As I See It

Remembering Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney

Updated: 2013-11-30T23:32:38Z


Special to The Star

We lost the daughter of a native Kansas City son this month.

Diane Disney Miller passed away at 79. I first met Diane in the early 1990s. She was in Jefferson City to attend the unveiling of her father’s bust at the Capitol.

We discussed her father and his company. She was most concerned about her father’s legacy. Not too surprising. Public figures are dragged through the popular culture and someone always finds a way to bring down the image.

But of course, this was no ordinary public figure — this was Walt Disney. Beyond celebrity, he was a member of our families.

His only surviving daughter was keenly aware that she shared her father with the world. She worked every day to make permanent some of those iconic idealisms.

Walt created a beloved world from humble beginnings. We discussed his Kansas City history. She told me that Walt loved Kansas City. She had not been here, so we arranged a tour.

She and her husband, Ron Miller, visited her family’s home, Walt’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio, the Art Institute where he had been a student, and other sights.

The highlight may have been when she visited his old grade school. It happened that there was a play in progress about famous Missourians, including Walt Disney. How perfect that we interrupted the performance to introduce Walt’s daughter to the kids. It was amazing. It was also inspirational.

Walt Disney became a real person to them that day. It was then we realized that Walt Disney’s days in Kansas City were so very important to preserve. We formed Thank You Walt Disney Inc.

We looked at several options ranging from a statue to converting Union Station to a national Walt Disney Museum. We learned that his old Laugh-O-Gram Studio on 31st Street was going to be demolished. This was it — the perfect way to preserve her father’s story. Not necessarily one of theme parks, cartoons and television, but rather one that tells the story of young people creating a magical world from the roots of business failure.

Bankrupt in only 18 months, Walt persevered. He recognized talent. KC native Ubbe Iwerks, his partner in Laugh-O-Gram, was a gifted artist. His brother Roy, an incredible businessman. He left for Hollywood recruiting them and other KC artists to the new studio. The rest is legend.

Diane knew that the story to be told to young people was powerful, especially to kids from the neighborhood at 31st and Troost. Walt Disney was not a great cartoonist. (He was turned down for work at this very paper). He was an even worse businessman.

Yet he became known as the greatest cartoon businessman the world has ever known.

The story gives young people vision, which is often a difficult task. Diane pledged $460,000 in matching funds to save the building from the wrecking ball. We raised our portion and the building stands today. It is being readied, not as a static place to look at old offices and pictures, but rather a place in KC’s urban core that will inspire and quite possibly employ the next generation of dreamers.

It is becoming a reality because of Diane Disney Miller. Walt can be very proud of his daughter.

Butch Rigby, of Kansas City, is the owner of Screenland Theatres and chairman of Thank You Walt Disney Inc.

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