Indiana Produced a Host of Legendary Children’s Characters
Writer / Jeff Kenney
Photography / Provided
Lakes-area readers who grew up in the era of the mega-popularity of sardonic comic strip cat Garfield may be surprised to learn that the famous feline made his syndicated newspaper debut 45 years ago this year, in 1978.
It may (or may not) also come as a surprise to learn that Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, hails from nearby Marion, Indiana, and what’s more, a surprising number of popular characters in comic strips and children’s books share Hoosier connections with him.
A HOOSIER CAT MAKES IT BIG
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Jim Davis, born in Marion in 1945, grew up on a small farm in Fairmount, Indiana (which occasionally factors into the storylines of the comic strip), attending Ball State University to study art and business. In fact, while rarely mentioned within the panels of the comic strip, Ball State’s home base of Muncie, Indiana, is actually where Garfield and his hapless owner, Jon, reside.
Davis’ study of both art and business was an appropriate one: from his present-day home in Albany, Indiana, he has stewarded Garfield from a popular newspaper comic strip focusing on his sarcastic and gluttonous feline protagonist, to the star of a veritable multimedia empire encompassing everything from books to plush toys, coffee mugs to TV specials. Readers who remember the 1980s will recall Garfield products as almost ubiquitous during that decade, and all of it under the umbrella of Davis’ Paws, Inc. corporation.
But Garfield is hardly unique in his status as an internationally recognizable cartoon phenom from Indiana.
ORPHAN ANNIE OF INDIANA
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Among a handful of much earlier creations is that of Little Orphan Annie, who made her debut in an 1885 poem penned by Hoosier Poet (and National Poet Laureate) James Whitcomb Riley (who spent time at, and wrote a poem about Lakes area locale Lake Maxinkuckee not many years later).
“Little Orphans Annie” was inspired by an orphan named Mary Alice Smith who lived in the Riley home as a child. The poem focuses on “Orphant Annie’s” warning to potentially misbehaving children that, “the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!”
Of course the character of Little Orphan Annie, who made her post-poem debut in a 1924 comic strip by Harold Gray, expanded significantly on Riley’s simpler original creation to include characters like “Daddy” Warbucks, Sandy the dog, and a host of pirates and brigands posing ongoing threats to the plucky redhead.
In the decades following her debut, Annie became a massive multimedia success in – among other media – radio, toys, and films, and saw a revival as another 1980s children’s fixture due primarily to the success of a late 1970s Broadway production and 1982 Hollywood film.
A RAGGEDY HOOSIER DOLL
Yet another acclaimed children’s creation originating from Indiana was that of Indianapolis writer Johnny Gruelle, who patented a red-yarn-haired doll he named Raggedy Ann in 1915. Gruelle created a series of stories originally designed to accompany the doll, first published in 1918 in book form as, “Raggedy Ann Stories,” adding characters in later books such as Raggedy Ann’s brother, Raggedy Andy, and others.
Among the Gruelle family’s friends during Johnny’s youth was none other than the aforementioned James Whitcomb Riley, whose famous 1888 poem, “The Raggedy Man,” inspired Gruelle’s name for his doll characters (the human girl in whose home the fictional Raggedys lived was named Marcella, for Johnny and his wife Myrtle’s daughter Marcella, who died of an infected vaccination at age 13).
The highly successful, Indianapolis-based publishing company, Bobbs-Merrill (which also published Riley’s work) would print millions of copies of the Raggedy Ann books, and the character went on to become a staple item not only as a doll and in other toy formats, but in animated and theatrical productions, comic books, and an array of other media as well.
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF…STARKE COUNTY?
Another early 20th-century children’s creation at the center of a huge media and marketing empire had more distant Indiana roots. Writer L. Frank Baum hailed from New York State but went on to reside mainly in Chicago and Los Angeles. Much speculation has persisted about his connections to the Bass Lake/Starke County areas, with particular attention to the claim that he named the famous dog owned by Dorothy in his book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (which was published in 1900 and became a massive hit, spawning 13 sequels from his own pen), “Toto” after seeing a reference to the Starke County town of the same name.
