Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Little Annie Rooney

Little Annie Rooney; original water colour art by Darrell McClure, 1942The King Features artists got together and presented a birthday book to William Randolph Hearst

When Harold Gray's LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE debuted August 5, 1924 it quickly became one of the most popular comic strips of its day, with Cupples & Leon reprinting Annie's adventures in book form, beginning in 1926.  An avalanche of merchandise followed.

With that amount of success, an imitator was sure to arise.  Hither came LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY, distributed by William Randolph Hearst's King Features Syndicate.  Despite being busy overlooking his publishing empire, Hearst found time to be involved with his comic strips, and no doubt it was his idea to compete with Gray's spunky little redhead.

The strip was assigned to Ed Verdier, who signed his name "Verd".  He wasn't known for any other comic strips.  Born March 27, 1897, Verdier, like many other creative children of his day, sent drawings to the popular children's magazine, ST NICHOLAS, hoping to see his work in the "St Nicholas League" section, which showcased the talents of young writers, poets and artists.  Unfortunately, from 1910 to 1912 his submissions were relegated to the "Roll of Honor", which contained lists of names for "those whose work entitles them to encouragement", or "whose work would have been used had space permitted".  The adult Verdier proved to be a competent cartoonist, and LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY debuted January 10, 1927.

Meet the staff of Hearst newspapers: from a promotional book, 1928

June 15, 1928

Verdier's little waif was named after a popular 19th century song, "Little Annie Rooney", though the connection ends there.  Just as Orphan Annie had Sandy for a companion, Annie Rooney had a dog of her own, named Zero, although he wasn't introduced until 1930.  Orphan Annie's exclamation, "Leapin' Lizards!" was matched by Annie Rooney's "Gloryoski!"  But the similarities between the two Annie characters were superficial -- at least during Verdier's tenure on the strip, which wasn't long.  Besides, you could tell them apart by their hair: Annie Rooney had a fashionable bob, and Orphan Annie had a tangled mess.

Little Orphan Annie's world became increasingly grim and violent, as her adventures took her from the more whimsical haunted houses and circuses right into the Great Depression, where she became a mouthpiece for Harold Gray's conservative politics.  She was often destitute and homeless, drifting from one hick town to another, finding a home only to lose it again.  Not one to accept charity, she rolled up her sleeves and supported herself through hard work, ingenuity and determination, and by charming the folks around her with her good deeds.  She was also streetwise and pugnacious, defending herself or protecting the weak by punching bullies in the face.

This 4" x 9" King Features card bore a number of characters from their cartoon stable.  Little Annie Rooney is sitting on the corner of the building at left.  Ed Verdier's mischievous waif had only been around for a year and a half, but was already important enough to depict on this card.  Among others seen are Tillie the Toiler; Toots (Toots and Casper); Maggie and Jiggs (Bringing Up Father); Barney Google; Felix the Cat; Maw and Paw Perkins ( Polly and Her Pals); der Captain, Hans and Fritz (from the Katzenjammer Kids); and Krazy Kat.

March 11, 1929

Likewise, Annie Rooney's world was filled with villains and hardships and disappointments as she escaped from orphanages and roamed from town to town.  Sometimes she would find a happy home, only to have it taken from her through the capriciousness of fate.  She suffered the pangs of hunger and the terror of sleeping in the woods at night, Zero her only comfort through hard times.

March 9, 1929

February 8, 1929

Fortunately, there was much less violence.  Annie Rooney's lot in life may have seemed cruel at times, but nobody was ever beaten to a pulp by gangsters.  In fact, during the first few years, LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY was often humorous, with a punchline in the last panel, but even when Annie began having more harrowing adventures, the gags kept coming, the seriousness of her plight momentarily mitigated by a laugh.

For a time she found herself in the care of Daddy Jim and Auntie Jane, and she enjoyed the life every child should have.  When school was over for the summer she was often in the company of her friend Billy Mitchell -- who always wore a striped shirt -- playing or getting into trouble, as kids do.

July 25, 1928

July 23, 1928

And then it came crashing down.  Daddy Jim and Auntie Jane began having great financial woes, and Annie overhears them saying they wished they'd gotten a boy instead, and later stumbles upon this bit of conversation:

Daddy Jim: "She sure has been a burden ever since we've had her."

