The First Four
June 19-22, 1923
Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1943
By Marcia Winn
Along about midnight two nights a week a man out here who looks a lot like Moon Mullins, that beloved banjo-eyed roughneck of the comic strips, begins to frown and procrastinate. He assumes the harassed expression of a man who knows he should have something on his mind, but what? He tries to postpone all thought and hurries out to a drug store railed by a wire-haired terrier named Kayo, a pugnacious little beast that will attack an 81 pound Doberman and scamper gayly away. Here he buys an assortment of oddments—shaving cream, a razor blade or two, soap, a pile of cigars, any odd gadget he can find.
At last, beleaguered by his conscience, he comes home, saunters into a room fitted out as his studio, and changes his clothes. No matter how warm the night, he puts on long woolen underwear and a sweat shirt. Over the sweat shirt he puts on a wool shirt, over the wool shirt a leather jacket. On his head he puts a battered navy blue baseball cap. Then he lights a fresh cigar.
There still are many things he can do to forestall work. He can persuade an electric pencil sharpener to devour a few pencils. He can open the window and place a screen before it. He can adjust and readjust a fluorescent light over his desk. He can drink a cup of black coffee from the 10 cup pot prepared and waiting for him. He can dive into the near-by jar of peanut butter, the bowl of prunes, the plate of sandwiches. He can polish and repolish his tortoise-rimmed glasses. He can chew his cigar. Then he starts all over and does the same things.
Finally, Frank Willard, the creator of Moon Mullins, settles down to continue on paper the hilarious life and adventures of his roughneck hero, Moon, and his all-star low comedy cast. Once he settles down, he never stops work until he has completed six daily strips or a full Sunday comic page complete with Kitty Higgins, q redheaded little imp. That may require from 24 to 72 hours (36 is the average), bit it is not interrupted. A day or two days or even three days later Frank Willard stops and goes to bed. Fifteen hours later he gets up and goes out to play golf.
To the noncreative mind these antics may seem strange and remote. Mr. Willard’s wife, who has to make the sandwiches and combat the cigar smoke with pine spray, considers them extremely eccentric. He says everything he does is based on pure logic.
“I can’t think unless I am hot,” he says, “so I put on long underwear and a sweat shirt and a wool shirt. Al ong about dawn it gets cold, and I can’t work without fresh air, so I need the leather jacket. If I were to run my fingers thru my hair—and who doesn’t if he has any hair?— I would get grease on my fingers and on the paper, so I wear a baseball cap. If I were to stop after one strip I’d lose continuity, so I don’t stop. I get hungry when I work, so I eat. I drink the coffee to keep awake. So there it is . . . all reasonable, too.”
Twice Mr. Willard tried to put creation on a businesslike basis. The first time he was ver firm about it; firm and thoro. It took weeks to find an office with the proper lighting and additional weeks to furnish it properly and completely. He then settled down at 9 o’clock one morning, fully and uncomfortably attired. At 9:15 he went home.
Years later he tried again. This time he rented an office, planked down $100 and bought a magnificent swivel chair which would swivel every way except upside down. When the chair was delivered he went down and sat in it, skidding it around the room to decide where to put the desk.
“And then,” he says, “I forgot all about the darn thing. I’m telling you the truth. I remembered it a month later.”
He never tried again.
Moon Mullins was 20 years old on June 23, and Willard was 50 in September. If Moon ever did anything according to Emily Post or the calendar of convention he would be 46 now, for he was 26 when he started out, but he is an ageless tough who retains his youth by reading the Police Gazette. So is Willard. There isn’t a line on the face of either. This common asset may be traced to the slap-happy, boisterous outlook of both.
Willard flatly denies that Moon looks like him, but Mrs. Willard flatly contradicts Willard. Willard is more handsome (to give him due credit) and wears neither checked pants nor a Derby, altho he would like to, but both have the same piquant, impudent face, straight black hair, and round eyes. Willard’s eyes are shielded by horn-rimed glasses, and Moon’s are encircled by a rim which gives the same effect. Both always wear a cigar between their teeth. Moon has worn his for 20 years. Willard has worn his 36, ever since he was 14.