Perhaps almost as interesting is the well-attested history of the Bass Lake site purchased by Baum’s third son, Harry Neal Baum. Built around 1907 as the Center View Hotel on Bass Lake, Harry Baum and his wife Brenda, following the former’s retirement, purchased and renamed the site The Wizard of Oz Lodge (later re-dubbing it Oz Castle, or Ozcot, after his parents’ home in Hollywood) and opening it to the public in 1960.
The house was decorated with memorabilia reflecting the massive worldwide success of the Oz franchise (best known, of course, from the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland). Most notably, the site was home to the earliest Oz conventions of the International Wizard of Oz Club, part of a burgeoning early 1960s movement of science fiction and fantasy fandom which would explode in later years and become part of a well-known subculture most associated with franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek.
The business stayed open for only one more season after Harry Baum’s 1967 death, though it played an important role in the long and storied history of “The Wizard of Oz” and its fan following (a detailed account, including several photos, of the early Oz-related gatherings at the Bass Lake site, including a mysterious tornado narrowly missing the house, can be found online at allthingsoz.org/blog/index.php/2021/06/28/the-other-ozcot-and-the-first-oz-conventions).
Many readers will recall another Lakes-area endeavor which capitalized on the regional connection to Baum and Oz: the longtime Wizard of Oz Festival at nearby Chesterton, Indiana, which began in the early 1980s as a one-day festival and grew to an event of international proportions, the largest of its kind in the country, and which hosted actors from the 1939 film, among other features. The event went dormant for a handful of years, though it has been revived more recently.
A BIG RED DOG OF KOKOMO
Another iconic children’s character of Indiana origins was born not far down the road from the home of Garfield the cat.
Norman Bridwell, who passed away in 2014, grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, and attended the John Herron School of Art at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, as well as Cooper Union in New York City.
Cartoonist Bridwell published “Clifford, the Big Red Dog,” about the misadventures of young Emily Elizabeth and her enormous dog in 1963 and it became a hit, leading to some 80 books (counting non-Clifford titles, Bridwell published over 150, with hundreds of millions of copies sold), television specials and series, an array of toys, and most recently, a live-action, big-screen movie adaptation.
Clifford can be seen annually as a huge balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and – another indication of his worldwide success – he serves as the official mascot of the Scholastic Corporation, which has published his books from the beginning.
In 2015, Bridwell’s childhood home in Kokomo became a historic site, and yes, there is an Emily Elizabeth – one of the Bridwells’ two children, the other being Timothy Howard – and she’s a dog expert and mother.
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Anything approaching a complete listing of children’s authors from Indiana (let alone children’s books focusing on sites or topics relating to the Hoosier State) would be impossible, but a few “honorable mentions” may merit reference here.
Paul Hutchens based his 36 Sugar Creek Gang children’s novels, which spawned TV and movie adaptations, on his childhood home near Thorntown, Indiana, where nearby Sugar Creek gave the series its name. Dozens of books, published between 1940 and 1970, made up the popular series.
Disney illustrator Bill Peet was born in Grandview, Indiana in 1915 and, like Bridwell, graduated from the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis. He relocated to Los Angeles and drew characters appearing in Disney classics like “Dumbo” and “Cinderella,” and writing screenplays including, “101 Dalmatians” and “The Sword in the Stone.” Peet also wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books, including “Kermit the Hermit” and “The Caboose Who Got Loose,” earning Caldecott Honor recognition for his work.
And speaking of animation: closer to home and much more contemporary, Kacie Hermanson, former Culver resident and a 2012 Culver Girls Academy graduate, has worked in art and animation for productions on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and Netflix, among others. Perhaps she, or any one of the many aspiring creators in the Hoosier State today, will usher in the next iconic children’s character to attain worldwide recognition.