The following article is told by Charles D. Stewart, an acquaintance of Winsor McCay’s, from McCay’s days as a Dime Museum poster artist. Stewart perceives the ‘Gertie’ animated film as foreshadowing the talkies to come. Winsor McCay was actually making new use of the time-honoured patter of the “chalk-talkers,” cartoonists who punctuated their drawing on Vaudeville stages with jokes and witty anecdotes. Chalk-talking cartoonists went back at least as far as the Civil War, with artists like Frank and Dan Beard, Frank Bellew, and Thomas Nast taking the stage in lecture halls and churches across America. In England Harry Furniss and Tom Merry were “lightning cartoonists” of the stage, and John Wilson Bengough did the same in Canada. By McCay’s time most of the newspaper cartoonists; among them himself, J. Stuart Blackton, and Richard Outcault, participated, usually on the vaudeville stage.
The article also names a man I have never heard of before, the poster artist Merrifield, as an influence on Winsor McCay’s coloring, possibly even on his drawing style.
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo’s Pa, First with the Animated Cartoon
Brilliant Artist created ‘Gertie’ for Screen Long before W. Disney’s Time
By Charles D. Stewart
Milwaukee Journal, 14 Nov 1945
A Hollywood writer of wide circulation recently sent out a story in which he spoke of Walt Disney as “the man who made the first animated cartoon.” There may be those in Hollywood who believe that, but here in Milwaukee we know that the first animated cartoon was exhibited at the Palace theatre, at a time when Walt Disney had not been heard of. There must be thousands of us left who were going to the Palace at that time. And the name of the picture was ‘Gertie.’
Gertie -- an engaging and homey name. You almost feel as if you had met her. But who was she? What did she do that Winsor McCay, the artist, should put her on the screen?
She was a dinotherium. She was one of those immense animals that existed in bygone ages and whose picture is to be found only in the pages of learned books. And it struck the imagination of the cartoonist to take her out of the realm of paleontology and put her on the screen so that the folks could see just how she lived and moved -- and especially how Gertie, a trained dinotherium, would obey her master’s voice. She went about it ponderously and with a sort of slow intelligence which was funny. And if you happened to know McCay you would say, “Wasn’t that just what Winsor would do!”
Giving Gertie Orders
“Come forward, Gertie -- come forward. Stand up, Gertie -- up on your hind legs -- up -- up. Wave your foot at the audience -- that’s right. Dance Gertie -- Give us an imitation of Little Egypt. Now get down on your knees and pray, Gertie. That’s right. Get up.” BANG (the cracking of the whip). The routine was something like that.
In private life Gertie’s name was Dinotherium Giganteum, which was scientific language for “terrible big beast.” She was elephantine in her general build and deportment, weighing thousands of pounds. With her great girth, which she did not try to keep down, and her strong pillarlike legs, she was more of a mama than any elephant. She and her relatives have been dead now 3,000,000 years; nevertheless McCay studied her up and brought her forth as a big obedient animal which understood English. That too was just like Winsor, who besides conceiving the animated cartoon, was also verging close to the idea of talking pictures.
The picture showed the interior of a circus tent with an arena for performing animals. Beasts of the usual variety sat around on their pedestals while Gertie was seated like an elephant on her big, inverted tub. As I recall it, several of the animals came forth at times and did something of a circus nature, but attention was centered on Gertie, the star of the show.
Picture Ran 20 Minutes
The rest of the circus was just for atmosphere and background. McCay traveled with the picture when he could get time off -- which was only a few weeks at a time -- and he was really a part of it in the sense that he appeared on the stage in a ringmaster’s costume with a loud cracking whip in his hand. It was in obedience to his commands and the cracking of the whip that Gertie would get on and off her tub and do whatever he told her. The picture ran for 20 minutes and McCay’s commands were all accurately timed.
This was very much as if the ringmaster’s voice were a part of it. Gertie did not have a word to say, but it was evident that she understood the language. And that is the next thing to speaking it.
McCay himself, without the assistance of other artists, made all the thousands of separate drawings necessary to produce the film. Nowadays a feature of equal length requires a whole studio full of artists. The principal artist, or creator, makes drawings, showing only the beginning and end of each action; then the subordinate artists, the animators, fill in between with drawings showing successive stages of the action. These drawings are so little different from each other that when they are run rapidly before the eye they seem to be continuous action without jerks or jumps.
Make 10,000 Drawings
When the animators have done this the tracers set to work and trace each of the thousands of drawings with ink on specially treated celluloid; after which the work goes to the opaquing department where the pen lines are filled in and shaded with the brush in tones to correspond with the scenes chart.
That, we say, is the way it is done nowadays. No wonder it takes a whole building full of workers. McCay, in those pioneer experiments with the animated ccartoon, made 10,000 drawings himself, and this in addition to his daily work as cartoonist for a new York paper and his Sunday page in color showing the wonderful adventures of “Little Nemo.”
Older readers of the Milwaukee Journal no doubt recall “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” a full page in color, which was a regular feature of the Sunday edition. It wsas more delicately colored than the usual comic. Little Nemo, a small boy in his white nightie, wandered through the marble halls of dreamland. He was usually in some pillared palace whose tall, colored columns rose about him as though they were supporting the sky, and there were deep perspective effects in which McCay was a master. The full page feature was in oblong squares showing Little Nemo’s progress from one part of his dream to another. It was only a step -- though a long one -- to the thousands of pictures necessary for an animated cartoon.
