Behind the Scene, with Big Bill, Archy and Mehitabel

Here is brief clip showing actors Alan Reed (left) and Eddie Bracken reading lines from the 1971 animated movie “Shinbone Alley” — with a glance at Carol Channing, too. The clip is from “Animation: A Living Art Form,” a 10-minute feature that was released with “Shinbone Alley” to explained the intricacies of the animation process. (Coming decades before computer animation, the 85-minute film required more than 400,000 drawings!)

Reed is known to many as the voice of Fred Flintstone, but he also gave a memorable performance in “Shinbone Alley” as Mehitabel’s tough-guy tomcat boyfriend, Big Bill. Bracken and Channing were Archy and Mehitabel, reprising their roles on a remarkable concept album released by Capitol Records in 1954, “archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera”—the predecessor of the 1957 Broadway show “Shinbone Alley,” starring Eartha Kitt and Bracken, as well as the 1971 animated movie.

“Shinbone Alley” confounded critics, who were impressed with the voice actors and with the movie’s bold animation, unlike anything seen in Hollywood in years. But they rightly pointed out that the movie’s premise — a cockroach infatuated with an alley cat, a love affair that Don Marquis never suggested in his original stories 40 years earlier — was preposterous.

“Animation: A Living Art Form” is impossible to find today. The clip is taken from an original 16mm film that was acquired 20 years ago (on eBay) and converted to digital format. “Shinbone Alley” is much easier to find, on old VCR tapes and on DVD. It’s also available on YouTube, here.

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A Face In the Crowd

Vanity Fair Don Marquis

Don Marquis ranked in the top tier of Broadway celebrities in early 1922, even though his own comic masterpiece, “The Old Soak,” was still months away from its Broadway premiere (on Aug. 22, 1922). He is pictured here, fat and happy, surrounded by fellow first nighters in a classic Ralph Barton illustration that appeared in the April 1922 edition of Vanity Fair magazine titled “A Typical First Night Audience in New York:—The Scene Which Invariably Confronts the Actor.” Don is seated between Vanity Fair publisher Conde Nast and actress Elsie De Wolfe. In front of him are actress Irene Castle and arts patron Otto Kahn, with the tall, gangly Robert Sherwood in the row behind, to Don’s right. The old sourpuss in the lower-right corner is Don’s nemesis, the Rev. John Roach Straton, an angry fundamentalist minister who eagerly predicted the impending doom of heathen New Yorkers.

The complete, two-page illustration presents 91 spot-on caricatures. It is linked here, with its original key identifying all the celebrities of the day. Barton was famous for his group caricatures, and this one was a precursor to a similarly mammoth piece that appeared in the Jan. 4, 1923, issue of the old Life magazine (linked here) that once again shows Don in the thick of the action. (He’s on the left page, a bit off-center, with Robert Sherwood once again in the row behind, next to a bemused Robert Benchley!) 

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Something More?

We know Don Marquis today as a humorist (a satirist, really), but perhaps he should be remembered as something more—a humanist? The following lines are from an occasional column Don wrote in 1915 for Outlook magazine.


I saw a little Syrian girl in a Brooklyn slum the other day who was sporting a pair of lavender-colored spats. Her stockings were somewhat out of repair; her toes were somewhat out of her shoes; the spats themselves had seen better feet; they had begun life as the spats of some one else, and they were too large for her. But they were spats—and she was happy.

She might have been happier if she could have danced. There was an organ-grinder on the block and other children were dancing. But when this particular little girl tried to dance the spats tripped her, So she gave it up and stood on the curbstone, spatted and superior, conscious Fashion queening it over Terpsichore. Her attitude conveyed that it was all very well for spatless children to dance in the streets, but that she had a certain position to maintain; she felt her social responsibility; if one has spats, one must live up to them. This was her outward attitude; this was the affectation forced upon her by the fact that with those particular spats she could not dance.

But all the while, deep in her ingenuous soul, there must have been stirring a conflict; she must have been debating whether she really wanted to miss the fun for the sake of the spats. In short, were spats worth while after all? Was dignity, eminence, worth the price?

