why Disney wouldn’t help with the Thank You group and restoring the old Laugh-a-Gram building and now I know in a lot more detail, so thanks.

    A giant shame, regardless of the reasons.

    • admin says:

      I agree…

      Unfortunately, the problem Rigby and Thank You has had is they just never got their act together. It’s one thing to get a nice guy like Brian McTavish to give you a little more hometown love than you probably deserve, quite another to be able to make the kind of impression that inspires confidence in people like the Millers that you can put together a $30 million deal.

      All Thank You and Rigby really had going was a boatload of good intentions. And the road to hell is paved with those, remember?

      Because they took their eye off the ball so quickly – the Walt Disney statue – and fell prey to delusions of grandeur, then started sleeping around with everybody in town who wanted the $30 million deal, they basically imploded.

      When Diane Disney Miller died following a fall, she was the president of the Board of Directors of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fran.

      Kansas City was probably the furthest thing from her mind. Too bad…what might have been.

      My hunch is Butch will get his building saved and eventually maybe even a statue. Because he’s dedicated himself to doing it and has made enough money that eventually he should be able to.

      He’s just out of his league trying to get things done big boy style. At least for now.

      Someday though.

      • Kyle Rohde says:

        Yeah, I had hope that when she came to the WWI Museum last year for the dedication of the ambulance that was identical to the one Walt drove in WWI, that she’d mention it, visit it, something, but I never heard a peep about it.

  2. Kerouac says:

    FWIW: top picture/caption – that’s not Walt Disney, it’s Art Linkletter (who, like Diane Disney Miller and Walt himself, is also dead; kindred spirits as it were…)

  3. Jim Lammers says:

    John & Butch asked me to help on the “Thank You Walt Disney” project around 2001. I worked on a simulator for the proposed museum and attended a fundraiser downtown. It was a great idea and had a lot of potential, and it’s too bad they didn’t get it moving forward. As I recall, many of the contributions were contingent and this made it hard to break through to starting construction.

    The simulator page we created for the museum is still up and you can view it at an archived page on our site:


    The director segment may not play, but you can see the images. It is a bit primitive but the goal was a real time self-directed walk through environment that would play on any Mac or PC without a long download.

    • admin says:

      Interesting, Jim…

      You’re right I think about the contingencies. The Miller contribution of $400,000 plus was contingent on them raising an equal amount elsewhere.

      I still have the program from the Walt’s 100 black tie fundraiser Butch did on January 26, 2002. Total stiff. I reminded Jack P about that yesterday and he said, “You mean the fundraiser that cost more to put on than they raised?”

      It’s not easy coming up with $30 million just like that…although the way they got McTavish to “report” it made it sound almost like a done deal. That’s why the suits rushed in and took it away from the original Three Amigos.

      Once they found out it wasn’t going anywhere, they dropped out and Butch got it back, which brings us to today. A website and a propped up building that Butch bought and got to keep in his divorce settlement four years or so ago.

      Diane Disney’s dead but maybe one of her kids will take an interest. Who knows?

      And how much would that $30 million installation in 1994 dollars cost today?

      My take always was, they should have stuck to the original plan and done the statue. It was affordable, doable and would have been pretty cool.

      Instead, after 20 years, we have basically nothing

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