Born in Michigan
Winsor Zenic McCay was born in 1872 at Spring Lake, Michigan, where his father was a lumberman. While still a boy in elementary school he decided to cut out education and start doing something -- so they put him to work in the sawmill. In his teens he pulled out for Chicago, where he started taking jobs as a sign painter and all-around artist. He had always had an inclination for drawing. He painted street signs and made hand colored posters for show houses, and for awhile he got employment in a pine engraving and printing establishment, which made posters for circuses and other billboard purposes. His jobs did not last long. For a few weeks he went to an art school, and that was all. He was mostly self-taught.
His great chance to make an artist of himself came one day in Cincinnati when he asked John Avery for a job. Avery was manager of Kohl and Middleton’s dime museum on Vine street, one of a chain of 5 museums (three in Chicago and one in Minneapolis,) which were rapidly making heir owners wealthy. On the top floor was a complete scene-painter’s studio with a great array of scene painter’s colors and the best brushes that money could buy. There were wooden frames of all sizes to hold the stretched muslin -- glue with which to size the muslin and make it tight as a drumhead when dry -- a bucket of distemper white with which to prepare the surface.
Whole Gamut of Color
And then the colors! They were the regular theatrical scene painter’s outfit. In a V shaped trough about 10 feet long, with partitions to keep them separate, and they ran the whole gamut of color from the white, the cream, the buff and the yellows through the greens and reds and blues and browns up to black. What a place for an artist to swing himself! And John Avery needed a man.
Winsor McCay was told to go upstairs and see what he could do, and he did. While he was not yet a finished draughtsman, nor the most skillful of colorists, he was on his way. He had imagination, and he liked the sort of subjects that could give it scope. This a dime museum provided -- the freakish, the unusual, and the bizarre. The public took to his work. So he had a steady job, steady wages, and a free hand with the brush! He could buy anything in the way of color that he needed; the museum was lavish of money in that regard. Carmine, that most expensive of pigments, they bought by the pound and kept in a glass jar with a ground glass stopper. And this was the beginning of a great cartoonist and the most refine colorist of the comic supplements.
Of all McCay’s career this is the period that has interested me most. It was then that I became acquainted with him, and spent most of my time for two weeks in his top floor studio. At that time -- 1890 -- McCay, at 18 years of age, was just well settled in his job; and our similarity of interests made our acquaintance prosper.
In July of that year I came along to work in the museum -- not as an artist but as the main attraction in the “curio hall.” As to what I was doing there, let it be told in the words of the modest and retiring press agent -- I was the “mnemonic, orthographic, linguistic, phonetic wonder of the age.” In other words I did things with language which amazed the public.
I even talked backward, to the great amazement of the public, and proved I wasn’t cheating by writing the words on the board after rattling them off. I looked even younger than I was. One of the Cincinnati papers described me as “a modest young man with a frank, boyish face.”
On the Monday morning that I arrived, with a grip in my hand, I was astonished to find what the artist had done to the museum front. The whole lobby and the two corners outside were covered with imaginative depictions of myself -- all except one printed poster announcing Howard’s minstrels. While McCay had no real knowledge of what I did he put his imagination to work. A big upright picture which interested me was that of a man talking into a phonograph: and the machine was exploding -- a blast of red and yellow flames and pieces of machinery escaping in all directions. The language was too much for it. Other pictures were equally astonishing.
Certain circumstances brought us together. As I was no curiosity to the public except when I was performing, and as I performed only seven or eight minutes out of every hour, I had most of my time to myself. So I rambled upstairs and spent the greater part of my two weeks with Winsor McCay.
For three years I had worked among artists, being an apprentice wood engraver who made illustrations for books and catalogs. McCay was interested in that. Then too, I knew considerable about color. Most important of all I was acquainted with the work of Merrifield, a really talented artist who made the fronts for the Clark Street museum in Chicago. He was so good that lithographers and other commercial artists would visit the museum on Monday mornings to see what Merrifield had done next in the way of coloring. McCay, in his days in Chicago, had been attracted by the museum -- he was a natural showman himself -- and he had learned much by studying Merrifield’s ideas and his knowledge of color combinations. So the two of us had much in common to talk about: and in 2 weeks we were pretty well acquainted.
From knowing him so well this early in his career, I followed his doings with interest to the day of his death. When he came to Milwaukee along with Gertie I went in to visit him, and we had quite a reunion talking about our adventures, years before, in the days of the dime museum.
After McCay had advanced in his draughtsmanship by working in the museum, and had attained some fame, his fancy turned to newspaper drawing. He worked for a time on two Cincinnati papers, and then, in 1902, he went to New York. Here his cartoons were an immediate success. He was employed on several big New York dailies, going from one to another with advancing salary and increasing fame. He had the respect of his fellow artists and was popular generally; he was a prominent citizen. He belonged to the Lamb’s club, the Friars, the Freemasons, the Inner Circle, Cavalry Post 101 of the American Legion, the Royal and Mystic Order of Elephants, a fraternal organization of the Brooklyn navy yard -- and possibly others. And when he died, on July 26, 1934, they loaded him with flowers.
*I have been unable to trace the intriguing Chicago artist “Merrifield,” but I can point out who he was not. He was not Richard Forrester Merrifield of Keene, NH, essayist, novelist, editor, artist and musician; he was born too late, in 1905 and died in 1977. Nor was he the artist Mrs. Ruby Merrifield, who at the age of about 20 began painting signs for her father’s bottling plant in Miami.
*UPDATE: Gene Meier and Peter Hastings Falk, who publishes WHO WAS WHO IN AMERICAN ART have identified the Chicago artist as Rube Merrifield. Photos of the artist are HERE.
**Vitagraph Illustration at top from Ebay.