When I first moved to Greenwich in 1976, one of the first places I visited was the Museum of Cartoon Art on Comely Avenue, just over the state line in Rye. The "castle" sat high on a hill and had a wonderful view of "The Valley" - the Byram River Valley in the Pemberwick section of town. It had the world's largest and finest collection of original cartoon drawings. This museum was established by the National Cartoonists Society, led by Mort Walker, who created the "Beetle Bailey" comic strip. It was first located in Greenwich, then moved to Rye. The founders eventually moved it to Boca Raton, Florida, in 1992.
Cartoon art is actually the most popular form of drawing. Artists draw original strips, which are reproduced for newspapers and comic books. Surprisingly, Ben Franklin and Paul Revere had dabbled in cartoons. At first, no one consider this art very valuable. Many of these works of art were discarded or used to protect the floor from paint splatter. It wasn't until Mort Walker and artist Jack Tippit decided to take matters into their own hands that anyone made a serious effort to collect, exhibit and preserve these renderings in one location. There were two small museums in Orlando and San Francisco; but Walker wanted to create a large museum to preserve comic strips, animated films, magazine drawings, editorial cartoons and sports illustrations. He looked in Washington, DC, New York City, Boston, Syracuse and New Haven. Yale offered some space in a new cultural center, but it wasn't scheduled to open for 4 more years. In his travels, he approached the Hearst Corporation to explain his idea, and was rewarded with a check for $50,000. Walker was able to rent a turn of the century mansion located at 384 Field Point Road in Belle Haven. (He had his own studio around the corner at 51 Mayo Avenue.) It was opened in 1974.
The 24-room mansion was owned by Augustus I. Mead, and was rented for $20,000 per year. It sat high on a knoll, and had angled walls, high ceilings and large windows. Four of the rooms were opened to the public. One room served as a Cartoon Hall of Fame, which was reserved for Pulitzer prize winners. A Reuben Award was created by the National Cartoon Society and bestowed on a deserving artist. It was named after Rube Goldberg, who's name was used to describe a foolish, complicated invention. Greenwich artists who were honored in the museum include Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Bob Gustafson (Tillie the Toiler), Ranan Lurie (Lurie's People), Jerry Dumas (Sam's Strip), John Cullen Murphy (Prince Valiant) and William Brown (Mixed Singles). Other artists installed were Thomas Nast ( creator of the Elephant and Donkey political icons), Charles Gibson (Gibson Girl), Elzie Seegar (Popeye), Walt Disney and Walt Kelly (Pogo). The museum grew in popularity and size, and the founders wanted to expand the mansion to add a classroom for seminars, a theater to show films and a library to store reference material. The Society had tee-shirts, stationery and buttons made (with an image of the house as a logo) to raise funds. Unfortunately, the Mead family became concerned with the increased traffic and limited parking in the residential area. There was also talk of some structural damage being done to the house. As a result, the family refused to renew the lease. The museum had to find a new home.
In 1978, the museum found a new home in the Ward Castle on Comely Avenue in Rye. The mansion had been built in 1876 by nuts and bolts manufacturer William I. Ward. It was a Victorian structure which sat on a hilltop. Many called it "Ward's Folly". There were over 6-acres of land surrounding the mansion. The turreted, 4-story building had massive carved mahogany doors, exotic wood paneling, brass fittings, marble fireplaces, and crystal chandeliers. At one time, the Wards had offered it to the Town of Rye as a Town Hall. Ward left the castle to his two daughters, who were heirs to the Piels Beer fortune. By 1978, it had been vacant for several years. The Society purchased the structure for $70,000. Renovations to the building cost $50,000. They received a $30,000 grant from the National Parks Service, and sold a large portion of the land for residential development. Since the Society was a non-profit organization and not subject to tax, the Town liked the idea of getting tax revenue for the new homes. Walker and company moved 50,000 items from Belle Haven to Ward's Castle.
This was the only museum of its kind. What was once considered lesser art, subject to mutilation and destruction, was now recognized for its historical value. The exhibits were a great way for the young to learn about history. Cartoons presented a record of slang, fashion, thought, etc. It was a mirror of society and culture.