Auntie Jane: "We must get rid of her as soon as possible."

What Annie didn't know was that they were talking about the car.  She runs away from home, not wanting to be sent back to another orphanage, especially Mrs. Meany's.

As her name implies, Mrs. Maria Meany was a cruel, miserable crone who ran an orphan asylum.  She was also Annie's constant nemesis.  Annie had escaped from her orphanage, and Mrs. Meany was determined to get her back again into her evil clutches.

August 3, 1929

Annie Rooney's adventures may not have been as violent as Orphan Annie's, but there were enough perils and drama to thrill the readers.  After running away from Daddy Jim and Auntie Jane, Annie sees a boy on the street being viciously beaten by his father, a regular habit, she's told, and they conspire to swap places: he could go live with Daddy Jim and Auntie Jane, and Annie could stay on his father's houseboat until he returned, about a month.  But during a raging storm the houseboat tears free of its mooring and drifts downriver, towards jagged rocks.  Annie soon becomes mixed up in the vile machinations of Amos Taylor, the corrupt mayor of Brookvale; she joins a circus, where the highwire act she's performing turns deadly; she is kidnapped by thugs hired by Mrs. Meany; and she finds herself trapped by Sadie Snatcher, a female Fagan grooming her to be a thief.  But, as always, the resourceful little girl extricates herself from danger and triumphs over villains.

November 14, 1928

Ed Verdier's Annie was far more vulnerable than Harold Gray's Annie.  Miss Rooney wasn't a pugilist like that other orphaned kid, nor did she have a "Daddy" to rescue her on occasion.  What she did have was a kind heart, and she drifted in and out of the lives of a parade of sympathetic characters, such as Roland and Alice Rooney, Susie (a girl who helps her escape from Mrs. Meany's orphanage), "Gran'ma" Botts and Abner -- and Charley, a baby she found and took care of during her houseboat adventure.  Kindness was repaid with kindness.  Still, what little good times there were didn't last long, and Annie would find herself alone in the world once again.

Original artwork by Nicholas Afonsky from panel for Sunday July 10, 1938

Poor eyesight forced Verdier to give up his cartooning career in 1929, but he continued writing in other media, occasionally turning out scripts for radio shows, such as DICK TRACY and STARS OVER HOLLYWOOD, a half hour program broadcast Saturdays on CBS.  Verdier contributed to the latter series from 1941, the year it debuted, almost to the end, in 1954.  He also co-wrote several movies, including THE BRIDE WORE CRUTCHES (1941), SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD (1944), SEVEN DAYS ASHORE (1944), and DELIGHTFULLY DANGEROUS (1945), and wrote one novel, THE SUN AND THE BARROW (1948).  Verdier died in 1976.

Ed Verdier (#17) at a luncheon for George McManus (Bringing Up Father), 1928.  Chic Young (#9) was still two years away from starting his Blondie strip

Ben Batsford, who took over LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY in August of 1929, had more cartooning experience than Verdier, hence his name isn't as obscure in the annals of comic strips.

Batsford was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 5, 1893, though he grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  He sold his first cartoon in 1908 and, after serving in a Canadian unit in France during the War, he joined the staff of the Winnipeg Free Press.  In the 1920s he turned out a strip called UNK AND BILLY, sometimes called BILLY'S UNCLE.  Batsford moved back to the U.S. in 1925 when he was offered a strip called DOINGS OF THE DUFFS, left in limbo when its creator, Walter Allman, became ill in the winter of 1924 and died in July of that year.  Batsford took over from an interim artist named FitzGerald, and stuck with the Duffs until he was offered LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY.

Batsford's time drawing LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY lasted a little over a year, from August 1929 to October 1930.  He had simply carried on in the Verdier tradition, but made one important contribution: he introduced Annie's dog, Zero.