Finally, nature won; affectation succumbed. She removed the spats and joined the dance. But it was too late. In a moment more the organ-grinder was gone. She resumed her spats; for a moment her face conveyed that she felt that she had lost both ways. But only for a moment. Presently the spats reasserted their sway; they communicated to their wearer a strut; she actually managed to strut standing still; to look at her now you would not have guessed that even a momentary doubt concerning spats had ever entered her mind; she became superior again.

I fancy the incident might be worked out on another plane and another scale in other streets. But what I enjoy about human beings is the fact that, no matter where one finds them, they are so human.

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Don Marquis in the News

birthday hatWIT AND WHIMSYFollow this link for a wonderful birthday tribute to Don Marquis by Bill Knight, a syndicated columnist appearing in the Pekin Daily Times in north-central Illinois. It’s an excellent piece, and well-researched, with quotes from E.B. White, Heywood Broun and Stanley Walker, along with a fine biographical profile.

Yes, Archy’s name is misspelled in the column, but that’s nothing new. Archy’s name has been consistently misspelled going all the way back to 1916, just a few months after it first appeared in print. And look at any dust jacket of “archy and mehitabel” from 1930 to 1943 and you’ll see “archie” printed on the inside rear flap — an unforgivable error from Don’s publisher, Doubleday.

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DSPS1BIRTHDAY BASH: Don’s 141st birthday was Monday, July 29, and it was celebrated in New York with a gathering of the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society at Keens Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan, one of Don’s old haunts. We are happy to report that the toast of Walnut, Illinois, was toasted in proper fashion — repeatedly — and a good time was had by all. (Click on the photo at right for a closer look.)

We have also received correspondence from several far-flung friends of the Society, both foreign and domestic, reporting that they, too, lifted glasses in Don’s honor on his natal day. Anyone with photos (or stories) to share would do the Society a favor by submitting same.

(What is the Double Scotch and Prohibition Society, you say? Follow this link to join the party.)

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brooklyn2BRONZE EFFIGIES:The New York Times Book Review gave a nod to “archy and mehitabel” in its New & Noteworthy section on Feb. 3 when food writer Melissa Clark called out the carvings of Archy and Mehitabel that sit high above the entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza. Clark told the story of how this bronze cockroach and cat came to be, and who Don Marquis was, and why they, and he, deserve another look today. Here’s a link to her story.

And for more on those one-of-a-kind bronze carvings, read the story we posted here in 2011.

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Tender Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

Poring over reels of microfilm at the New York Pubic Library occasionally reveals unexpected treasure. A case in point is the following bit of light verse from Don Marquis’s “Notes and Comment” column in The (New York) Evening Sun — a forerunner to his famous Sun Dial column — on Sept. 24, 1912. The verse is unsigned but the words are unmistakably Don’s. Proof of his authorship can be found in an earlier version of the poem that appeared in the Atlanta Journal on Jan. 28, 1904, in a newspaper column, Rings From the Shop Pipe, written by a young editorial writer on the staff, Don Marquis.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the verse seems appropriate somehow on Valentine’s Day. 


P.S. Writing light verse based on newspaper stories was a favorite trick for Don. Check out “Don Tells the Story of ‘Moister Oysters,’ “ which features a similar bit of fun that first appeared in Notes and Comment on Sept. 23, 1912, one day before “In Spite of Germs.”
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Annual Meeting of the Don Marquis DS&P Society

DSPSbuttonMembers of the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society (that means you) are urged to gather on Wednesday, December 5, 2018, to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition!

If you are in New York City, please meet at the bar of the venerable Keens Steakhouse, 72 West 36th Street (between Fifth and Sixth avenues) starting at 5:30 p.m. and continuing until we complete the prescribed toasts. We will order appetizers, and whoever can stay for dinner (individual checks) will be grateful they did — the mutton chops are out of this world. Trinkets to mark the occasion will be provided. 

Remember, Repeal Day is one of the Society’s three High Holy Days — the others being Don’s birthday (July 29) and the anniversary of the first appearance of Archy (March 29). 