Classes in cartooning and monthly lectures were presented. The building was an ideal venue for this enterprise. It was one of the first buildings constructed with reinforced concrete. There were chandeliers, sliding wooden doors, onyx and marble newel posts. Several fireplaces were restored, door panels contained engraved glass panels and mirrors were installed throughout the building. A videotape room was built to view filmstrips. Over time, a carpet emblazoned with superheroes (Flash Gordon, Popeye and Barney Google) was added, and a stained glass skylight with such cartoon characters as Donald Duck and Prince Valiant was installed.
The Cartoon Museum was open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm. On Sunday it was open from 1 to 5 pm. Admission was $1 for adults and 50-cents for children. The museum had 200 films totaling 50 hours of videotape. On Sundays, the film looped continuously. A guest cartoonist would give a presentation on Sundays, and there was an exhibit on how a comic strip was put together. One of the more popular exhibits was a "tongue-in-cheek" environmental sculpture of a cartoonist at work. Shoved in an open broom closet, it showed a harried cartoonist in short pants, red socks, big yellow sneakers, surrounded by discarded, crumpled paper.
It wasn't long before the Museum began to outgrow its facilities. Once again, parking and traffic became a problem. Mort Walker began to search up and down the East Coast for another site. He received a proposal from Boca Raton in 1992 to build a new, larger museum on a piece of land known as Mizner Park. They were trying to establish a number of cultural attractions in Palm Beach County. A 52,000 square foot museum could be built easily on the land. Fifteen million dollars was needed to build the new museum. Six million dollars was raised from donations, pledges and loans. The rest would have to come from revenue from admissions and programming. The Museum moved its collection of 200,000 pieces to Boca Raton in 1992, and its name was changed to The National Cartoon Museum. The new facility was opened in 1996, at which time it became The International Museum of Cartoon Art.
The Museum experienced 6 years of successful operation until 2002. Although it was predicted 500,000 people a year would visit the museum, only 70,000 came. This may have been due to the fact that it was a winter resort. There was also conjecture that comic art was still not being accepted as legitimate art. Then several major donors were unable to fullfill their pledges. Marvel Comics, which had given $100,000 originally, filed for Chapter11 and couldn't continue support. A company that had offered the Museum $1-million for the right to use Beetle Bailey characters on candy wrappers, also went bankrupt. Walker tried to sell some of the art to pay some of the debt, but he still fell short. The result was a $5-million shortfall. The bank foreclosed on the mortgage, and the museum was forced to close.
Then in 2008, Ohio State University entered the picture. They had a Cartoon Research Library, which contained 250,000 original cartoon drawings, 34,500 books, 51,000 serial titles, 2800 linear feet of manuscripts and 2.5 million comic strip clips. One of the faculty members had been a member of the Board of Directors of the Cartoon Museum, and came up with an idea. He proposed that the two collections be merged. OSU offered to provide new, state-of-the-art gallery space for the 200,000 items amassed by Walker's museum. It would be named after him as a tribute. The collection now included comic strips, comic books, animation, editorial drawings, advertising, sport drawings, caricatures, greeting cards, graphic novels, illustrations, display figures, toys, and collectibles. It became the largest collection of cartoon art in the world!
Hopefully, this will be the permanent home of the museum's cartoon art for centuries to come. Visitors, especially young students, will be able to learn about American history from the many drawings. They will learn about period fashion, slang, historic events, culture and customs.
Cartoons reflect the ideas and attitudes of a Society. It's a great vehicle for communication. The artwork is impressive and high quality. The old adage remains true: "A picture is worth a thousand words". This art form should be considered legitimate art, and be recognized as a national treasure.
Gardner, Alan: "International Museum of Cartoon Art Moves to OSU Cartoon Research Library; 14 May 2008; The Daily Cartoonist, 12 April 2014
Ohio State University: Billy Ireland's Cartoon Museum Library and Museum; 2013: International Museum of Cartoon Art; 12 April 2014
Pollak, Michael: "A Cartoon Museum's Tortuous Round Trip"; 21 April 2002, New York Times, 12 April 2014.
Bologna, S. : "Serious About Doing Things For Laughs"; Sunday News (Pg 21), October 20, 1974
Martin, N.: "Greenwich Cartoonists and Their Creations", The Nutmegger (Pg. 31), October 1974.
Moore, M.; "The Fabulous Funnies", Travel and Leisure (Pg E82/6), August 1981.