I Recognize the Name, but Who is that Character?
"Little Orphan Annie"
Leapin’ lizards and gee whiskers, the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip will ends on June 13, 2010, a few months shy of its 86th birthday. Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip made its newspaper debut on August 5, 1924. By 1930, WGN in Chicago was broadcasting a radio version. “Little Orphan Annie,” known to collectors as Radio Orphan Annie, was aired in one version or another by the NBC Blue Network, NBC and Mutual between April 1931 and April 1942. Ovaltine was Annie’s sponsor on NBC and Quaker Puffed Wheat on Mutual.
[Author’s Aside: Mel Tormé, billed at the time as Allan Baruch, played Joe Corntassel, Annie’s pal from Simmons Corner, on the radio show.]
The modern version of Little Orphan Annie.
The good news is twofold. First, the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip survived for 85 years—a respectable length of time for any media product. Original episodes of NBC TV’s “Law and Order” are ending May 24, which marks the end of the show’s 20th season and ties it with “Gunsmoke” for the longest running television series. My “Collector Inspector” ran from October 2002 to December 2004 on HGTV, a respectable showing in an age when the lifetime of a television series is measured in weeks and months.
Second, while the comic strip is ending, “Little Orphan Annie” is moving to the world of digital media. Whether this move will ensure her continuance is doubtful. How relevant are Little Orphan Annie, Sandy, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks and Punjab to the adolescents and young adults of the 21st century?
TRIVIA QUESTION: Tribune Media Services distributed “Little Orphan Annie.” King Features, a major rival, countered with a similar comic strip. What was it called? (answer below)
I continue to be amazed at how many 1920s-1930s cartoon strips continue to survive. “Blondie” appears as a weekly comic and “Prince Valiant” as part of the Sunday comic page of the “News-Times” (Danbury, Conn.). During my travels this past year, I have run across “Dick Tracy,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Judge Parker,” “Mandrake the Magician,” “Mary Worth” and “The Phantom” in the comic sections of local newspapers. Every time I encounter one I reflect on how amazing it is that it still survives.
A comic strip devotee, first thing I read is the comics page(s) when I pick up a newspaper. This partially explains why I do not read “The New York Times” or “The Wall Street Journal.” A newspaper without a comics page is uncivilized.
I have no memories of a time when I did not read the comics or have the comics read to me. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics on the radio during the 1945 newspaper deliverymen’s strike. I vaguely recall someone reading the comics on a Sunday morning television show in the early 1950s. I thought it might have been Pete Boyle, an early Philadelphia television legend. When I checked Boyle’s detailed biography on the Internet, I did not find any reference to his doing such a program. Memory is a tricky commodity.
Many of the 1920s-1930s comic strips, almost all still drawn by their creators, enjoyed a “Golden Age” in the late 1940s and 1950s. As a result, the images of classic comic characters in my mind are as they were first drawn.
Eventually their creators retired or died. New writers and artists continued the strips. Characters were updated, their appearances changed to enhance their appeal to a younger audience. Since the syndicates owned the rights, writers and artists had to conform to the syndicates’ dictates.
Harold Gray died in 1968. David Lettick and Tex Blaisdell, Gray’s assistants, continued the strip. The strip declined. King Features syndicated reruns of Gray’s classic stripes in 1974. When Leonard Starr took over the strip in 1979, “Little Orphan Annie” enjoyed a brief renaissance.
The Little Orphan Annie character is often described as a childish waif with a head of red, curly hair, circles for eyes, and a red dress with a white collar and cuffs. When I examine the “Little Orphan Annie” collectible illustrations in Ted Hake’s “The Official Price Guide to Pop Culture Memorabilia: 150Years of Character Toys & Collectibles” (House of Collectibles, 2008), this is the image I see. It is the image I know. It is Little Orphan Annie.
I cite this to explain my shock when I saw the Little Orphan Annie image that accompanied the AOL news story announcing the demise of the strip. Adjacent to the story was a picture of a young lady with a modern hairdo and wearing a red shirt/blouse and blue jeans. Was this the modern incarnation of Little Orphan Annie? If true, is it any wonder the strip is only running in 20 newspapers?
Who in their right mind would do this? The answer is Tribune Media Services. Writer Jay Maeder and artist Andrew Peopy took over “Little Orphan Annie” when Leonard Star retired in 2000. Their mandate was to update the strip’s stories and characters. Alan Kupperberg (2001-2004) and Ted Slampyak (2004 to the demise) succeeded Peopy—a pox on all their houses, along with Tribune Media Services.
I remained blissfully ignorant of the change until a few days ago. If I encountered “Annie,” the current name for “Little Orphan Annie” strip, in my travels, I glossed over it, not recognizing it as something I once knew.
Comic and cartoon characters change. My memory image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse was formed in the late 1940s-early 1950s. While familiar with the long-nose Mickey and Minnie and long-billed Donald from cartoon reruns on early black and white television, the Mickey and Minnie I remember are found in the comic books and cartoon strips I read as a youngster. Disneyland’s opening in 1955 saved Mickey and Minnie from further tampering. Mickey and Minnie became the park’s ambassadors. This locked their image. My grandchildren and I share a common Mickey and Minnie image. I dislike anything that decreases the opportunities for bonding between generations. This is why the new Annie image upset me.
I have not decided whether I will see Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Errol Flynn, with no apologies to Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Richard Greene, is Robin Hood and Olivia de Haviland is Maid Marian. I challenge all who dare say otherwise. Although I have seen the black and white version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) several times, I much prefer the color version. The Merry Men’s forest green outfits, Will’s scarlet, and the dark tones of Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s dress blend to create a kaleidoscope of fun and pleasurable entertainment. The plot is simplistic and idealistic. Who cares? The realism in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” conforms to what younger movie viewers want and expect. Early box office results indicate Scott made a wise choice. But, will his “Robin Hood” play 72 years later (2082) on Turner Movie Classics with the same frequency “The Adventures of Robin Hood” still does in 2010?
Director William Fracker’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981) with Linton Spilsburg as the Lone Ranger effectively killed the character, something the outlaws were unable to do. A classic icon was destroyed. The Lone Ranger franchise is now part of the great corral in the sky.
In the final analysis, is the central message in this column is this: Do not change a classic icon. Today, many think of a classic icon as something identifying a specific generation, limited in time and scope. True classic icons span generations. They are a link that allows them to connect. This past December, I lost count of the number of times Sofia and Marcelo watched the video of the 1969 “Frosty the Snowman” television special. Grandma, mommy and the kids sang along. Grandpa watched with an “all is right in the world” feeling.
Nothing lasts forever. “Dick Tracy,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Judge Parker,” “Mandrake the Magician,” “Mary Worth,” “Prince Valiant” and “The Phantom” are already on the chopping block or close to it. “Blondie,” which was successfully modernized, is the exception to the rule.
As I approach my 70s, I grow more and more resistant to and less tolerant of change. I understand the whys, wherefores and inevitableness. I have learned to keep a smile on my face and keep the hurt hidden inside.
TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER: Little Annie Rooney.
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