Countless millions of persons of all color, races, and tongues know Moon intimately (28,089,834 subscribe to papers carrying his adventures). At one time he was the only comic character in France, speaking French gutter patois as fluently as he speaks American slang. Before the war his antics were followed in England, Denmark, Italy, China, Africa, South America, and Mexico (where he is known as Juan Sin Miedo), but war has interrupted his appearance in all foreign countries except those of South and Central America. Millions know Moon and laugh themselves sick over him (a Chicago man once fractured a rib laughing at Emmy Schmaltz and threatened to sue for $1,000), but hardly a handful of the world over know Willard, and every once in a while some one wonders if there is a Willard. Not long ago a propertied man of Johannesburg, South Africa, wrote Willard saying he had kept a scrapbook of every Moon Mullins cartoon since Moon’s birth. “The war has stopped it here,” he continued, “so I am subscribing to an American paper to get him. But what I wonder is what are you like? Will you please send me a large picture?” In a beautiful reciprocal gesture he enclosed his own.
Willard was born in Anna, Ill., and at least one of his forebears had artistic proclivities. This was Archibald M. Willard of Cleveland, O., who painted the well known “Spirit of ’76,” originally exhibited at the Philadelphia centennial in 1876. The central figure, the elderly drummer, was the artist’s father, the Rev. Samuel Willard, son of a Revolutionary war captain. This documentary touch is included here only because no one would ever get a glimmer of it from Willard’s own account of his life, which begins with an offhand:
- I had been fired out of a couple of schools and couldn’y go any further.
“One of which your grandfather endowed,” his wife interjects.
“Yes. Silly old ma. I could use that dough. Union Academy of Southern Illinois kicked me out for greasing the car tracks.
“So I went to the state institution for the feeble minded where they were building a building and got myself a job as timekeeper. Somebody in a white coat was always getting me mixed up with the boarders and trying to lock me up when I stayed around the grounds, so I quit.
“Then, as I was always fond of hot dogs, pop, and hamburgers, I interested a chum whose old man had some dough in the business of following fairs. I tried to get rich by betting on the horses. I split my winnings with my chum, and he was to split the hamburger profits with me, but suddenly the last day of the fair he became interested in trains and went to California with the receipts, leaving me with a bunch of tough butchers and soda dealers with bills and a guy wity a badge. However, I did meet a lot of interesting people in that business. Some very able tattoo artists, pick-pockets, ballyhoo men, and shills.
“So I went to Chicago where my old man was practicing dentistry. He wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, but I couldn’t because I had been fired out of so many schools. He didn’t want me to be a cartoonist because they were all drunken bums, but I became one anyhow.
“So I went to the Boston store and became a claim tracer. If a woman ordered underwear and got a lace curtain you’s have to straighten it out or try and make the lace curtain fit her. Then I went to the academy (Chicago Academy of Fine Arts) three nights a week for about three months. I was suspended part of that time because I couldn’t get credit for 35 cents’ worth of art supplies.
“Then the war came along, and McCutcheon was in Mexico, and Frank King, who used to pinch-hit for him, was on vacation, so I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, here’s the war starting and The Tribune with no cartoon for the front page, so I went home and drew a cartoon called ‘Touring Europe.’
“It was a picture of the god of war as chauffeur with death and devastation as passengers and vultures in the air. A grewsome thing. I sold it to Mr. Beck (the late E. S. Beck, then the managing editor of The Tribune), and they ran it four columns wide. That was Aug. 1, 1914. I’ll never forget it/ I went right over and resigned my job a the Boston store because I made $15 from the cartoon and was working 11 hours a day at the Boston store for 11 bucks a week. I made it in two hours.
“Quit my job and spent the whole day walking around Chicago looking at Tribunes on the newsstands with my cartoon on the front page. Thought everybody in Chicago was doing the same thing. Wore out a $3.50 pair of shoes.
“Then I was so darned dumb I went to The Tribune at 8 o’clock the next morning. That was the time I went to work at the Boston store, so I thought Mr. Beck went to work then, too. But he didn’t come down until 5. I thought that was fine. I didn’t rwalize he had to work at night, too. I thought it was just from 5 to 6.
“So the next day Mrs. Woodrow Wilson obliged me by dying, and I drew a picture of Uncle Sam hanging a wreath on the White House door. The people there (at The Tribune) thought I was a child prodigy—I was 21—but in the meantime King came back from his vacation and there wasn’t much for me to do, so they had me doing sport cartoons.”
Not too long after that he had an offer from the old Chicago Herald and accepted it. The managing editor there, Willard says, said to him baldly”
- You haven’t enough brains to be a political cartoonist. Anyway, there isn’t any dough in it. The money is going to be in strips and comics, and maybe you’s like it better.