Please join us! For more on the Society, go here. More questions? Email johnbatt (at)

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New Date: Don Marquis Weekend on Governors Island


4B Nolan Park on Governors Island

A rejiggering of the calendar has moved Don Marquis Weekend on Governors Island to May 20-21, instead of the previous announced date in late July. Make plans now to visit the Empire State Center for the Book‘s summer home in the fabulous new park in New York Harbor between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The Center for the Book, the nonprofit group behind the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, has been given one of the former officers quarters on Governors Island for the entire summer and is allowing groups representing writers, illustrators, booksellers and publishers to use the space on weekends. Besides Don, featured weekend authors include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker and Emily Dickinson.

The Center for the Book’s summer home will be on the island’s Nolan Park (No. 4B), an easy 10-minute walk from the Manhattan ferry and a 15-minute walk from the Brooklyn ferry.

Don Marquis Weekend on the island will include displays of his books, of course, along with photographs, letters, clippings, postcards and movie posters. We plan to show several movies — “The Cruise of the Jasper B” (1926, silent), “Good Old Soak” (1937) and “Shinbone Alley” (1971, animated) — either by projection on a wall or from an iPad. And we’re hoping to present a performance or two. (Details TK.)

Other ideas? Please join in the planning — and please consider being a volunteer on the island. It will be a fun time, with material support provided by the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society!

Need we mention that May 20-21 would be a perfect weekend for out-of-towners to visit New York? Make your travel plans now!

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Introducing Mr. Hoskins, a Catfish Unlike Any Other

fishhooksDon Marquis’s wild imagination wasn’t limited to a cockroach with the soul of poet or an alley cat claiming lineage from Cleopatra. Consider his story of Mr. Hoskins, a bullhead catfish with an affinity for dry land. The following tale combines two fish stories that had appeared separately in Don’s Sun Dial column in The (New York) Evening Sun. Together, they became the preface to an imagined “book,” or package, of fish hooks, as presented in “Prefaces,” a 1919 collection of farcical introductions to books that never made it into print. “Prefaces” was a huge success, cementing Don’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading satirists. (The illustration above, by the great Tony Sarg, appeared in “Prefaces.”)


By Don Marquis, from “Prefaces” (D. Appleton and Company, 1919)

This little book of flies and hooks and guts and hackles, which was presented to us by a friend who heard us say we liked to go fishing—we may as well admit at once that it is full of riddles we cannot rede. We know nothing about trout, and have no great ambition to learn. Fishing for trout has too much exertion and bodily effort about it to be attractive. One tramps about over rough country and gets one’s self wet in cold water, and tangles one’s hook in one’s hair and ears, and all that sort of thing.

Our idea of fishing is to put all the exertion up to the fish. If they are ambitious we will catch them. If they are not, let them go about their business. If a fish expects to be caught by us he has to look alive. We give him his opportunity, and he must make the most of it.

Most of our fishing, and the only fishing we ever really enjoyed, was done with a worm, a hook, a leaden sinker, a line and a willow pole. We wouldn’t know what to do with a reel. We expect a fish to eat the hook very thoroughly, to persist until he gets it well down and then to signal us that all is well by pulling the float under water; a reel is superfluous; one flips the pole over one’s head and the fish lands somewhere in the bushes behind.

A little quiet river or a creek, with low banks and plenty of big trees along the banks, is the only place to fish; and the fish should be mostly bullheads. Bullheads know their business; they hook themselves more completely and competently than any other fish. A bullhead will swallow the worm, the hook, and the lead sinker, a part of the line, and then grumble because he hasn’t been able to eat the float and the pole. And you can leave it all up to him. You can sit in the shade and watch the float bobbing and jerking about in the serene consciousness that he will do a good job. When he pulls the pole itself out of the socket of earth into which you have jabbed the butt end of it, then is the time to interfere and bring him. to land. Don’t hold the pole yourself; it is too much trouble.

Being out of the water doesn’t make much difference to the average bullhead. We don’t suppose he could stand it more than two or three days, unless there was a damp wind blowing, but a few hours more or less are nothing to him. After having eaten as much of your fishing tackle as you will permit him to have before interfering, you might think that he would be a little dejected. But not so. You go to take the hook out of him, and he rushes at you and horns you, with a queer purring noise, and shows every disposition to fight it out on land.

