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.

Modern Mehitabels

"There's a dance in the old dame yet"The New York Times today printed obituaries for two women whose lives could not have been more dissimilar.

Janet Wolfe, 101, was a New York socialite, “gleeful gadabout” and friend to some of the most powerful and creative men of the last century. Federico Fellini made passes at her, The Times noted, and Orson Welles sawed her in half in a magic show. Holly Woodlawn, 69, was a transgender actress who starred in Andy Warhol’s 1970 underground film “Trash” and was the inspiration for Lou Reed’s epic ballad “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Wolfe and Woodlawn had little in common except a rebellious spirit, bold and unstoppable, and a determination to wring every bit of life out of their time on this planet. So it’s no surprise that The Times has compared both women to Mehitabel, the brassy, bawdy alley cat whose adventures were captured in Don Marquis’s classic 1927 collection of tall tales and light verse, “archy and mehitabel.” The comparisons span many decades but are nonetheless fresh. Continue Reading →

A New Look for Archy (Several, In Fact)

George Herriman’s drawings of Archy and Mehitabel brilliantly capture the spirit of their subjects: the inquisitive cockroach and the sassy, brassy alleycat. To many most readers, the drawings are as much a part of Archy and Mehitabel’s charm as Don Marquis’s stories about them.

But Herriman was just one of many artists to capture their magic. Edward Gorey drew Archy and Mehitabel, and so did cartoonists at The New Yorker and Collier’s magazines. Animators drew them in a feature film, and artists today continue to draw inspiration from cockroach and cat.

Here is a look at Archy the cockroach through the eyes and pens and pencils of 10 artists, drawn over the course of nine decades. Scroll further down the page for an up-close look at each of the images. And look for drawings of Mehitabel in a future post.

Archy the cockroach, as seen by 10 illustrators. This image is from

Click on the thumbnail images below for full-size views: Continue Reading →

Help Celebrate Archy’s 100 anniversary in March 2016!

archyMark your calendars! Fans of Archy and Mehitabel are already making plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Archy’s first appearance in Don Marquis’ Sun Dial column in the New York Evening Sun. March 29, 2016 will be a cockroach centenary like no other, and we’d like to hear about your plans — in New York and around the world. (The 1927 classic “archy and mehitabel,” after all, was popular in Canada, England, India and Australia as well as the United States, and translated editions were published in German and Italian.)

Is your theater group planning a production of “archy & mehitabel”? Maybe your school, library or book club can host a poetry reading, or a poetry slam. Or host a showing of the 1971 animated feature “Shinbone Alley.” A group in New York hopes to sponsor public displays and performances, and we welcome your ideas and involvement. Check out the link at the top of this page, “archyFest!” for more, and use the Twitter hashtag #archyfest! to keep in touch!

Photos From ‘archy and mehitabel’ (1954)

Here are publicity photos of Eddie Bracken and the inimitable Carol Channing taken during the studio recording of “archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera,” a concept album by writer Joe Darion and composer George Kleisinger.

Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording
Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording

Darion and Kleinsinger recorded the album (Columbia ML 4963) in February 1954, but Columbia wasn’t sure it would sell and didn’t release the album until January 1955. They got behind the album after the Little Orchestra Society staged a successful, one-night performance at New York’s Town Hall theater on Dec. 6, 1954, though without Channing or Darion. It took another two-plus years before the renamed “Shinbone Alley” finally premiered on Broadway as a full-cast musical production. The Broadway show had been partly rewritten by an up-and-coming comic talent, Mel Brooks, and starred Bracken and Eartha Kitt. (Channing was pregnant when the show was being cast.) “Shinbone Alley” ran for only 49 performances, but several songs remained in Kitt’s repertoire for the rest of her life.

"archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera"Channing and Bracken were reunited as lead vocal talents in the 1971 animated movie “Shinbone Alley.” Visit my Archy & Mehitabel page for more on the production’s enduring appeal, and click on the images above to see larger versions. The photos come from the Masterworks Broadway website, part of Sony Music Entertainment, which also has a link to buy a digital copy of the album from and Apple’s iTunes.

Don Marquis (Disambiguation)

“Don Marquis and Rosita Alvarado in a pulsing dance of Spanish blood.” — photo caption on the cover of the Los Angeles Times’ Rotogravure section, May 1, 1927.

An online search for the name “Don Marquis” can yield some surprising results.

Perhaps you’ve seen links to those strident anti-abortion essays Don wrote. And maybe you’ve been tempted to read what Don had to say on the history of jazz since, after all, he wrote that biography of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. But if what you wanted was new insight into the life and times of the creator of “archy and mehitabel,” you would have been mistaken.

“Disambiguation” is the term used by Wikipedia, the online reference site, to distinguish among various entries bearing the same title or keyword. And it might be useful here, near the start of this blog, to disambiguate among the several Don Marquises who have made a name for themselves in disparate endeavors.

Don Marquis is indeed an opponent of abortion rights. He is a philosophy professor and medical ethicist at the University of Kansas, and his 1989 essay “Why Abortion Is Immoral” is widely quoted by adherents.

Don Marquis is also the author of “In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz,” a 1978 biography of the cornet player who, in the words of Wikipedia, “is regarded by contemporaries as a key figure in the development of a New Orleans style of rag-time music which later came to be known as jazz.”

Confusing Don Marquis the columnist and humor writer with other men of the same name is nothing new. Don himself once wrote, with perhaps just a bit of exaggeration, that he had been inundated with angry letters from women in California claiming that he had promised them love and marriage and then abandoned them at the altar. In fact, at least two other Don Marquises are known to have lived in California during the 1920s and ’30s, one of them a Latin dancer in Los Angeles and the other a Stanford grad and car dealer in Oakland.

And then there is Don Marquis the director of the 1923 silent movie “Blood Test.”

Except for his name in the credits of that one movie, virtually nothing is known today about the director of “Blood Test,” itself a forgettable Western melodrama that was released in April 1923. Yet IMDb, a leading Internet movie database, has linked “Blood Test” director Marquis to the writer responsible for the 1926 silent movie “The Old Soak,” the 1937 talkie “Good Old Soak” and the 1971 animated movie “Shinbone Alley” based on the Archy and Mehitabel stories.

Other online movie databases have followed IMDb’s lead, further compounding the confusion, even though a look at Don’s life in 1922 and early 1923 makes it clear that he had no time to dabble in silent movies.

Besides writing six newspaper columns every week, Don was busy at the time shepherding his first play, “The Old Soak,” through a successful 10-month run on Broadway. The comedy opened August 22, 1922, and a few weeks later Don took a new job writing a daily column for the New York Tribune. That Tribune job was a big, big deal for Don, and he certainly wouldn’t have risked it, or the success of his play, by tackling a whole new undertaking — a silent movie, and a guns-blazing Western, at that.

(Apologies, by the way, to all you other Don Marquises whose accomplishments haven’t been acknowledged!)