All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Many of the very earliest Comic Characters have survived, and are either still around, or are, at least, still well remembered, today. The "Katzenjammer Kids", come to mind. Begun in 1897, it is the longest running comic strip of all time. "Happy Hooligan," "Mutt and Jeff," these are names that still have a familiar ring. But one character, who was once immensely popular, "Foxy Grandpa," has merrily danced off, into oblivion. Does anyone know who Foxy Grandpa was, today?
I, for one, had never heard of him. But, as I began to seek out early comic imagery, his name and face appeared, time and again. And, once again, because no one else was collecting him, I found myself, somewhat halfheartedly, picking up an occasional Foxy Grandpa piece. And, as time went by, I gained a deep respect for this early character, whose good humored Foxiness always enabled him to outsmart his two ten year old grandsons, who were forever trying to put one over on him.
On the last day of the first week of the Twentieth Century, January 7, 1900, Foxy Grandpa appeared. He was created by the cartoonist Carl E. Schultz. Schultz drew the comic strip, under the pen name, “Bunny”, which had been his nickname as a kid.
Over time, Schultz came to sign the strip with an image of a bunny, who, eventually, became a sort of character in the story, with reactions that were a running commentary on what was going on.
Easter must have been Foxy Grandpa’s holiday. Here he is emerging from an Easter egg. I really love the candy container, below it. It is so cleverly witty. This is Bunny's signature bunny, transformed into Foxy Grandpa, himself.
I wondered how I was going to fill this negative space. While trying to fill it up with words, I suddenly remembered that there were more Foxys. So, I went over and grabbed this small candy container. It is really quite extraordinary. Note Foxy's miniature lead glasses and his tiny index finger. How do such delicate details survive a hundred years?
This set of dolls is rather curious. Their condition is amazing, on the surface, considering that they’re one hundred plus years old. But, their faces leave a lot to be desired. I believe they might have been molded of wax beneath their fabric exterior. This is a quaint and antiquated method of manufacture that did not hold up well, over the years.
Foxy Grandpa was an immediate hit. The strip ran in the New York herald for two years, then moved to the New York American, where it lasted, more or less, until 1917. During those years, Foxy Grandpa appeared in many books and toys and other merchandise, some of which was quite extraordinary. I’ve found some gorgeous Foxy Grandpa things, objects too nice to be tucked away on a top shelf, out of reach, and almost out of sight, simply because I’m almost out of space. I really owe it to his memory to pick a few things out and photograph them separately.
The most Spectacular Foxy Grandpa object I’ve found is this majestic candy container. It’s got everything going for it, form, size, and condition. Easily a century old, it looks like it was made yesterday. And it embodies a touch of, most likely, accidental irony, for Foxy, created by Bunny, is riding on an Easter Bunny. Foxy's head, which is balanced on a spring, wiggles incessantly; so do his feet.
Anyone who has ever trekked around the fields of Brimfield has come across dolls like this. I have seen so many, over the years, in all variations of condition; some were much better than the one below. Apparently it was made in 1902, two years after Foxy first appeared, which is testimony to his instant popularity. It also took two years for the first Mickey Mouse toys to appear. Looking at this large doll now, I am appreciating its appealing chubbiness, with that familiar Bunny tucked under his arm. I love the way the delicate and flamboyant line work, especially, on his face, in its graceful symmetry, becomes abstract calligraphy. And, by the way, this curious character, created at the turn of the century, had Pie-Cut Eyes, three decades before Mickey
Has anyone ever seen this elegant humidor before? Not me! My friend Bernie Shine pointed it out to me on eBay. I immediately became the only bidder. This impressive object sits on the desk beside me, among my favorite things. It is made of some sort of ceramic, and is an impressive 11 inches high. Foxy Grandpa is here portrayed as a rather refined gentleman, sedately partaking of a bit of snuff, his open snuff box in his hand. He has a pleasant pensive look about him, characteristically content and wise, and quite alive. Someone has just captured his attention. He raises his head in anticipation.
This painted tin toy has a rather strange action, one that I have never seen before, or since. It can be quite accurately replicated here, with simple two phase animation.
In 1902 a musical comedy based on Foxy Grandpa appeared on Broadway. Foxy was portrayed with great gusto by the actor, Joseph Heart. Heart also stared as Foxy, again, in a series of live action silent movie shorts, produced by the Biograph Company. The films employed the actual sets and costumes from the Broadway production. The fact that Foxy was on Broadway, just two years after he was introduced, is testimony to his instant popularity. Here is an actual photograph of Joseph Heart in the role. Beside it, is a rather elegant plaster statue that is very much in the same spirit as the photo.
This video is a treasure worth experiencing! Thanks to the Library of congress, we are able to witness Joseph Heart as Foxy Grandpa, in person. Although, this charming clip lasts only a few fun packed seconds, those few seconds of film, which depict “Foxy and Polly in a Little Hilarity," are truly a short trip in a Time Machine! Joseph Heart is lively and amusing. What personality! What energy! Apparently Heart and DeMar, who plays Polly, were a husband and wife team, in real life.
Last of all, is something Extraordinary. It’s one reason Foxy is getting a long page. These images appear to be printer's proofs of part of an amazing book. I have never seen or heard of anything, like them, from this era. I wonder if a book was ever produced, and if it, in fact, exists. Each page is actually a self-contained optical toy that operates on the same principal as the “Polyorama Panoptic”, a Nineteenth Century device, in which a scene is transformed, from day to night, when illuminated from behind by a bright light.