And he seldom knows when he is dead. Often in the course of a day we have caught a bushel or so of bullheads and thrown them into the back of the buggy and driven home with them, five or six miles, maybe. Arrived at home we would find them stiff and caked with dried mud and dust, and to all appearances dead, having been out of the water and jogging along in the hot afternoon sun for a couple of hours. But throw them into a barrel of water, and in a few minutes they were swimming around as if nothing had happened, grinning over the top of the barrel and begging for more worms and hooks and lead sinkers. Refreshed by his cool plunge, the beast was ready for another romp. The bullhead is not a beautiful fish, and has no claims to aristocracy, but he is enduring.

We never liked to fish from a boat. You have to row the thing about, and that is a lot of trouble. Select a big, shady tree that bends over a pool in some little inland stream and lie down under the tree, and lie there all day and fish and eat and smoke and chew tobacco and watch the dragonflies and spit into the water. If you feel like swimming a little, all right—it doesn’t particularly bother the bullheads. But it is a mistake to go to sleep.

If you go to sleep while you are loafing, how are you going to know you are loafing? And if you don’t know it, what satisfaction is there in it? And it is also a mistake to think too deeply. If you do that, about the time you begin to get on the track of the secret of the universe some fool fish will hook himself, and you will have to attend to him.

Lie with your hat over your face and watch thoughts carefully from under the brim of it as they come toward you out of the woods or up the creek. And if a thought that seems as if it were going to be too profound or troublesome tries to crawl up on you shoo it away and wait for an easy thought. And when you get an easy thought hold on to it and think it for a long time and enjoy it.

The best thoughts to have when you are fishing are the thoughts about what you would do if you had a million dollars. After a while you get sort of lenient toward the world, and unambitious, and think it’s a little selfish of you to want a whole million, and say “Shucks! I’d be willing to take a hundred thousand!” And you think maybe if you roused up a little and looked over the edge of the bank you would see a streak of gold in the soil, and then you would go and buy that land of the farmer that owns it and get rich off of the gold. And then you remember that you don’t know who owns the land and it would be considerable trouble to have to ask questions around and find out. So it doesn’t seem worth while to look over the edge of the bank and see whether the gold is there after all. And, anyhow, would it be fair, to whatever farmer owns the land, to buy it knowing there was gold on it and never tell him? And what would you buy it with? If you borrowed money to buy it with the fellow you borrowed the money from would likely get the biggest part of it, and you would have all your work and worry for nothing, and so you don’t look to see if the gold is there. And then you get to thinking that probably there aren’t many people honest enough to pass up a fortune like that just simply because somebody else owns it and you admire yourself for being that honest.

You can find more things to admire yourself for, lying around fishing like that, if you pick your thoughts properly. Everybody ought to do it all the time and not work at anything else.

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Several friends and literary advisers to whom we have shown the foregoing preface have taken the trouble to intimate that they do not believe what we have said concerning the fish known as the bullhead; namely, that he can live out of water for several hours. This only shows how little some people know about bullheads. We might have told a story of a particular bullhead far more incredible, and equally true, but that we are aware of this general lack of exact information concerning bullheads and did not care to have our statements questioned by the ignorant.

This particular bullhead we caught and tamed when we were about twelve years old, and named him Mr. Hoskins because of his facial resemblance to a neighbor. Mr. Hoskins—-not the fish, but the fish’s godfather—had fallen from a windmill in youth, upon his head, and his head had been getting larger ever since, until he seemed all head, with a few wiry spikes of beard and mustache around his mouth. His intellect had not grown as his head grew; the poor man used to go about calling attention to his large head, saying: “I fell off a windmill and the hogs ate me, all but my head—see my head!” He was pathetically proud of it. The fish looked like him, and with the heedless cruelty of boyhood we named the bullhead Mr. Hoskins.