That, Willard says, is how he started. He remained with the Herald until 1919 when he went into the army. He served overseas and became a sergeant “but was always getting cut back to corporal for one thing and another” and emerged a sergeant on July 4, 1919.
“I was a very lousy soldier,” he now says. “I couldn’t get all that discipline stuff in my head. When I came back to Chicago, the Hearst outfit had bought the Herald. They put me to drawing the Out of Luck Club, which was rightly named, and Penny Ante, and Let the Wedding Bells Ring Out. I did them all in New York, with King Features, and I scrapped with them all. Anyway, I had forgotten everything I knew about drawing while I was in France and forgotten how to think, if I ever did know.”
It was at this time that Capt. J. M. Patterson started the New York News, and Willard went to see him:
- He wanted a roughneck cartoon. They were all nasty nice home organ sort of things, you know. So Patterson seemed to think I could do it. I made a bunch of sketches and in picking out a name, he said, ‘We want a name that’s catchy. Now, every one’s talking about whisky, moonshine’—that was during prohibition—’ Call him Moonshine, Moon for short.’ Then he said ‘Hand me that classified directory. What’s a good tough profession? I got it . . . plumbers!’
The first name he saw in the directory under plumbers was Mullins. ‘I got it’ he said. ‘Moon Mullins.’ That’s how he got the name.
So on June 19, 1923 Moon Mullins, a tough customer in a derby and checked pants with a stump of a cigar cocked in his mouth appeared. He was really tough, so much so, Willard now says, that in retrospect he was repulsive. He was cocky, impudent, slaphappy, and knew all the ins and outs of the lower levels. He violated every social amenity—and the public lapped him up. The Dempsey-Gibbons fight was greatly in the public eye at this time, and Willard and Moon horned in on it. In Willard’s words:
- The fight was at Shelby, Mont., so I had Moon in a box car bumming his way to the fight. In the box car he met Mushmouth (an enormous, dark amorphous character with a mouth like a manhole). Maybe you know that they were having a terrible time getting sparring partners for that fight, so Moon put Mushmouth in a box, addressed the box to Dempsey, and shipped him to the training camp. Then he hires Mushmouth out as a sparring partner for Dempsey. That was the start of it.
The next character he introduced was Emmy Schmaltz, a romantic spinster and harridan with a chin, a nose, and the tongue of a harpy. Emmy, who now is known as Lady Plushbottom, ran a boarding house. Then came Moon’s kid brother, Kayo, a rascally little whippersnapper of 6, who at times exceeded Moon in toughness. Then came Little Egyot, a siren (described by Willard as a “hootchy kootchy dancer”) whose charms snared the rough and tumble Moon. Then in came pompous, walrus mustached Lord Plushbottom, a gentleman on permanent leave a absence from the peerage.
“Plushbottom got stuck on Egypt, and Egypt was stuck on Moon, and old lady Schmaltz made up her mind she was going to get Plushbottom,” Willard sums it up. “Plushbottom wanted to get married, but he wanted to marry Egypt, who by that time was performing at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, a fan dancer. So Moon fixed everything up so Plushbottom could get married without having it cost him a cent. He threw a public wedding and charged every one $1 to come. Only it was Emmy, of course, who became Lady Plushbottom.”
On one of her innumerable, unplanned residences in jail Lady Plushbottom met up with a buxom Irish crone called Mamie, an irrepressible old bag. They became so chummy that when Emmy went home, Mamie came to call. This was embarrassing, but the Plushbottom menage was short on kitchen help at the time, so Mamie stayed as cook, to the eternal mortification of Emmy. Mamie had remained, a dauntless, infamous member of the Moon Mullins cast, as has a bewhiskered bum known as Willie who came to the back door for a handout, discovered the Mamie he had not seen for 20 years, and remained.
Altogether it is a wild, incorrigible, harum-scarum group of corruptibles gathered together morning after morning, seven days a week, Every one asks Willard whom he models these unattractive creatures on, and he says blithely:
- On every one. I’ve known people like all of them. A kind of fresh guy like Moon, a stiff old faker like Plushbottom, a gabby old maid like Emmy.
None of them grows any older. Moon is still 26. His clothes have changed a trifle thru the years, altho he still wears the same Derby and checked pants, and his grammar has improved, no doubt from his association with a renegade fro the peerage, and both he and Mamie are in war work. (An indignant lady wrote to demand why a healthy man like Moon wasn’t in the army.) But other than this, nothing. Emmy still is 52, but still claims 42. Lord Plushbottom is 57, Uncle Willie 49, and Kayo 6.
