Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Down the Bunny Trail

Rick Marschall

I have just returned from the 14th annual Symposium of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. I recently was named their Cartoon Archivist, as noted here, and indeed the keynote was a “Cartoon-Off,” with the honorable Clay Jenkinson and myself showing 15 cartoons each, commenting, and inviting the registrants’ votes.

Among many things to which my “mind” raced back was not Roosevelt specifically, but peripherally:

When I was very young I already had twin obsessions – more than a couple, really – but two were Roosevelt and vintage cartoons. My mother’s mother was born in New York City of German parentage. She moved from Manhattan when young and quickly acquired and never lost a Brooklyn accent. “Berl the water” and “Don’t get boined,” were such footprints of speech.

Perhaps her ears were affected, too; or maybe my famously quiet voice, but one day in the kitchen I wanted to ask if she ever laid eyes on Theodore Roosevelt in her youth. An  “excuse me” and a “what?” and “speak up” had me repeating “Theodore”… until she thought I was asking if she attended the theater as a girl.

An unconscious shift to my second interest. Her face lit up, and she recalled being taken to a Broadway musical as a girl. It was one of several musical comedies staged around the pioneer comic-supplement character Foxy Grandpa. She didn’t remember much about the plot or the songs… but she remembered that there were moments so funny that a fat man sitting on the aisle laughed and laughed.

“His face turned so red when he laughed that I thought he was going to pop!” she told me. So that was tattooed on my memory, too, and through years since I cannot think of Foxy Grandpa and his two grandsons without thinking of little Augusta Vagt watching that man almost laugh himself to death.

Foxy Grandpa commenced in 1900 in the color pages of the Sunday New York Herald. The artist was Carl Emil Schultze, who had signed his cartoons in Life magazine with his surname, but his newspaper work as “Bunny,” often beside a furry mascot. His other features for the Sunday funnies were random gags or short strips under the title Vaudevilles, and were collected in a book of that name.

An immediate hit was Foxy Grandpa. Its premise was simple – indeed, a one-gag premise. Oddly enough, the early strips virtually all were variations on a single joke. Happy Hooligan was a well-meaning tramp whose kindly efforts backfired. Hans and Fritz would conspire, execute a prank, and be punished. Little Jimmy was distracted from every errand, with comic results. Buster Brown’s pranks went awry on their own. Maud the Mule kicked people – usually her owner, Si – into the next county to assert her dominance. Alphonse and Gaston’s politesse inevitably resulted in chaos, not order.

… and so on. In all, a remarkable but ironic foundation for commercial successes and a viable and pliable art form. Yet such was the early days of the comics. Foxy Grandpa’s formula was, simply, the mirror-image of the Katzenjammer Kids. The grandsons plotted a trick on the old boy, who predictably outsmarted them in the ultimate panel. It is amazing that for almost 20 years the boys were surprised each week. And each week.

And in various formats, appearances, books, and Broadway musicals. As far as I have seen, or remember (having the complete run in the Herald and Hearst’s American to which he moved amidst much fanfare soon afterward; and ultimately to Munsey’s Sun) neither Grandpa nor the boys had Christian nor surnames. Neither “Little Brother” who eventually joined the cast. No intermediate generation of parents were ever seen, beginning tradition that a homonymic namesake, Charles, continued. (On stage, Grandpa had a name: Goodelby Goodman; and the boys were Chub and Bunt.)

I will share here memorabilia including buttons and songsheets generated by the stage sensations. Not pages nor reprint-book covers here; maybe later.

“Bunny” had a sad ending to his life and erstwhile successful career. He died in poverty in New York City’s West side in 1939, filling his last years with occasional pages for early comic books, a couple of children’s books, and drawing sketches of Foxy Grandpa for neighborhood businesses and kids.


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