Westward, Ho! (Ho-Ho!)

For months Dean and I have been tantalized by the knowledge that UCLA is holding the George McManus papers. We know the delights we have unearthed at other schools when examining their holdings related to Milton Caniff, Harold Gray, Otto Soglow, Noel Sickles, and others. What wonders might the McManus papers hold?

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For much of this year one thing or another prevented us from trekking to Los Angeles to find out. A family situation scuttled Dean’s planned springtime trip…the need to finish the concluding installment of our mammoth Alex Toth biography was Job One for my summer…but as the leaves started falling and the mast of that big ship Year-End Holidays became visible on the horizon, I realized the westward trip needed to be taken soon if it was to happen at all this year.

That’s why on Tuesday, November 13th, I headed to the airport to begin the long, LONGtranscontinental flight that would bring me to UCLA.

Once upon a time I enjoyed flying—but the conditions over the past eleven years have sucked much of the pleasure out of the at-one-time-friendly-skies for me. Being treated like a criminal (complete with pat-downs—I’m not a “scan my image and do what with it?” kinda guy) is not high on my list of life’s joys. Add the fact that the sheer length of this trip was made longer than advertised by a couple irksome factors—that had to do with scheduling and not with “the theater of security”—and I had plenty of time to wax philosophical. Or as philosophical as I’m likely to get—Immanuel Kant I ain’t, as anyone who knows me will gladly tell you. “We’re kernels in a giant can of corn, launched skyward,” I jotted in my notebook in marginalia. “The cold equations tell us we’ll go up can come down safely; we hope no variables are introduced to alter the equations.” Some delays, but not enough to disastrously change the equations—I arrived in Los Angeles safe and sound.

My one-word impression of the city Harlan Ellison used to call Cloud Cuckooland? Chaotic would fill the bill. More than once during my visit I wondered, “How did newcomers successfully drive out here before the advent of the GPS?” I still haven’t fathomed the answer to that question. I’m used to Boston, London, New York, Glasgow—cities where you can get around on foot (or by a combination of mass transit and shoe leather) so you can get your bearings and get a sense of what the city is all about. Given the culture in L.A. is, as a friend who lives in the area explains it, “all about driving and parking,” the city seems to whizz-z-z past in one’s peripheral vision as one focuses on the road ahead and the cars ducking and diving from lane to lane like randomly-excited atoms.

 

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View from my hotel room: first looking out across the scenic 405 to North Sepulveda Boulevard (home to Manny’s Pizzeria, where one gets a tasty calzone—and the Mobil and 76 gas stations whose signage you see in the distance), then turning around to view West Sunset Boulevard, in the general direction of UCLA.

Still, I can attest that the climate this time of year is delightful: temps were consistently in the mid-70s each day with low, low humidity. I had two-plus days of sun, never more than a sprinkle of rain during the cloudy spells. And hey—I was in the land of Philip Marlowe and Jim Rockford; there was a definite kick to that, even though Marlowe’s L.A. is more than seven decades gone, Rockford’s more than forty.

I wasn’t there to commune with the spirits of beloved fictional gumshoes, of course, I was there to examine the papers of George McManus. Early Wednesday morning, I began doing just that.

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I arose from the bowels of UCLA’s “Parking Structure 4” to find myself on Wilson Plaza. Further on, I discovered the university is helpfully providing an anatomy lesson, against  which passers-by can check their first-hand knowledge.

Two things I find UCLA lacks: a decent on-line map and good on-campus signage. Yes, I admit it, after getting parked I ended up walking around campus for close to an hour, trying to get my bearings and locate the Charles E. Young Research Library, where the McManus treasures awaited me. I did snap a few shots of the grounds as I ambled about, knowing they’d come in handy for a feature like this…

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Yes, I climbed these, the Janss Steps, to reach my destination. Overshooting the turn I should have made, I found myself for a time in Dickson Court, where I took this second shot.

…And eventually I found the Murphy Sculpture Garden…

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The Sculpture Garden was long on abstracts, short on nudes. No, the trash can is not a sculpture!

…Which my map showed was in close proximity to the Young Research Library, as indeed it was.

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Long distance and up-close-and-personal views of the Charles E. Young Research Library.

First stop was the Circulation Desk, where I had to obtain a UCLA Access Library Card before proceeding. I bantered about basketball with a couple of the guys behind the counter as my card was being processed. Then I went downstairs to the Special Collections room. More processing took place there, culminating in my receiving a locker key attached to a gigantic hasp; I was reminded of my boyhood, when keys to gas station restrooms came similarly equipped. Locker # 1 became the repository for all my worldly goods except my laptop, mouse, and power cord—no pens, paper, or other accoutrements are allowed inside the reading room. In fact, the person at the front desk had to buzz me inside that locked and hushed chamber.

“No other accoutrements” includes cameras, so I have no photos of the room, the attendants, or the McManus holdings to share with you here (you’ll see examples of the latter, at least, in our upcoming Bringing Up Father: Of Cabbages and Kings volume). Being able to use a camera would have been an immense help, since it would have allowed me to snap photos of whole newspaper or magazine articles instead of transcribing them on the spot – at times smoke was flying off my laptop keyboard! But when a good host lays down the rules, a good guest seeks to comply, so transcribe it was, and transcribe I did.