The happenings in the outer world rarely affect these products of the pen and pencil and paint brush of a man in long underwear and a baseball cap. Long ago Willard stopped trying to keep up with the news. It got too complicated.
Many persons wonder if Willard draws his own pictures and writes his own lines. He does. And it is a hard job.
“Humor,” he says wearily, “is the toughest racket of all. You try to pack into the balloons and get action, too, and that’s a tough job.”
It isn’t every humorist, however, who can get New Year’s greetings in verse penned for him alone such as one Willard received from a rhymester in Manitoba who started out in Homeric vein with:
- Long may thy wit convulse this earth
And mellow our dancing days.
And concluded with a touch of Eddie Guest:
- God blundered on the luckless day
That he forgot to make you twins.
Willard’s prize fan letter in recent months, when every one writes to say that what the world needs is more humor, says in part, “I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard as I did at Mamie training to be a chorus girl. Am sending it to my husband in war zone. More power to you. We need laughs. I’ve two little boys that just love laughter.
Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, July 4, 1954
This character Moon Mullins,” said his creator, Frank Henry Willard, “is a tinhorn gambler and a pool hall habitue. He started out as a roughneck and he always will be one. But he has a lot of fun.”
Willard, who has just passed his 60th birthday, has a lot of fun, too. He is a chunky, amiable fellow, with a twinkle ever framed in his spectacles. He is as outspoken as Moon and drifts easily into Moon’s slang. He is like the brash Mullins in the delight of puncturing a stuffed shirt and the wearer thereof
He’s a distinguished citizen in his own home town, however. Anna, Ill., is celebrating its centennial this summer, and tomorrow has been designated “Moon Mullins day.” The cartoonist will be guest of honor at an afternoon parade and a night program complete with fireworks and 60-piece band and. color guard from the air force base at Scott field.
Willard enjoys belly laughs. And he has given at least one a day of those booming yak-yaks to newspaper readers for more than 30 years since June 23, 1923, when his fabulously successful comic strip made its bow in The Chicago Tribune and the New York News and introduced the banjo-eyed, derby-hatted, cigar-smoking Moon and his family and cohorts.
There is one big difference between Willard and his creation, Moon. Moon’s only income is what he can cadge and con. Willard’s earnings for drawing Moon and company are now annually high in five figures and not too far from six. The strip appears daily and Sunday in The Tribune, the New York News, and other newspapers in this country and thruout the world.
Willard and his wife, Marie, live in a roomy, tastefully furnished mansion in Los Angeles. There, in a functional study on the second floor, Willard and his assistant, Ferd Johnson, lock themselves up four days a week and conceive and spin out the strips of Moon’s zany adventures.
Willard talked of hjs life and career in words that often might have come right out of the ballooned dialog in his comic strip. He was born Sept 21, 1893, in Anna, 21 miles north of Cairo, in the “Little Egypt” country. He enrolled at the Union academy in Anna, but his connection with the academy was “severed,” as they say politely in those circles, when he toted a keg of beer into the hallowed halls to help celebrate a football victory.
“I went to work for the Boston Store in Chicago at $11 a week, as a claim tracer,” Willard related. “It was rough work. Nights I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. I got suspended when I caused an uproar because the academy wouldn’t give me 35 cents credit for drawing materials.
On Aug. 4, 1914, the day the first World war broke put in Europe, I drew a cartoon showing the God of War touring the battlefields. I took it to the old Chicago Tribune building at Madison and Dearborn. I was so dumb that I thought morning papers started publishing in the morning. I got there at 8 a. m. and nobody was around.
“I went back later and saw Ted Beck (the late Edward S. Beck, managing editor of The Tribune). He gave me $15 for the cartoon. I hurried back to the Boston Store and quit my job. The next day President Wilson’s wife died. I drew a cartoon of Uncle Sam hanging a wreath on the White House. Mr. Beck gave me $10 for that one.
“Later I went over to see James Keeley at the Chicago Herald, hoping for a steady job. I took a look at a picture on his desk and said: Say, that’s a helluva swell looking dishf’ Keeley, who could be pretty stuffy, roared at me: ‘Young man, that’s my daughter.’
“But Keeley gave Willard a job at $20 a. week. The young cartoonist turned out “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and “City Life” comic panels and was earning $87.50 a week when he left to join the army in 1917. He was overseas with the 311th engineers of the 86th (Blackhawk) division until July, 1919.
