Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – National Cartoonists Society

Rick Marschall

My One Evening As the NCS Attorney



            Another anniversary just passed. For me, anyway; my personal Crowded Life. October 25 was my parents’ birthday and will always be tattooed on my “brain.” This year I flew to New York City on Oct 25 to deliver a speech to the Theodore Roosevelt Association’s annual symposium. The next evening, on TR’s birthday, the keynote banquet speaker was Conan O’Brien, Harvard history grad and enthusiastic Theodore Roosevelt acolyte – a true Ted-Head – whom I had been helping over the past couple months with research and images. For this little work he called me “the brilliant Rick Marschall” in his speech.

Rick Marschall & Conan O'Brien, TRA Symposium
We all know that comedians like Conan are always kidding, and historians like me are always desperate for attention, hence this shameless self-promotion. I returned from New York with a deadly head cold, but actually I think it was a swelled head. Hashtag-Confession-Is-Good-For-The-Soul.

Back to the past. October 25 will always be preeminent in my mind because it was the date, in 1961, of the first National Cartoonists Society meeting I attended. I was 12, and Al Smith invited me. He was the artist of Mutt and Jeff, lived in Demarest NJ, the next town from ours, and briefly attended our Lutheran church. I always suspected that he was chased away by the pastor’s requests for drawings for church publications and posters, but anyways he introduced the young cartooning nut, me, to the legendary cartoonist in the fullness of time.

I subsequently visited Al enough times, seeking drawing tips and peppering him with questions about comics history, that he was convinced I was some sort of true-blue aspirant, or little freak, or something in-between, safe enough to be exposed to the pros. Or vice-versa.

He picked me up early in the afternoon because, as NCS Treasurer, his attendance was required at the Board meeting before drinks and dinner. The monthly meeting was as big as any other chapters’ around the country, because New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island was still the nexus of American cartooning. The meetings were held in the Lambs Club, ancient and old-world elegant clubhouse of the legendary actors’ association. Wood-paneled rooms, overstuffed leather chairs, and cigar smoke presented me a picture of Heaven; several old actors (I believe I spotted Brian Aherne) snoozed in easy chairs and corner sofas.

Al Hirschfeld, Algonquin Round Table
The Lambs dignified clubhouse is on East 44th Street – and in a pleasant coincidence, the Harvard Club is on the same block, and that where the Theodore Roosevelt Association met, and I delivered my speech almost exactly 57 (gulp) years later. The Algonquin Hotel and Restaurant – home to many celebrities in ages past, and bon mots first uttered at the Round Table – and I lunched there last week too, a matter of obeisance. Holy ground, West 44th Street.

Al Smith took me up to a meeting room in an otherwise dark upper floor, and one by one Board members filtered in. Emerging from the darkness was a white head with absurdly large ears and a large cigar to match. I knew it was Rube Goldberg and I felt in the presence of royalty. He was kind enough to engage me in conversation, and spontaneously invited me to visit his studio off Central Park, when and if (as if not!) I could make it back to Manhattan. Before the evening was over, he asked for my address, if (as if not!) I would like an original drawing. Before the week was out I received an inscribed Inventions and Mike and Ike from the ‘teens.

One of the agenda items for the Board meeting was to meet, or vet, a new legal representative for the NCS. He never showed, so for the remainder of the Board meeting, and the entire dinner and program downstairs, I repeatedly was introduced as the New Lawyer. I sat on the dais for the dinner, between Al Smith and Dik Browne. I watched Dik, later a great friend who attended my wedding, for clues on dinner etiquette… but eventually noticed he didn’t touch his food. I gobbled my salad, and don’t remember whether he actually ate or not.

Bill Holman
          Bill Holman was president, or anyway presided, as only he could – yes, everything you would imagine from him was delivered. He actually asked me to the microphone; I answered some questions; and I demurred when invited to say something on my own. Believe it or not I had anticipated this crazy eventuality, and prepared some lame joke about a missing cocktail at the bar, and guessing that “Bob Dunn it,” and I thank God that my tongue hath cleaveth to the roof of my mouth in such moments.

Meetings in those days – I wound up attending a fair number of meetings till I went off to college, the guest of Al, again, and Harry Hershfield, Vern Greene, and others – featured “Shop Talks,” which were panel discussions rather sophisticated. Business and tax topics, cartoon history, interviews, were fodder of the excellent sessions. I think Jerry Robinson conducted them; and I think Stan Lynde was the guest that evening.

Many cartoonists were stewed to the gills, a rite of passage in those days. I somehow knew that would be the case (hence my prepared Bob Dunn pun). I was unable to have a rational conversation with Walt Kelly, for instance, despite hopes to engage him about T S Sullivant (what a ridiculous scene, actually); on the other hand I was an impromptu audience for one of the funniest men I ever met, Al Kilgore.

I met Mell Lazarus and Mort Walker and Jay Irving and Irwin Hasen and Allen Saunders and legends like Frank Fogarty and editorial and sports cartoonists I admired. And – as much of a legend as Rube – the iconic cartoonist, illustrator, designer, muralist Russell Patterson. Like a face from Mount Rushmore, with longish silver hair (then marking men as actors or artists) and clipped moustache.
Al Smith, flanked by Mac Miller and Fred Waring, holding the NCS self-caricature jam.
After dinner Al Smith unrolled a large sheet of Strathmore. Back in his studio he had inscribed greetings to “the Richard Marshall Comics Club,” a weekly gathering of my friends who liked to draw. And at the bottom he drew Mutt and Jeff saying “Carry on, m’lads! The future of NCS may one day rest in your hands!” Among the cartoonists who signed and drew their characters (or caricatures of me) were Holman, Greene, Patterson, Saunders, Fogarty, Irving, Hasen, Lynde, Mell, and Dunn; and Jack Tippit, Bill Lignante, Bill Crawford, John Pierotti, Al Liederman, Jack Rosen, John Lehti, Matt Murphy, Mac Miller, Irma Selz, and Tom Gill.

I could have floated home, but Al Smith drove me through the late night out of Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge, and along Route 9W to my house. My parents had waited up, of course; and I think their best anniversary present ever was seeing that poster and hearing my stories. My father was a lifelong comics fan, and he ate up the stories about some of his own favorite names.

Eventually many of these cartoonists became better friends; others besides Dik attending my wedding; and I became Comics Editor to more than a few at three syndicates several years later. In a “crowded life” in comics… that October 25th was one crowded evening.

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