This iconic bit of Kansas City history will move in to Walt Disney World

This new entertainment venue at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was modeled after KC’s historic Willis Wood Theatre.
This new entertainment venue at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom was modeled after KC’s historic Willis Wood Theatre.

Walt Disney World will add a piece of Kansas City’s past to make visitors’ dreams come true.

The company announced that a new live entertainment venue off the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street will be modeled after KC’s iconic, bygone Willis Wood Theatre.

The original theater opened in 1902 at 11th and Baltimore streets and stretched for a block and a half. It was a cultural hub for the city before it burned down in January 1917.

Willis Wood Theatre C nl PM
The Willis Wood Theatre was designed by one of KC’s greatest architects, Louis Curtiss. From Steve Noll

After moving to Kansas City from Marceline, Mo., when he was 9, Walt Disney probably frequented the theater, said Dan Viets, who co-wrote “Walt Disney’s Missouri” with Star movie critic Robert W. Butler.

It was likely Walt sneaked out of his house to watch performances and to take the stage at the theater’s amateur nights — an open mic of sorts, Viets says. He was known for his Charlie Chaplin impressions and comedy sketches.

“It is consistent with the tradition with the Disney theme parks; he incorporated his life into every aspect of the parks,” Viets said.

The new venue at the Orlando theme park will offer the same sort of live entertainment that has found success at California’s Disneyland, with shows such as “Frozen Live,” the company said in its announcement during its D23 convention over the weekend.

At both Disneyland and Disney World, the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street is modeled after Marceline. But Viets mentions hidden gems that echo Disney’s Missouri roots.

Several shop windows contain references to KC’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio, Disney’s short-lived animation studio said to be the birthplace of Mickey Mouse.

The nonprofit Thank You Walt Disney saved the outside of Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studio at Forest Avenue and 31st Street and is now working on the interior. File photo THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Viets is board chairman of Thank You Walt Disney, the nonprofit working to save the decaying studio at 1127 E. 31st St. The group is remodeling the interior and is seeking financial backers to open a small museum in the space.

The Willis Wood Theatre was an early creation of one of KC’s greatest architects, Louis Curtiss, featuring large Ionic columns and Baroque embellishments.

“He liked to really enhance everything,” said Elizabeth Rosin, who owns the consulting firm Rosin Preservation. “I don’t think he designed a boring building.”

Later in his career, Curtiss switched to the sleeker Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of his most famous buildings that can still be seen include the Boley Building and Folly Theater downtown and the Bernard Corrigan House near Loose Park.

Col. Willis Wood, who made a fortune in the dry goods and clothing industry, built his theater for $400,000 across the street from his residence, the now-demolished Broadway Hotel.

“Fashionable Kansas Citians used to make a night of it by dining at the Baltimore Hotel … proceeding to the Willis Wood for entertainment by walking through the tunnel beneath the street,” according to a 1985 Star article. The tunnel, connecting the bar to the theater, was coined “High Ball Alley.”

Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis

Iconic KC: The K. Arrowhead Stadium. Union Station. The Nelson-Atkins. Check out these iconic spots that help make Kansas City a vibrant place to work, play and visit.