I was a lousy soldier,” Willard recalled. “I went in as a corporal and came out as a corporal. But I regarded that as a promotion, because I was busted once to private. I was drinking cognac to kill a barn smell in some hunk of France, and I had a slight argument with my sergeant He wouldn’t give me a pass to go out that night I called him a garbage wagon driver, which he was in civilian life, and let him have some of the cognac in his face. So he broke me. It was good cognac, too.”
Returned home, Willard had to lock himself up for months and concentrate to regain his drawing skill. He worked, then, for King Features in New York, producing the ” Out of Luck Club ” and ” Penny Ante ” cartoons until he got his big break from the late Capt Joseph . Patterson, publisher of the New York News.
“The captain called me in this day in 1923,” Willard said, “and told me he wanted me to draw a roughneck comic strip. He suggested the first name Moon, because in those prohibition days everyone was drinking or talking about moonshine liquor.
“‘Now we need a good, tough second name,’ Captain Patterson said. He picked up the Bronx classified directory and thumbed thru it ‘Plumbing, plumbing,’ the captain said, that’s a good, tough profession.’ He spied the name Mullins among the plumbers, and that was it
“He told me just what Moon was to be the banjo eyes, the derby, the cigar. He suggested the kid brother, Kayo, as a little replica of Moon.
“The Jack Dempsey-Tom Gibbons fight was coming up at Selby, Mont., and Captain Patterson said we could kick off the strip with a sequence having Moon manage a Negro fighter as a sparring mate for Dempsey. There had been a Negro, political leader in Chicago with the nickname of ‘Mushmouth,’ so Mushmouth was our boy for Moon to handle.”
Emmy Schmaltz, the much-married boarding house keeper, was Willard’s later inspiration. Captain Patterson remembered the “Little Egypt” who had danced at the 1893 fair in Chicago, so that was the name for the dark-haired ” hoochie-coochie ” dancer, who was once the object of Moon’s affections.
The name Plushbottom was first offered by the late Lloyd Lewis, Chicago newspaper man. “I thought that name was perfect,” Willard said, “and I mentioned it to Captain Patterson. He said: ‘Fine. Let’s make him an English lord.’ So up we go to look into Burke’s Peerage and be sure there’s really no English nabob named Lord Plushbottom. There wasn’t.”
Willard burst into laughter as he recalled how Emmy hooked Lord Plushbottom for her sixth or seventh husband Willard isn’t sure which.
“Moon had this cluck Plushbottom thinking he was going to get Little Egypt for a wife,” the cartoonist reminisced. “But Moon got his lordship well liquored up and peddled off Emmy to him.
“Then Emmy needed a cook, so along came Mamie. And that brought in Willie Mullins, another of those guys who has never done a lick of honest work.”
The Mullins comic strip differs from a number of others in that each day’s Moon episode is complete in itself. Where does Willard get his ideas?
“I just keep an eye open,” Willard said. Frank Willard ” I watch people. I watch events. I keep turning over in my mind what I think will be funny. Rarely, very rarely, I get an idea from a letter sent in by a follower of the strip.
“It’s just a matter of not running dry on ideas. I personally get a laugh out of lots of things in life, and I labor to get those laughs on the drawing board.
“Ferd Johnson and I work Tuesday right thru Friday each week, maybe 12 or 15 hours each of those days. I do the original drawings and the dialog and Ferd does the inking. We have to keep four or five weeks ahead on our daily strip and 10 weeks ahead on the Sunday strip.”
Willard has long been in demand as a guest of honor and after-dinner speaker. One of his choicest recollections is of the time he spoke at a dinner attended by the educators of a midwestern university.
“I arrived at the affair considerably the worse for wear,” Willard’ chuckled. “I found myself seated at the guest table next to the dean of men.
“I told some stories and everybody was having a good time except this pompous dean character, a stuffed shirt from way back. Finally I put one of my big hands on his bald head, and with my other-hand I pointed at him, in front of all that assemblage, and said: ‘The trouble with you, guy, is that you never went out and had yourself a good time. Dean, you need yourself some wine and women.’
“The dean got up, in a big huff, and walked out Some time later I was invited to speak again at his university. I was told that the dean had refused to come to the dinner because I was going to be there. “Too bad. I’d have liked to put my hand on his head again. He had a bald dome just like Plushbottom.”