Annie and Zero; March 1930

Ring around the collar: Zero gets his own ring, c.1950

Annie befriends an old blind beggar named Albert C. Albert, and takes up residence with him.  Mr. Albert's dog, Zero, is crippled by a taxi and, after an operation paid for by some kind benefactors, Annie nurses him back to health.  When Mr. Albert is cured of his blindness, he decides to leave Annie and join an old friend on the high seas in search of a lost fortune.  As a consolation, he leaves Zero with the bewildered girl, and arranges to have her cared for by some friends, the O'Flinns.  However, before she can even try out this new home, she's on the lam once again, having been tracked down by Mrs. Meany.  At least this time she has a canine companion.

Ben Batsford went on to draw other comic strips, as well as comic books, but is perhaps best known for FRANKIE DOODLE.

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, April 30, 1944

Annie Sunday; original art by McClure, August 20, 1944

Despite the setbacks, LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY reached much greater heights of glory when artist Darrell McClure took over the strip on October 6, 1930.  McClure, the person most associated with Annie, was one of the finest illustrators ever to grace the comics section of a newspaper, and he remained with the strip until its demise in 1966.

Original art by Darrell McClure, December 29, 1943

Entry for Annie, from a King Features Syndicate promotional book, 1948

McClure was born February 25, 1903, in Ukiah, Mendocino County, California.  His mother fostered his artistic ability.  In his early teens he studied nights at the California School of Fine Arts, and later a school for cartoonists.  "From the age of six I never once swerved from the ambition to be a newspaper strip artist," McClure said, in 1949.

If he didn't swerve in his resolve, he certainly had to plow through obstacles.  The sturdy, six-foot McClure started as a lumberjack at the age of 15, working in lumber camps all over the west.

Annie and Zero anticipating the Coppertone girl and her dog

For a time he was able to find work in small animation studios, which folded one after the other.  It didn't matter, since he admitted that animation didn't appeal to him in the least.

Then he found his true love: sailing.  For several years he worked aboard sail boats and steam ships, which took him all around the world.  One port he sailed to, in 1923, was New York City, where Jimmy Swinnerton, famous for his LITTLE BEARS comic strip and one of the originators of the medium, got him a job with King Features, as an apprentice cartoonist.

Darrell McClure

In 1935 Saalfield offered this Annie Rooney paper doll, part of its large 16" x 10" Comics Paper Doll Cut-Out Book, along with other King Features characters: Popeye, the Katzenjammer Kids, Blondie, Dumb Dora, Just Kids, and Polly and Her Pals.

Or, if you were lucky, your newspaper included this Annie Rooney cut-out doll on one of its pages in 1935

Little Annie Rooney Wishing Book (1932), for younger children; copyrighted by and credited to Walsh and McClure, but dubious

After a few years of assisting, McClure began drawing strips of his own, like HARD-HEARTED HICKEY, but most notably VANILLA AND THE VILLAINS, before being handed the reins of LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY.

McClure and writer Brandon Walsh not only continued the dailies, they introduced the Sundays as well -- something that had been missing from the strip -- beginning November 30, 1930.  The colour comics had a different storyline from the dailies.

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, October 3, 1942

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, June 16, 1946

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, July 4, 1948

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, August 15, 1948

John Brandon Walsh, born in 1882, had enjoyed a diverse career stretching back to the late 19th century.  He sold his first song, The Sinking of the Maine, for $10, wrote hundreds more, and was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.  He also wrote material for various vaudeville acts before moving on to comic strips.

Brandon Walsh, 1935

One of the last in the series of "Once Upon A Time" books, 1934.  Contains reprints from the newspaper strip by Walsh and McClure

Walsh and McClure never really deviated from the template set by Verdier, which was summed up by Coulton Waugh in his book THE COMICS (1947): "In practice this strip illustrates the validity of the Golden Rule.  Annie is continually cheerful.  Once in a great while circumstances crowd her to the rail, but they never last long with this stout-hearted child.  After a period of abject poverty, Annie usually joins some character who has too much money..."

Hounded by Mrs. Meany, and not wanting to be a burden on anyone, Annie never stayed in one place for long, a device that enabled her to embark on a fresh new adventure every few months and to meet new people.  This cycle lasted throughout the strip's 39 years of existence.

