Isis Theatre and the 31st & Troost Avenue Mural
This mural on the corner of 31st & Troost celebrates the neighborhood's rich history, including the construction of the Isis Theatre which operated at this location from 1918 to 1970. The building was later demolished in 1997, is remembered today as a place where Walt Disney found work as an illustrator and the location where he met Carl Stalling, a talented composer and voice actor who later composed most of Disney's early animated feature films. The mural includes the Isis along with a history of the people in the communities that have called this area home, starting with Native Americans. The mural also shares the history of the neighborhood at the turn of the century and early 1900s when it was a streetcar suburb, followed by decades when Troost served as a racial dividing line and symbol of residential segregation. The mural also pays tribute to African American communities and organizations and serves as a symbol of residents who are working to support neighborhoods along Troost Avenue and build vibrant and diverse communities.
31st & Troost Ave. Mural
1940 image of the Isis Theater And Wirthman Building
1918 image of the Isis Theater
Backstory and Context
This 100-foot mural at 31st & Troost was designed by Alexander Austin and celebrates the neighborhood's rich history, including the construction and demolition of the Isis Theatre. The Isis Theatre is mainly remembered as the location where Walt Disney met Carl Stalling who later composed most of Disney's early animated features. Stalling played the organ at the Isis to accompany the silent films of the era. Meanwhile, Disney illustrated commercial slides for the theatre. Built in 1918 and demolished in 1997, the theatre's memory lives on through the mural alongside photos of Native Americans, who created the trail that became Troost Avenue. The mural also includes the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a symbol of the civil rights movement and the lives of residents who lived in the area following decades of "white flight" in the mid-twentieth century.
Troost Avenue's history pre-dates the arrival of settlers of European descent in Kansas City. The road once stood as a Native American trail that supported hunting and trade. By 1825, settlers of European descent used their growing power to push the vast majority of Osage to depart. These Native Americans and others eventually traveled to southeast Kansas while others moved to "Indian Territory," the current state of Oklahoma. By 1865, the Osage population had decreased by 95% as they settled in modern-day Osage County, Oklahoma. White settlers, including slave owners, developed the area and eventually sold off the land to millionaires, giving the reputation as "millionaires row." Troost Avenue soon became a center of commerce and social activity, including several theatres such as the Isis. This mural includes an image of Walt Disney as a reminder that the future icon got his start on Troost Avenue.
The Isis Theatre opened on August 21, 1918, a neighborhood theatre located in what was, at the time, a Kansas City suburb. The theatre sat inside the impressive Wirthman Building, which also housed retail shops. When the theatre opened, many considered the Isis Theatre the finest theatre outside the city limits. Similar to many of the grand theatre houses that emerged between World War I and the Great Depression, the Isis Theatre offered many amenities, and its Egyptian-style design exuded extravagance.
In the early-1920s, the owners employed Carl Stalling as an organist and Walt Disney as an illustrator of commercial slides, which spawned a relationship that led to Disney's success in producing animated films. Stalling and Warner eventually moved to Hollywood. After Stalling composed music for nineteen of Disney's first twenty animated films, the two parted ways. Stalling took a position with Warner Brothers and Disney formed his own production company. Disney continued to make the likes of Mickey Mouse famous while Stalling provided the music that accompanied Bugs Bunny and other cartoons.
Three fires damaged the Isis Theatre in 1928, 1939, and 1954. Still, the theatre managed to stay in business and showed premier movies until 1968. But, by the 1960s, Troost Avenue had become a racial dividing line as white school leaders sought to maintain segregation in spite of the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board by drawing district boundaries in ways that placed African American families in majority-Black schools. In response, white residents of Kansas City who lived along Troost sold their homes to African American families who paid higher mortgages and rents as a result of scarcity and moved to white-majority school districts and neighborhoods. Years of restrictive covenants and lending practices meant that most white residents lived west of Troost. The class, social, and economic divide profoundly affected businesses on Troost. Dwindling audiences resulted in Isis becoming an adult-film theatre in 1969 and 1970, and frequent robberies further put the theatre's survival in jeopardy. On March 15, 1970, a violent clash between local youths and the police resulted in extensive damage to the theatre (notably the windows), leading to its closure later that spring. Though some businesses occupied the Wirthman Building through the 1990s, the entire structure was razed in 1997.
The mural's unveiling occurred on Labor Day, 2006, and it includes Native Americans, African Americans, a photo of Walt Disney, and a drawing of Mickey Mouse. Disney's first studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, still stands at 1127 East 31st Street in Kansas City, and its preservation, like this mural, speaks to the way that Kansas City residents have embraced their connection to the artist-turned-mogul. The mural also expresses the time before Disney's arrival, including when Native Americans lived in the region before their forceful removal. The inclusion of African American leaders such as Martin Luther King speaks to the area's centrality in the lives of Black Kansas Citians and the importance of Black business leaders and civil rights activists. As the area around Troost continues to change over time, the mural offers recognition of the diverse people who called the area home and serves as a symbol of community efforts to create new opportunities.
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By Smuckola - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91985921
Kansas City Public Library images via "Thank You Walt Disney." https://thankyouwaltdisney.org/
Thank You Walt Disney: https://thankyouwaltdisney.org/