Moon Mullins: With his big eyes, plaid pants, perpetual cigar and yellow derby hat, Moon is an amiable roughneck. He haunts saloons, racetracks and pool halls, mangles the English language with Jazz Age slang, and gets into endless scrapes looking for an easy buck or a hot dame. Moon himself is a low-rent but likeable sort of riff-raff, involved in get-rich schemes and bootleg whiskey, crap games and staying out all night with disreputable friends. None of the roughhousing was fatal or even particularly threatening, however. Indeed, the gentleness of the situational humor behind all the characters’ rough edges kept the strip on an even keel. The name “Moonshine” referenced Mullins as a drinker and gambler during Prohibition.
Kayo: Moon’s street urchin kid brother, who sleeps in an open dresser drawer. Kayo is usually clad in suspenders, polka dot pants and a black derby. Pint-sized Kayo (a play on “K.O.,” sportswriters’ shorthand for a knockout punch) is wise beyond his years and even a bit of a cynic. His plain-speaking, matter-of-fact bluntness is a frequent source of comedy.
Emmy (Schmaltz) Plushbottom: The nosy, lanky, spinsterish landlady who likes to put on airs. She finally married on October 6, 1933 and became Lady Plushbottom. She says “My stars” and “For pity sakes” a lot, but her trademark line—always delivered after a (frequent) putdown—is “I’ll smack your sassy face!”
(Uncle) Willie: Introduced in 1927, Moon’s long lost, no-account uncle wears a checkered suit and is perpetually unshaven. Willie, who would disappear for months at a time, prefers the hobo life—despite being married and half-domesticated. His only occupation seems to be the avoidance of physical labor and confrontations with his formidable wife, Mamie.
(Aunt) Mamie: Miss Schmaltz’s burly, no-nonsense washwoman and cook. Her rolled-up sleeves reveal a conspicuous star tattoo. She’s the only featured character of the working class cast who actually works. Mamie is usually tolerant of her errant husband, but she can be dangerous when riled—much to Willie’s dismay.
Lord Plushbottom (Plushie): Willard introduced him because Patterson thought tossing a well-bred Englishman into that shabby crowd had great comic possibilities.Plushbottom initially appeared as a man of wealth, whom Emmy pursued for 10 years before their marriage. Afterward he moved in, in apparently reduced circumstances, but never discarded his evening clothes, spats and top hat for everyday wear.
Egypt: Emmy’s beautiful flapper niece with the bobbed Louise Brooks coiffure, and Moon’s sometime girlfriend.
Mushmouth: Moon’s pal and much-maligned step-and-fetch-it.
Kitty Higgins: the star of Willard’s “topper” strip about a precocious little girl and her maid, Pauline. Kitty eventually joined the Moon Mullins cast as Kayo’s girlfriend.
After Ferd Johnson took over, other characters were added to the cast, including:
Professor Byrrd: An erudite, tweed-suited academic
Myna Byrrd: the Professor’s lovely brunette daughter
Miss Swivel: A sexy blonde stenographer, frequently pursued by Moon
Mr. Doodle: An eccentric, temperamental artist
Joke: A cab driver
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1991
After 68 Years, ‘Moon Mullins’ Will Shine for Last Time This Sunday
By Dennis McLellan
NEWPORT BEACH—Veteran cartoonist Ferd Johnson always planned on retiring. Someday.
At 85, he figured he still had a few good years left to draw “Moon Mullins,” the classic cartoon strip featuring the colorful residents of Lord and Lady Plushbottom’s boarding house at 1323 Wump St.
But after 68 years, “Moon Mullins,” a strip that came into being when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and speakeasies and the Charleston were the rage, is coming to an end.
Last month, Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that has always carried “Moon Mullins,” informed Johnson that the strip had been canceled.
The last “Moon Mullins” will appear Sunday.
“Sixty-eight years is a long time to be doing one thing, but the next 68 years I’m going to concentrate on painting,” says Johnson, a longtime Newport Beach resident.
Johnson was 17 when he became assistant to the strip’s originator, Frank Willard, two months after “Moon Mullins” debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1923. When Willard died in 1958, Johnson inherited the cartoon featuring a roughneck pool-hall regular named after moonshine whiskey.
At its peak during the Depression, “Moon Mullins” appeared in 350 of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. But as upshot young cartoonists with names like Schulz, Trudeau and Larson increasingly took over the comic pages, the number of papers carrying “Moon” dwindled to around 50.
