Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A lazy afternoon in Columbia, IL

Before I declare Upside-Down Library Guy's behavior too unorthodox, I should confess that I subsequently found myself in the ladies' room of two small-town libraries within the next hour. The all-female staffs of the libraries in both Dupo and Columbia are apparently pretty lax about refilling the soap in the men's room, and when you gotta wash, you gotta wash.
You can't spend a 73-degree November day indoors, though, so I took a nice walk up and down Main Street in relentlessly-pleasant Columbia, IL. I stopped for a burger and a Boulevard at Tiny's Pub & Grill (above), a sprawling establishment that contains a small, traditional tavern in front, a newer, brighter bar and pool room in the back with a vaulted ceiling and a south-of-the-border flair, and a spacious patio. I peered into the windows of Greenfield's (above), a charmingly old-school restaurant and lounge that was until recently run by the family of a friend of mine, and now stands empty. The actual bar within is supposedly Columbia's oldest (the building dates back about 150 years), cut from a single piece of solid walnut. I located Columbia's most distinctive piece of mid-century architecture (below...and please correct me, Columbians, if I'm wrong). Then, to rest and get in out of the Thanksgiving-week heat, I popped back into the library.

The back issues of the local paper are bound rather than microfilmed here, which is a lot easier on the eyes. I plowed through all of 1950 looking for any news of business openings or closings, and didn't find much: Just a dry-cleaner changing hands, a church expansion, and the remodeling of a restaurant (Wayne's) and the local Turner's Hall. The Columbia Star--in 1950, at least--has to be the most boring small-town newspaper ever. There aren't many photos, and the front page is regularly populated by wedding announcements and small children's birthday parties. The local movie house didn't even advertise, sparing the Star even a mild burst of Hollywood hype. The high spot was definitely the comics page.

Like a lot of small-town papers, the Star settled for second-string strips. (Today's analogues would be Fred Basset, The Born Loser, and Frank & Ernest.) I look at old papers a lot, and the only two strips I recognized were Virgil--a fairly creative, Skippy-style "kid strip"--and Mutt and Jeff. Mutt and Jeff was still pretty good in 1950, with smart, unorthodox pacing and a regular flow of absurd Jeff-isms. But what I'd like to call your attention to is a trio of strips I'd never seen before.

Silent Sam, as it turns out, is pretty well-documented online; it's an American adaptation of a Swedish strip called Anderson's Adventures, and Jeff Hayes was just one of several artists to draw the strip over the years (he ran things from 1941 to 1953). Sam usually wore a large hat, but in this beach-based strip, he resembles Bruce Willis acting out a Henry gag.
Perhaps the most distinctive strip in the Star during this period--due to its dogged single-mindedness and fitfully awful art--was The Old Gaffer, by Clay Hunter (now making its first Google appearance, thanks to yours truly). I have no idea how long the strip had been around by 1950, but for the first few months of the year, EVERY SINGLE STRIP WAS ABOUT THE DUDE'S BEARD. (Granted, the Star was not a daily paper, so there may have been more Old Gaffers than I was privy to, but it's appalling enough that the good people of Columbia, IL, at the very least, were treated to such an unyielding onslaught of hoary whisker humor.) By summertime, Hunter was mixing in the occasional joke about Gaff's advanced age. (He was in the Revolutionary War! Ho ho!!) These were no better; in fact they were a little disappointing. By this time, I was actually getting curious about what would appear in the little fella's Santa-esque appendage in the next Star: it had by now hosted birds, alphabet soup, and even a booby trap that thwarted a would-be mugger. It had allowed the Gaffer to smart-off to pushy salesmen trying to sell him belts and ties. It had warmed his ancient ass at a football game. Switching the focus away from the beard at this point was tantamount to Lucy letting Charlie Brown kick the football, or Jon Arbuckle scoring with a girl. (Oh, wait, that happened.)

The Old Gaffer you see here is a bit atypical, in that the "extra" is atypically non-hideous. Generally, any one-shot character drawn by Hunter was frighteningly ugly and amateurishly-drawn. Mr. Google Glasses here is unusually pleasant.

The only reason you're seeing Sunnyside above as well: I was struck by the simultaneous and identical headfirst ejections of two characters straight out of the panel (and presumably clear off the comics page) by the punchlines in two adjacent strips. Since I did include Sunnyside, though, I might as well share a little trivia: The noticeably well-drawn strip ran from 1949 to 1951 and was produced by Clark S. Haas, who nearly a decade later would be partially responsible for the groundbreakingly weird TV cartoon Clutch Cargo, and eventually worked on mediocre Hanna-Barbera fare such as Speed Buggy. Sure, you remember Speed Buggy. It was the Saturday Morning show that answered the unasked question: "What if Scooby-Doo was a car?"


Anonymous said...

I wonder how common flop takes were/are. The Chilean strip Condorito is famous for having the majority of the strips end with a character falling over.

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It could be perfect because imagine being there in the ladies' room and getting so wild, it would be perfect imagine the thousand of things I could do.

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Anonymous said...

The Library of Congress has two examples of Hunter's original art for The old gaffer in the Art Wood Collection. It was published by the Western Newspaper Union, which suspended service in 1952. In looking at the NewspaperArchive database, the strip seems to have run from 1949 to 1951.

Sara W. Duke
Curator, Popular & Applied Graphic Art
Prints & Photographs Division
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540-4730