Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

Westport’s heritage as an artists’ colony is no laughing matter.

Except when it is.

In addition to attracting some of the most famous portrait artists and commercial illustrators in the country, Westport was a haven for cartoonists.

“Popeye,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Superman” — they and many of America’s most famous comic strips and books were drawn right here.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the “Superman” comics for many years. This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

The mid-20th century was America’s  golden age of cartooning. Now it’s memorialized in a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art” — the current exhibition — features more than 100 original works, including strips, newspaper panels, comic books and animation.

There’s an early editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast, a New Yorker gag by Peter Arno, and classic “Peanuts” and “Doonesbury” drawings. Special programs include a panel tribute to “The Golden Age of Cartooning in Connecticut” (Thursday, March 7).

Wherever you turn in the Bruce Museum show, it’s hard to escape Westport.

Curator Brian Walker — former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and son of Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) — grew up in Greenwich. But he knows Westport well.

His father was part of a large group of cartoonist friends. Many lived here. This is where their professional meetings (and parties) took place.

Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Curt Swan (“Superman”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Mel Casson (“Boomer”), Leonard Starr (“Little Orphan Annie”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), Bill Yates (King Features comic strip editor) are just a few of the important Westport cartoon names.

They came here, Brian Walker says, for several reasons.

Westport was close enough to New York City to go in when they had to. But Connecticut had no state income tax.

Cartoonists work alone, in their studios. But they liked having like-minded professionals nearby.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Max’s Art Supplies on the Post Road welcomed cartoonists. They’d buy pens, pencils and paper — and hang around to talk.

The coffee shop and Mario’s — both directly across from the railroad station — drew them in too. They’d work right up to deadline, head to Saugatuck, hand their work to a courier to be delivered to a New York editor, then sit around and tell stories.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society — the largest chapter in the country — met for years at Cobb’s Mill Inn and the Red Barn.

In the heyday of Westport’s cartoon era, they had a bowling league. An annual golf tournament too.

Over the years, the world of cartooning changed. Today, it’s all about “animation.”

That’s no joke. But for several decades — not that long ago — Westport was where much of America’s laughter began.

(Click here for more information on the Bruce Museum exhibit, “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art.” Click here for more information on Brian Walker’s March 7 panel discussion. 

19 responses to “Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

  1. Charles Taylor

    I think I went to Staples with a Marty Sagendorf his son. Also Eric Gurney’s cartoons were famous! Lance , his son and I were Downshifters. In fact he sponsored me for membership in 1958.

  2. Joyce Bottone

    Very nice read. Thanks!

  3. Richard Fogel

    eat your spinach

  4. Dennis Stahursky

    Harold Gray, “Little Orphan Annie” was on my paper route in Greens Farms.

  5. Rhona Lieberson

    And does anyone know where Russ Heath is…and whether he is Alive???? His works were fantastic….mostly for Marvel Comics. >

  6. Joelle Harris Malec

    My Dad, Joe Harris was the cartoonist who co-created Underdog and many other children’s cartoons that were the earliest children’s programming for TV. He was also the creative director at J Walter Thompson. We moved to the area in 1961 because it was a welcoming artists community. We lived in Weston and my Dad had a studio in our home where he drew his storyboards for Underdog on the days he worked from home. Every Saturday we parked at the Mobil station downtown and went to Max’s, Klein’s and the Remarkable Bookshop. On the days that my Dad commuted into the city my mom would pick him up at the train and we’d all go to Mario’s for dinner. My dad was also a painter and his favorite subjects were the beaches and farms of Westport and the surrounding towns. My home in Westport is filled with his paintings and cartoons he drew for my children (his grandsons) each year for their birthdays. My heart is filled with the wonderful memories of growing up in Westport as the child of an artist in a community that embraced artists. A lot has changed since those days, but Westport is still my community and my home!

  7. Did I miss Leonard Starr, creator of “On Stage” that ran for nineteen years?
    Then Leonard revived “Orphan Annie.” I recall that the syndicated artists (never comic strippers) used to at lunch at the long-gone Pickle Barrel, home since to at least five eateries.

  8. What a heritage this town has!

  9. Around 1959, Curt Swan, at the bowling lanes, drew me a picture of Superman, and autographed for me. I remember him telling me not to tell anyone because he doesn’t draw Superman anymore, or he’s not supposed to draw Superman anymore. This was about 60 or 61 years ago. I got the sense he was doing me a favor because he knew me from the lanes, but somehow he could get in trouble for what he did. Unfortunately I can’t find the autographed drawing which was a prized possession of mine as a youngster.

  10. Wonderful! Thank you for telling us about this.

  11. Dan- You forgot WESTPORTER Bill Brooks who did the JACKSON TWINS . His daughterVirginia was in one of my science classes at Bedford and used my name in one of his strips. I’ll send you a copy.

  12. Not all the Westport cartoonists mentioned actually created the comic strips mentioned. Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel, writer, and Joe Shuster, artist, who were conned out of their rights to the strip. Their story is told in a New Yorker article called “Kryptonomics” in the issue of June 24, 2013 which can be Googled.

  13. Hugh McCann Jr

    Chris Swan and I were classmates and on the soccer team. His father was the Superman artist.

    ______________________________________ Hugh F McCann Jr (c) 203-545-8857 hughmccannjr@gmail.com

    >

  14. Another one. Leonard Starr did not originate “Little Orphan Annie”. It was created by a Westport artist tho, Harold Gray, who lived in the first mansion on Beachside Avenue which was torn down years ago and the property divided up. The comic strip dates from 1924 and the name Little Orphan Annie is from a poem by James Whitcomb Riley in 1885.

  15. My father, Jud Hurd, was one of these cartoonists. For many years, he did a panel cartoon called Health Capsules, but the thing he was most proud of was that for almost 40 years, he founded and single-handedly published a quarterly magazine called Cartoonist PROfiles, which was all about the (mostly newspaper) cartooning world. The names mentioned in the comments above bring back lots of memories … I met so many interesting people through my dad. I have fond memories of browsing around Max’s while Dad bought supplies or talked shop.

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