“They just kept dropping off because it’s so damn old,” Johnson said. “The new ones come out and the editors want to make room for them, so the old ones get dumped. And ‘Moon’ sure qualifies that way.”
In April, the Chicago Tribune, where it all began, decided to drop the strip. That was the death knell; shortly thereafter Johnson was informed by the syndicate that it was over.
“I miss it very much, especially the money,” said Johnson with a chuckle. “But it’s been a good life. I’ve traveled all over the world and bought a home and all that good stuff. So I’ll be enjoying going through life waking up in the morning with nothing to do.”
Johnson, who for years has been able to describe himself as “the oldest guy in the business,” moved to Newport Beach in 1968. For the past 20 years, Johnson’s son, Tom, who works for a computer firm, has served as his father’s assistant, drawing the Sunday strip and helping with the dailies. Doris, Johnson’s wife of 57 years, whom he met in art school in Chicago, died four years ago.
Because the daily strips are drawn six weeks ahead of publication, Johnson had a chance to send Moon and the gang off in style.
The final six daily strips show everybody moving out of the old boarding house. (Moon carries his little brother Kayo out in the same dresser drawer in which Kayo has always slept.) But like the man who draws them, the characters remain upbeat until the end.
In one of the last strips, Lord Plushbottom points to the sky and proclaims, “After 68 years, to that great comic page in the sky!” And Kayo jumps up and down, saying, “Hey, great! I can catch up on ‘Prince Valiant’ and ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and ‘Texas Slim’ . . . “
The final daily strip gives Moon the last laugh.
It’s a single panel of the sun setting and Moon, eyeing a curvaceous girl walking out of the panel, says to himself: “I planned on marching off into the sunset, but she’s going in the other direction.”
Johnson said he is looking forward to devoting more time to his painting. And, he admits, he really won’t miss having to meet those deadlines.
“It’s nice to get up in the morning and know I don’t have to sweat an idea,” he said. “In fact, I haven’t had an idea since I stopped. That was the only tough part of the job. Boy, 365 of them a year for 68 years. That’s a lot of ideas.”
The Final Six.
May 27-June 1, 1991
The Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1996
Veteran cartoonist Ferd Johnson, whose “Moon Mullins” syndicated cartoon strip debuted when Calvin Coolidge was President and ran until George Bush occupied the Oval Office, has died after a brief illness. He was 90.
Johnson, a longtime Newport BEach resident, was 85 in 1991 when he finally stopped drawing the daily cartoon strip about a roughneck pool-hall regular named after moonshine whiskey. Johnson moved into a retirement home in Irvine 15 months ago but remained active with his painting and never lost his sense of humor. He died Monday.
“He was quite upbeat in nature and had the humor right up until the last time I saw him,” said Johnson’s son Tom, a Newport Beach graphic artist who assisted his father with the strip the last 33 years of its 68-year run.
Ferd was legendary within the cartooning business because of his longevity,” said Mission Viejo cartoonist Kevin Fagan, whose “Drabble” cartoon strip appears in The Times. “The fact he did that for more than 60 years—that’s just mind-boggling to think of all the ideas involved.”
Fagan met Johnson for the first time in 1989 at Johnson’s cluttered studio on the second floor of an office building on Coast Highway. Fagan was 33 at the time, Johnson, 83.
“It really came through to me loud and clear how much he enjoyed his work and continued to enjoy it,” Fagan said.
Johnson was 17 when he left home in Spring Creek, a tiny village in rural Pennsylvania, to attend the Chicago Art Institute in 1923. There, he met Frank Willard, who was teaching a cartoon class.
Impressed with Johnson’s work, Willard invited the young art student up to the Tribune office, then a mecca of legendary cartoonists, including Chester Gould (“Dick Tracy”), Harold Gray (“Little Orphan Annie”), Sydney Smith (“The Gumps”), and Frank King (“Gasoline Alley”).
Willard had started drawing “Moon Mullins,” which featured a colorful cast of characters who lived in a boarding house, only two months earlier. Johnson, as he once recalled, spent several hours watching Willard at the drawing board. Finally, Willard turned to him and said, “Ferf, if you’re going to hang around here all this time, I’m going to put you to work.”
- So I got a job as an assistant at 15 bucks a week. I wrote home and said, ‘Don’t send me any more money. I’ve got it made.
At 19, Johnson landed his own Sunday color page, “Texas Slim,” which made him the youngest syndicated cartoonist in the nation. The cartoon ran from 1925 to 1928, then made a comeback in 1940 and ran until 1958.