Another rule was that the McManus papers could be brought forth box by box, and I could take only one artifact at a time from each available box. That was how I made my way through the collection—one scrapbook, one set of bound proofs, one Cupples & Leon paperback collection at a time.

One thing UCLA does differently than, say, Boston University or the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State: no cotton gloves! I touched each McManus artifact with my own two hands – and what artifacts I saw…

…The “How to Draw Comics Like Mine” series of newspaper features McManus prepared…

…Bringing Up Father strips in their Japanese, Spanish, and Scandanavian publications. In Argentina, you might be interested to know, Jiggs was referred to as Don Trifón, Maggie as DonaSisebuta, and Nora as Dorita…

…Advertisements galore! For the Gus Hill stage shows—for products being endorsed by McManus himself—for businesses that spun off from or were somehow connected to the strip (such as Jiggs-brand corned beef and cabbage)…

…And page after page after page of news articles. George’s fifty-year career attracted a lot of coverage! Like Milton Caniff, McManus did a great deal of publicity work and joined a large number of clubs and organizations—and like Caniff, he kept copies of every newspaper or magazine article in which he was featured, plus mementos commemorating many of his clubs and their activities. Unlike Caniff, George’s career bloomed during the heyday of the American newspaper, in the days before radio had settled into homes everywhere, before motion pictures, before the idea of television was even the stuff of science fiction. He was serving an America that was a nation of readers, in the days when everybody like the comics (even if only as a guilty pleasure). In those days, cartoonists like McManus were the equivalent of the TV stars of contemporary times.

In order to make my way through all the material I had asked UCLA to pull for me, I had two days of constant work in the Special Collections Reading Room. And I mean constant—Tuesday the 14th from roughly 10:45AM to 4:45PM and Wednesday the 15th from 10:00AM to 4:45PM, with no food, water, or bathroom breaks. All I did was open one artifact, examine its contents, making notes as I went through, then exchanging it for another artifact and repeating the process. Time was of the essence; I knew I had to make maximum use out of every tick of the clock.

It was considerable work, but considerable fun, too. I have seen the exterior view of what was labeled, “The beautiful ocean view home of Mr. and Mrs. George McManus at Rancho Malibu la Costa (Ray J. Kieffer, architect)” and the McManuses inhabited quite a spread. I can tell you that King Features passed this news snippet around the newsroom in the form of an internal memo:  “George W. McManus, internationally famous as the creator of ‘Jiggs’ and the many characters associated with him in the comic strip Bringing Up Father was reported a patient at Santa Monica Hospital today. Under treatment of Dr. Carl Williams for the nerve irritation commonly known as ‘shingles,’ McManus was said by hospital attendants to have passed a good night and to have shown considerable improvement today.” I have held in my hands a Sunday original and full-color Sunday proofs of both BUF and its Rosie’s Beau topper, looked at syndicate print ads that span the period from the 1910s to the 1940s, and seen what must have been over a hundred newspaper articles dealing with George being served corned beef and cabbage. The university was unable to locate one box I had requested, but what they did find immersed me in McManus’s life, capturing a career that spanned from the heydays of his fellows – Herriman and TAD from one generation, Raymond and Chic Young from another – and the early years of Schulz’s and Mort Walker’s long and distinguished runs on Peanuts and Beetle Bailey. Talents waxed and waned, strips came and went, and through it all George McManus and Zeke Zekley kept audiences smiling at the domestic antics of Maggie and Jiggs.

Some “briefly noted” items to round out this travelogue:

Ø  Thursday night, as I was walking back to UCLA “Parking Structure 4,” I saw the start of a rally being staged Wilson Plaza to pump up the studentry in advance of Saturday’s big UCLA/USC gridiron contest. On a spire filled with handmade posters, a brightly-colored “$C BLOWS!” caught my eye. How nice for the poster-maker’s parents, I told myself—their UCLA tuition money is being spent so their offspring can learn to express himself so eloquently …

Ø  In a less snarky vein, Wednesday evening I had the please to talk shop and break bread with old friend Brian Nelson, whose screenplays have been the bedrock behind such films as 30 Days of Night and the cringe-inducing (well, for guys, anyway) psychological thriller Hard Candy. These days he’s working with David Goyer of the Dark Knight movies and a rollicking band of talent on a new TV series, DaVinci’s Demons. A trailer for the series is on-line. Watch for it on STARZ in the spring of 2013.

Ø  Down through the years, from my Boston-area home, I have literally flown north, south, east, and west, but never until my return flight from L.A. have I had a plane’s steward staff open up the audio system and request a medical professional to come to the front of the cabin. Yes, we had a passenger in ill health (apparently, from a snippet of talk I overheard, losing consciousness briefly) – and she was seated in the row directly across the aisle from me, in my window seat! A doctor and nurse worked with the flight attendants…the fellow in the aisle seat in my row was asked to trade places with the doctor so he could more easily work on the passenger while the emergency was going on…the woman was brought back to stable health, which was good for all involved…yet what amazed me most was that the person next to me, in the middle seat, had brought aboard a hot meal from an airport restaurant, and he could not be bothered to look at what was happening just feet away, as he was intent upon slurping up teriyaki beef and noodles!

It’s a mad, mad, mad world, indeed!

 

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