Each image measures 10" X 18", with generous margins that extend under a matte which measures 14" X 22". All were double matted with acetate windows on both the front and back, when I discovered them at Brimfield, 30 years ago.
I have kept my eyes open, over the past 30 years, alert for any hint that might solve the mystery of these magic sheets, and, hopefully, lead to more amazing images, like these, or maybe, an entire book full of them. But, these tantalizing objects are all that I've discovered, and, to this day, remain unique. Because each image has a number in one corner, I assume that these are part of a whole book of transformations. If so, it was not a part of the series of comic character books, prevalent at the time. Those always measured a standard 10" x 16".
Because I am so enthusiastic about these, I will share all that I have of them with you, as close as the screen will allow to their actual size. Just pass your mouse over each image to see it magically transform.
This first sheet, which appears to be a kind of title page, is slightly different from the others, in that the back is laminated to look like plain white paper. All the other sheets have not been finished, in this way. On the reverse side of them, one can see the complex art that makes the transformation happen. It’s pretty amazing. But I’ll leave that to your imagination, as we are running out of space. Because this sheet is laminated, a brighter source of illumination is required and the results are not as bright. This entire presentation appears to have been going through a process of experimentation.
There is something else that is curious about these images. I’ve noticed that throughout the many Foxy Grandpa strips I’ve seen, Foxy’s grandsons’ names were never mentioned. He simply referred to them as “the boys”. But, here, he clearly calls them "Dick" and "Harry." Having had these pages for thirty years, I always considered that to be their names. Looking up some dates on Google, I discovered that all the mentions of them, there, proclaim their names were “Chub” and “Bunt”! That’s what they, apparently, were called in the cast of characters from the Broadway Show, in 1902. I wonder if that was the only place those names were used, and one subsequent mention, after another, perpetrated a misnomer, or if Schultz changed their names to Dick and Harry, himself, late in the game.
In this one, Foxy is about to be "surprised" by being doused with a hose. But he outfoxes the boys, by suddenly producing an umbrella. At the same time, the artist's "Bunny" appears, laughing, in the window. The effect is dramatic and beautifully conceived.
The wild imagery of Foxy Grandpa’s Pet Fish is reminiscent of the magical grotesqueries of George Mêlées. These drawings have an inventive complexity that can be studied for hours. There are so many forms of visual trickery at play.
In this dramatic transformation, notice how objects lightly drawn, in the beginning, become negative space, in the transformed scene. Foxy’s right arm in the original pose becomes the area that defines the contour of the tree, behind him.
Attempting to take photos of your grandpa in his undies? Nothing has changed much in the past Century, except an I-Pod has replaced the Kodak Brownie. And the photographs will be posted on YouTube, for everyone to see!
Here’s a curiosity! Is this a lesson in history, or a two century old prophecy?
Is it my imagination, or is there something timely about this illustration? I guess that guy must be a Hollywood Sheik. I notice that both the delivery boy and the dog are smoking. The little white dog becomes negative space. And look at the expression on the bunny’s face
That pure white bathtub and steamy bathroom are, pretty much, a blank slate, where anything can take place! And Bunny doesn’t disappoint us! Spectacular!
It’s a mystery what these smaller images are for. As one is sideways, maybe, they were intended to be cut out. One thing's for sure, "Foxy Grandma" is a fox!
So here they sit, a whole Foxy troop, high on a shelf, out of the way, along with other early comic characters, of their day. They, all, deserve a better place! Let’s pan out and take a look at the whole case. If I hadn’t photographed a few objects separately, this long shot is all you would have seen. As it is, I'm standing on a ladder to take the photograph.
Here, alongside Foxy, are Happy Hooligan and his friends. Bowing to the Captain are Alphonse and Gaston two gentlemen who made comedy out of politeness. I’ve encountered precious few images of them. Only these two bisques, and one composition nodder of Gaston, and they were all acquired, years apart. And here is the Katzenjammer family, Mama, Der Captain, and the Kids, Hans and Fritz. And in the middle is a stunning statue of Barney Google and his faithful nag Sparkplug. Sparkplug never looked better than he does here. The sculptor has brought the figure to life, by twisting his neck, turning his head, and subtly implying, through voluptuous bulges and realistic wrinkles, that there is a body beneath that blanket, shifting and straining to bust out. And, we sense that Sparkplug is not only alive, but deep in thought, as he casts a, very, wary eye on Barney!
Directly behind Barney are two very early dolls of Mutt and Jeff. To the far left are Max and Moritz who are even earlier than, and some believe were the inspiration for Hans and Fritz. Next are a trio of sculptures from the same series as the plaster Foxy we just saw. They are Happy Hooligan, his brother, Gloomy Gus and a hobo friend. On the other end of the case, is a Steiff tea cozy of Mama Katzenjammer, and a Steiff doll of Happy Hooligan.
These great American Icons, were the work of many men, each creating a World of his own, and populating it with entities that, in their very unreality, were real. They became familiar friends, and Americans of all ages visited with them, daily, in the pages of the Funny Papers. That is the place where all the comic characters lived, before the advent of the movies. This seems like as good a time as any to go downstairs and visit the tower of early Comic Characters.