Mr. Hoskins (the fish) dwelt in an old wash boiler under a maple tree. And it was beneath this maple tree that we used to feed all our other animals every morning—a black dog, a crow, a black and orange cat, a brown dog called Gustavus Adolphus after the Terrible Swede of that name and an owl known (for we had been reading Dumas) as the Duchess de Montpensier. At that time, and in that place, the village butcher would give one a whole basketful of scraps and bones for a dime; the dogs, the cat, the crow and the Duchess would range themselves, solemnly expectant, in a row under the maple tree and catch the bits of meat we tossed to them in their mouths or beaks, no animal stepping out of his or her place in line and no animal offering to bite or peck its neighbor.

Mr. Hoskins, the bullhead, would come to the surface of the water and peer with one eye over the rim of the boiler, watching these proceedings closely. At first he watched them grouchily, we thought. A bullhead, however, is somewhat handicapped in the expression of the lighter and gayer emotions; his face is so constructed that even if he feels otherwise than gloomy and ill-humored he cannot show it. But as the spring wore into summer it seemed to us that Mr. Hoskins was getting friendlier, somehow. One day we tossed him a piece of meat and he snapped at it. After that we ranged the other beasts in a circle around the wash boiler, and if Gustavus Adolphus or the Duchess de Montpensier missed a piece of meat it fell to Mr. Hoskins. In ten days Mr. Hoskins could catch as well as any of them.

One morning we were alarmed to see that Mr. Hoskins’s boiler had been overturned during the night, no doubt by some thirsty cow. He seemed dead when we picked him up and we dug a hole in the ground and threw him into it. But before we had him covered a sudden summer rain came up and we sought shelter. It was a drenching rain; when it was over, a couple of hours later, we returned to Mr. Hoskins to find the hole filled with water and him flopping around in it. He was evidently feeling quite chipper, and was contentedly eating an angleworm.

We put him back in his boiler.* And then we began to experiment with Mr. Hoskins. If he could live out of water for two or three hours, why not for a whole day? Every morning we took him from his boiler at a certain time, and each day we kept him from the water ten minutes or so longer than the day preceding. By September he was able to go from seven in the morning until eight in the evening entirely out of water without suffering any apparent ill effects except a slight loss in weight. At first during the hours when he was out of water he would seem rather torpid, in fact almost comatose. But by giving him frequent cool drinks from a bottle with a quill in it we found that he became livelier. By autumn he could go until sunset on not more than two drinks of water.

He became a jollier companion, joining, so far as he was able, ourself and the other animals in all our sports. One of the most pleasant recollections of our boyhood is the memory of Mr. Hoskins flopping genially about the garden while Gustavus Adolphus and the other dog dug angleworms for Mr. Hoskins and the crow.

When the chilly weather came in November we moved his wash boiler into the house and set it behind the kitchen range, as we did not care to run the risk of having him frozen. But with the cold weather his need for water grew less and less; he began to manifest something like pride in his ability to do without it; it was in January that he began to experience, or at least to affect, a repugnance toward being in water at all. Then we substituted for the boiler a box full of sawdust. Still, however, even during January he would sometimes awake during the night and cry for a drink, and we insisted on a weekly bath.

At seven o’clock on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, 1890, we went into the kitchen and found that Mr. Hoskins had leaped from the floor to the hearth of the kitchen range, and had succeeded in working himself in among the warm ashes. He had felt cold during the night. After that we always put him to bed with a hot water bottle, and we remember well his cries of peevishness and discomfort on the night when the stopper came out of the bottle and drenched him.

We linger over these last days of February, hesitating to go on, because they were the last days in Mr. Hoskins’s life. It was on February 28 that he went out of doors for the first time that year. Some one had left the cistern uncovered and he fell in. We heard his cries. We put a ladder down and plucked him from the black water. But it was too late. If he had only remembered how to swim, if we had only had the presence of mind to fling down a plank to him he might have kept himself afloat until we reached him with the ladder. But it was too late. We suppose that when he felt himself in the water a panic struck him. Those were days before every family had a pulmotor. We worked over him, but it was no use. It is silly perhaps to feel so badly over a little animal like that, but from that day to this we have never eaten a bullhead.

* The star marks the exact spot at which the more skeptical sort of person will likely cease to believe.

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