One of the catalysts that helped create Li’l Abner was the hitchhiking trip undertaken by teenaged Al Capp and his friend, Gus Lee. Determination and a youthful zest for adventure overcame the obstacles created by Capp’s wooden leg as the duo traveled from New England to Memphis, Tennessee via Virginia and Kentucky, meeting a variety of “hill folk” along the way.
Later milestones in Abner’s genesis occurred in New York City: Capp hired on as Ham Fisher’s assistant on Joe Palooka, where he created that strip’s “Big Leviticus” Sunday sequence – during a night out at a theatre in Columbus Circle, a comedic “mountain music” performance made a huge impression on Capp and his wife, Catherine – counseled by artist Paul Fung, Capp worked up his samples and hit the Syndicate trail, ultimately selling Li’l Abner to United Features in 1934.
Yet neither New York nor the Ozarks figured into Capp’s life while his brainchild was in full flower – instead, Capp and his family (Catherine, two daughters, and an adopted son) spent much of each year occupying a sizeable farmhouse in Catherine’s hometown of Amesbury, on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Today, more than three decades after Capp’s passing, Amesbury is remembering its adopted son.
As reported in the Saturday, May 18, 2010 Boston Globe, this quiet town has renamed its amphitheater in the artist’s honor and is looking to develop a Capp Museum. As part of its annual “Amesbury First” festival, four 4′ x 8′ paintings recreating scenes from Capp’s June 24, 1946 Life autobiography-in-comics-form were unveiled (the entire feature appeared on pages 21 to 24 of our first Li’l Abner volume). The jumbo-sized reproductions were created by local artist Jon Mooers under the watchful eye of Capp’s heirs, including his surviving daughter, Julie.
Capp was not the town’s only famed citizen – 19th Century poet John Greenleaf Whittier also resided in Amesbury. The Globe article hints that modern-day Whittier fans may look down their noses at Capp and his rambunctious comic strip; one paragraph in reporter James Sullivan’s piece reads:
“My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about [Capp],” says Diane Cole, 56, who is a member of the John Greenleaf Whittier Home Association. “A lot of people don’t make the connection at all.”
The Amesbury Improvement Committee is more bullish on Capp and the tourism potential associated with his name, and artist Mooers expressed this wish for the newly-rechristened amphitheater: “I’d love to find somebody who could donate a bronze statue of Al. I’m a dreamer.”
Only time will tell if dreams can come true. Mooers’s cause may be aided later this year, when PBS devotes a segment of its American Masters series to Al Capp.
And who knows? Perhaps a segment of our readership might find ways to help Amesbury remember one of its favorite sons.