Original art by Darrell McClure, November 16, 1934

Original art by Darrell McClure, March 16, 1935

 Annie was a survivor.  When winter brought snowstorms, the resourceful little girl found a barn to sleep in, and an alley with a warm bakery wall.  She never begged or asked for charity (except on behalf of Zero), but was always willing to earn her keep through hard work.  And where child labour laws kept Annie from rolling up her sleeves and doing for herself, there was never a shortage of decent folks willing to give her a hot meal or shelter for the night.

Ad from the Lewiston Evening Journal, May 13, 1940

Annie Rooney was never much of a threat to Orphan Annie, who had a hugely successful radio program sponsored by Ovaltine.  There were also two Little Orphan Annie movies, in 1932 (starring Mitzi Green) and 1938 (starring Ann Gillis).  Unfortunately, there was never a Little Annie Rooney movie, though the Motion Picture Herald made this brief report in their March 23, 1935 issue: "LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY, published in comic strip form by Brandon Walsh, purchased by Fox as a possible vehicle for Shirley Temple."  It's hard to imagine Shirley trading in her famous blonde curls for a brunette bob.  She did star seven years later in MISS ANNIE ROONEY for United Artists, but that movie had nothing to do with the comic strip.

Still, Little Annie Rooney's popularity was growing, thanks to Walsh and McClure, and the merchandise and promotional items began to trickle in.

Boxed set of 3 colouring books, 1934

Box cover for Little Annie Rooney jigsaw puzzle set, 1933

Little Annie Rooney jigsaw puzzle by McClure, 1933

Little Annie Rooney jigsaw puzzle by McClure, 1933

Little Annie Rooney paint books, 1935; the second one has only 36 pages -- and less dogs on the cover

1945 ad for King Features statuettes
Annie statuette, 1945.  You'd think it would bear an uncanny resemblance to Annie as shown in the ad above; instead, it's an unbearable resemblanceWhat do you want for 25 cents?

Paas Pure Food Coloring set, 1936, came with this King Features transfer sheet for the children.

Paas King Features transfer decals, 1940.  Can you find Annie, boys and girls?

Dagwood Splits The Atom (1949), an educational book hosted by Mandrake the Magician, and starring Dagwood and family.

The book also featured minor appearances by other King Features characters, including Annie.

from Dagwood Splits The Atom

Sing With King At Christmas (1949).  This booklet contained words and music for well-known carols, accompanied by King Features characters.

Page from Sing With King (1949).  Considering some of the brats on this page, the night is sure to be neither silent nor holy.

From a King Features 15-card set, 1951.  The 5" x 6" Christmas cards came in a box, with envelopes.  Other comic strips included: Popeye, Blondie, Henry, Flash Gordon, the Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, Mandrake, Steve Canyon, Little Iodine, Prince Valiant, Myrtle (by Dudley Fisher), Grandma (by Charles Kuhn), Buz Sawyer, and Jungle Jim

Little Annie Rooney key chain locket, 1952.  Just under an inch in length.  You could collect all 12 King Features characters, only 10 cents each.

In 1936 Big Little Books published the first of only two LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY titles: LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY AND THE ORPHAN HOUSE and LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY ON THE HIGHWAY TO ADVENTURE, by Walsh and McClure.  She fared a little better in reprints, though not nearly as well as Orphan Annie when Cupples & Leon reprinted nine volumes worth of her dailies.  King Features and the McKay Company joined forces to produce KING COMICS, the first issue of which was dated April 1936.  LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY was part of the collection of strips that were cut and pasted into comic book format, and she appeared in numerous issues of KING COMICS during the 1930s and '40s, but only four issues of Annie's own title were ever published, one in 1938, and three in 1948.

Little Big Books, by the Saalfield Publishing Co., were rivals to Whitman's Big Little Books.  They beat Big Little Books to the punch with this item, from 1934

Little Annie Rooney And The Orphan House (1936), from Big Little Books (#1117 / GW150)

Orphan House, back cover

Little Annie Rooney On The Highway To Adventure (1938), from Big Little Books (#1406 / GW189)

Highway to Adventure (spine)

Feature Books #11, March 1938.  This Little Annie Rooney comic book contained black and white reprints from the newspaper strip

Little Annie Rooney #1, August 1948

Little Annie Rooney #2, September 1948

Little Annie Rooney #3, October 1948

A Treasury of Comics (1948).  It wasn't unusual for a comic book company to recoup some of its losses by removing the covers from remaindered copies and repackaging them.  St. John took it to a whole new level by binding 16 titles into a massive 500-page hard cover tome, which sold for a dollar.  Seen here on the cover with Annie and Zero are Little Audrey and her friend, Patches; Sarge (the boy in the blue cap), a minor feature in Little Audrey comics; Ella Cinders and her kid brother, Blackie; Mopsy; Abbott and Costello; and probably the Texan.