But Johnson remained Willard’s assistant for 35 years.
And where Willard went Johnson followed. That meant living in a series of hotels, apartments and farmhouses from Maine to Florida to Los Angeles. When Willard died in 1958, Johnson officially took over “Moon Mullins.”
Johnson actually had been drawing the strip for a decade due to Willard’s health problems. But the minute his name went on the strip and Willard’s name was dropped, Johnson said, the strip lost 25 papers. “That shows you the name means a lot,” he said.
At its peak during the Depression, “Moon Mullins” appeared in 350 of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. At the end, as a new crop of cartoonists took over the funny papers, the number of newspapers carrying “Moon Mullins” had dropped to around 50.
The one-time “youngest cartoonist in the nation,” who for years could boast of being “the oldest guy in the business” knew the end was near in April 1991, when the Chicago Tribune, where “Moon” was born, dropped the strip.
Within days, the syndicate informed him that “Moon Mullins” was history.
Because daily strips are drawn six weeks ahead of publication, however, Johnson was able to send Moon and company off in style.
The last six strips showed everyone moving out of the old boarding house. In one, Moon carried his little brother Kayo out in the same dresser drawer Kayo had always slept in. And Lord Plushbottom pointed to the sky and proclaimed, “After 68 years, to that great comic page in the sky!” Which thrilled Kayo, who is shown jumping up and down saying “Hey great! I can catch up on ‘Prince Valiant’ and ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and “Texas Slim’…”
But it was for Moon mullins himself that Ferd Johnson reserved the last laugh.
It was a single panel of a setting sun with Moon eyeing a curvaceous girl walking out of the panel. Says Moon:
- I planned on marching off into the sunset, but she’s going in the other direction.
Doris, Johnson’s wife of 57 years, whom he met in art school in Chicago, died in 1986. He is survived by his younger brother, George H. Johnson of Portland, Ore., son Tom Johnson and his wife Anne of Newport Beach; four grandchildren and one great grandson.
Kayo Chocolate Drink
Mr. Aaron D. Pashkow, a Russian immigrant, worked three jobs at the same time so he could attend Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology. After his graduation, he worked for a food-flavoring company, where he learned about syrups.
“He liked chocolate himself,” said his son, David. “That’s how he got into it. He used to eat a lot of chocolate ice cream, and that I think is what gave him the idea.”
At the time, butter and cream were separated from milk and the resulting skim milk was considered only for the hogs or to be thrown out. Dairies, meanwhile, sold both milk and a mix that could be added at home to whole milk to make chocolate milk.
Mr. Pashkow went to the Capitol and Western dairies in Chicago in 1924 and convinced them that his pure chocolate syrup could be mixed by the dairies with skim milk and sold by the bottle as chocolate milk.
“He mixed the first batch in the bathtub downstairs,” his wife, Rose, said. “It was pure cocoa, sugar and vanilla. At first, a customer had to shake the bottle, but then they found a way to keep the mixture in suspension. Carnation was one of his big accounts. We had plants all over, including one in California and another in London. I still have a collection of cocoa beans from when we traveled to Africa and South America and around the world to buy cocoa.”
In 1929, Mr. Pashkow invented a popular chocolate-based soft drink (U.S. Patent No.2296180), Kayo, named after a popular comic-strip character. He sold his company to Capitol Food Industries in 1964.
During World War II, he worked with the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps and invented a chocolate and lemon drink that could be contained in K-rations and was cold-water soluble.
Mr. Pashkow founded Pacific Wast Corp. of Bakerfield, Calif., manufacturer of vitamins, and Vico Products of Chicago, makers of vitamin extract. He was a founder of of the Institute of Food Technologists, 221 N. LaSalle St., and of the American Technion Society and Hebrew University.1
It is now only sold as a powdered hot chocolate mix distributed by Superior Coffee and Tea and Smucker Foodservice Canada for the foodservice market.
Moon Mullins was adapted for radio during the 1940s. In the third episode of the series (March 25, 1940), the Plushbottoms trade Moon’s only suit to pay for a collect telegram and learn they are owners of a goldmine. In a CBS audition recording dated January 31, 1947, Uncle Willie asks Moon for $10 bail, and Moon teaches the game of Blackjack to Kayo. Lord Plushbottom plans to go to a costume party as an Indian but instead winds up with a suit of armor. Character actor Sheldon Leonard was in the cast.
1 Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1986