Family Funnies #1.  Annie, pictured at the bottom, appeared in all eight issues of this Harvey comic from September 1950 to April 1951.  Comprised of numerous King Features characters, no one had more than a page devoted to them in each issue.

In 1934 McClure, along with writer George Gerry, began a Sunday feature called DONNIE, leaving Annie's Sunday adventures to another artist, Nicholas Afonsky.  DONNIE didn't last long, but there was enough material that a collection of the strips, titled DONNIE AND THE PIRATES, was published a year later.

Little Annie Rooney, original watercolour art by Nicholas Afonsky, 1942.  From the Hearst birthday book

A talented illustrator, Nicholas Afonsky was born "abt 1892" (according to censuses taken in 1930 and 1940) in Russia, and moved to the U.S. in 1917.  He began working in comics as an assistant, followed by short stints on various obscure strips, such as FAMOUS LOVE ROMANCES, IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN and CONQUEST OF THE AIR.

Annie Sunday, original art by Nicholas Afonsky, September 8, 1935

But it is for the LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY Sundays that Afonsky is remembered, as well as a spin-off strip, MING FOO, also written by Brandon Walsh.  Ming Foo, a Chinese stereotype typical of the day, was introduced by Walsh and McClure in 1933, before being award his own title in 1934.  Afonsky drew MING FOO and LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY until his death June 16, 1943.

Beautiful winter scene by Afonsky, December 26, 1937

Annie Sunday by Afonsky, October 30, 1938

With Afonsky's demise, MING FOO was cancelled, and Darrell McClure resumed drawing Annie's Sunday strip.  He was the artist on both dailies and Sundays for the next 23 years.  In fact, when Brandon Walsh died January 13, 1955 following an abdominal operation, McClure became the writer, too, making him the sole creator of Annie's adventures until 1966, when the strip ended.  (In some papers, Walsh's byline on ANNIE continued for years.)

Prophetic words: Annie may have been around for 39 years, but she never saw her 16th birthday.  From a 1962 booklet celebrating 16 years of the American Association of Cartoonists

McClure wrote in a letter dated March 31, 1968: "Two years ago I asked to be released from my contract after the Sunday folded due to the folding of so many papers.  I started 'Annie' in 1930 or 31 and I'd had deadline living long enough.  When I quit the syndicate decided to drop the strip."  Annie's final Sunday appearance was on May 23, 1965, followed a year later by her last daily, Saturday April 16, 1966.  It ended with the promise of Annie finally being adopted by some loving couple.

Being a sailor, McClure had taken every occasion to include boats in LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY: rowboats, sailboats, barges, etc. -- all expertly and accurately delineated.  He was also a regular contributor since 1924 to YACHTING, a popular sailing magazine, illustrating articles and stories.  He described himself as a "rabid yachtsman", and he often sailed or lived on the yacht he owned.  McClure continued to draw and paint until his death in 1987.  He'd never lost his love for Annie, either, and occasionally made sketches of her during the last 20 years of his life.

Annie Sunday by Darrell McClure, March 20, 1949

Original art by McClure; from the University of Missouri's Showme magazine, 1942

There was probably no character in comics who was kinder or more congenial or more selfless than Annie Rooney.  She would stroll for days along a dirt road with nothing but the clothes on her back and Zero by her side, emboldened by eternal optimism.  Her good nature won the hearts of many whose lives she wandered into.  "You gotta admit," she once opined, "that this is a swell world an' that there is a lotta swell people still livin' in it."

She had little formal education and suffered many misfortunes, but Annie always had pearls of wisdom: "You gotta hand it to that flower -- it's been stepped on an' kicked into the gutter -- but it don't care -- it goes on smelling sweet..."

(Read more about Annie here)